What is the structure of the political space in which decision-making actors operate in the European Union? Are there consistent alignments of actors? This article addresses these questions by examining a new data set containing information on the preferences of the Commission, the Member States and the European Parliament on 174 issues raised during talks on 70 recent Commission proposals. To a limited extent, the preference alignments can be described in terms of two underlying dimensions. However, these conceptual structures are weak. The first dimension is defined by the position of the European Commission and European Parliament at one end and the reference point at the other; the second dimension by a division between the Northern and Southern Member States. The meaning of these dimensions is investigated by identifying the substance of the policy issues on which these actor alignments are found. The Commission-reference point dimension is interpreted in terms of policy change rather than, as has previously been suggested, the level of integration. The North-South dimension corresponds to diverging views on the use of regulatory versus market-based solutions to policy problems. The weakness of these conceptual structures, it is argued, is due to the sectoral nature of European Union decision making. This lack of structure is likely to have a positive effect on support for the system among its members, since the benign effects of ideology at the national level cannot be expected to apply at the European Union level.
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