- Link to the scientific article: Franchino Fabio, Mark A. Kayser, and Christopher Wratil (2021) ‘Electoral Competitiveness and Responsiveness: Rational Anticipation in the EU Council‘ Journal of European Public Policy.
It is commonly said that the European Union suffers from a democracy deficit: a widespread opinion that fuels a debate now more than 20 years old, and which consists of five main points.
Firstly, the EU has strengthened the executive power of ministers in the EU Council, to the detriment of national parliaments. Governments can ignore their parliaments when taking decisions in Brussels and, in any case, cannot block European decisions where there is no unanimity. The Commission is also not subject to control by national parliaments.
Secondly, the European Parliament is not in tune with citizens' opinions. The link with citizens, despite its increased powers, is too tenuous to compensate for the loss of control of national parliaments.
Third, 'European' elections do not exist. National ones deal with domestic rather than European issues: indeed, parties collude to keep the latter off the political agenda. Nor are European parliamentary elections about Europe. They are opinion polls on the performance of national governments and parties.
Fourth, the European Union is too distant. Citizens do not understand it. The Commission is neither a government nor a bureaucracy. It is appointed by means of an unclear procedure and is not elected directly by citizens or indirectly by a parliament. The Council is opaque, while the European Parliament is impenetrable due to its multilingualism. Furthermore, the political process of the Union is highly technocratic, which prevents citizens from understanding the political positions expressed within it.
As a result of all this – fifth point – measures are taken in the European Union that are not supported by the majority of citizens in many, if not most, member states, and these policies limit the choices of governments and voters.
Recent studies show a different situation
Not everyone agrees. Despite the centralisation of powers in the executive, some argue that ministers [quali?] are the politicians who are most directly accountable to their citizens, while the increased powers of the European Parliament have compensated for the loss of control by national representative institutions. It is also pointed out that EU decision-making is in many cases more transparent than national decision-making and that Euro-bureaucrats have to take into account the many and varied interests of European societies. Furthermore, the judicial review of the Union's actions by the European Court of Justice and the national courts is very extensive; the European and national parliaments have at their disposal increasingly incisive instruments of control, which they use without much hesitation. Finally, the Union's policies are not dissociated from citizens' opinions because the institutional system of the Union requires a broad consensus for any measure to be adopted. Many European policies have a centrist orientation that displeases both supporters of the free market and the minimal state and defenders of the interventionist state.
European democracy in action, what do we know?
Over the years, the debate has become much more concrete, and the questions asked by researchers are more precise: are the positions advocated by ministers in the EU Council congruent with those of their citizens? Do the policies adopted at European level reflect the positions of European citizens? And if the latter change, do European policies change as well?
Empirical studies are beginning to provide interesting answers. Christine Schneider, for example, shows how the positions of the ministers supported in Brussels are congruent with those of their voters, how ministers not only actively defend these positions in the Council but also make sure that the agreed measures actually benefit their citizens. Sara Hagemann, Sara Hobolt and Christopher Wratil show how governments tend to oppose proposals that expand the powers of the Union when faced with a Eurosceptic public opinion that considers the issue of European integration of particular importance. Again Wratil shows how European policy reforms tend to follow public opinion in those states where the issue at hand is salient and where citizens have a uniform opinion, although for Fabio Franchino and Christopher Wratil (2019) good coordination of the national executive and incisive instruments of parliamentary control are necessary for ministers to effectively represent the positions of the coalition government in the negotiations in Brussels.
Measuring responsiveness to national public opinion: a comparative study
In a study conducted together with Mark Kayser and Christopher Wratil, we addressed these issues by trying to understand what circumstances prompt a government when operating in Brussels to pay more attention to national public opinion. We suggested two factors that may influence this responsiveness: the risk of early elections, and the competitiveness of the national party system (more specifically, the risk that the relative majority party, to which the prime minister frequently belongs, will cease to be so).
The study was conducted on an important dataset containing government positions on European measures subject to reform between 1996 and 2018. Some of the positions on these reforms can easily be traced back to the classic left-right conflict on economic issues, such as those on market regulation, the role of the state in the economy and environmental issues. To measure the position of public opinion, we used the responses to Eurobarometer opinion polls, which enabled us to estimate the position on the right-left axis of the average citizen of each country.
The risk of an early dissolution of the legislature does not seem to have much effect on the responsiveness of governments, probably because it is a difficult event to predict, even by professional politicians. That said, the approaching natural end of the legislature does induce governments to pay more attention to public opinion – as is the case with any other national policy. This finding is not surprising. Many voters tend to consider the performance of governments in the months leading up to elections in order to decide how they will vote.
The competitiveness of the party system, on the other hand, influences democratic responsiveness in a more complex way. Figure 1 illustrates the effect of national public opinion on the positions of the respective governments for different levels of risk of the relative majority party losing that position.
Note: The solid curve represents the effect of a change in public opinion on government positions. The dashed curves represent the 95 per cent confidence interval. The histogram in the background represents the distribution of the observations (the right-hand axis of the ordinates) as a function of the probability of losing the relative majority.
When public opinion (at home) does not count
At high and low-risk levels – that is, at the extreme left and right of the figure – the curve and its confidence interval overlap at the zero value of the x-axis. This indicates that when the risk of losing control of the executive (through the loss of a relative majority of seats) is low, governments feel safe enough to implement their policies without slavishly chasing public opinion swings. Similarly, when governments are almost certain to lose power, pandering to public opinion would certainly not change their fate, so they try, as long as possible, to implement their policies, however unpopular, and make sure that their measures benefit their most loyal supporters.
And when it matters
At intermediate risk levels, the curve and its confidence interval do not overlap at the zero value of the x-axis. Put simply, the effect is significant. Here, then, we find the greatest responsiveness of governments to public opinion. In these circumstances, following public opinion closely can make the difference between staying in government or being voted out. This behaviour is particularly evident if the relative majority party in government is strong. As illustrated by Figure 2, which, replicating Figure 1, separates the strong parties from the weak ones (where strong parties hold the office of prime minister and at least 80 per cent of government seats, or operate in highly centralised executives).
Figure 2: Effect of the probability of losing a relative majority on the responsiveness of governments according to the power of the relative majority party
Note: The solid curves represent the effects of a change in public opinion on government positions. The dashed curves represent the 95 per cent confidence interval. The histograms in the background represent the distribution of the observations (the right-hand axis of the ordinates) as a function of the probability of losing the relative majority.
A matter of nuance: a more mature debate
The Manichaean and rather sterile phase of the debate on the absence or presence of democracy in the Union is now past. The arguments perhaps reflected more the prejudices of the supporters of one or the other thesis than solid conclusions derived from good social research. They turned to more circumspect research questions: Under what circumstances are the actions of politicians operating in the Union aligned with the interests of citizens? To what extent do they adapt their behaviour to ensure greater congruence with public opinion? As with national democracies, research suggests that talking about the absence or presence of congruence or responsiveness makes little sense. It is a question of degrees and conditions. These findings allow us to make a more qualified assessment of the positive and negative aspects of democratic representation in Europe. This is what we should expect from a political system that has governed continental politics for more than sixty years now: a more mature debate.