Author: Christina J. Schneider
The responsiveness of governments to the preferences of their citizens is a fundamental characteristic of democracy. With the rapid and seemingly unstoppable integration of the European Union, many citizens doubt whether their governments still can be responsive—while trust in the EU has been faltering at the same time. In 2015, only 33 % of Europeans trusted the EU, while over 54 % of Europeans distrusted it. In 2008, fully 62 % of Europeans did not believe that their governments listened to them when it came to European issues, and those who perceive themselves to be voiceless on that matter have remained the majority as of 2017. Europeans believe that governments do not act in their citizens’ interest when they decide (usually behind closed doors) over policies in the EU. They argue that domestic institutions can’t prevent governments, businesses, and international bureaucrats from pursuing their organizational or parochial interests, and that this leads to policies that clash with what society wants, and hurt ordinary citizens especially given the apparent policy disasters Europe has seen in the last decade.
Graph 1: Trust in the European Union. Source: Eurobarometer
Despite these bleak numbers, there are reasons to be both more optimistic and pessimistic at the same time: First, European integration has both constrained and expanded opportunities for democratic responsiveness. Tracing the historical conduct of governments in the Council shows that European integration has increased, not decreased, governments’ attempts to be responsive to the people who elect them. When they can, governments demonstrate their responsiveness by taking positions that match those of the relevant voters in their home countries and defending these positions as they negotiate with other governments over the final policy. Of course, individual governments do not always win. When they anticipate that negotiations will go badly, they attempt to avoid blame and punishment by delaying negotiations until after elections.
Second, the mechanisms of accountability are still weak, but the increasing politicization of European affairs creates ample incentives for governments to act responsive, especially before elections. Governments are more likely to signal their responsiveness to voters in the run up to national elections. They have become much more responsive as the EU has become more politicized in the period since the 1990s, when the EU started to take on a host of new responsibilities. In the early days of European integration, governments tended to strike deals behind closed doors and were unresponsive to their electorates (even before national elections). Now, it is quite different. Even when governments look to take unpopular positions, they do so in ways that reflect the power of national voters. For example, the politicization of the Greek debt crisis in Germany contributed to the German government’s decision to delay its support for an EU-level Greek bailout until after important regional elections; a delay which greatly aggravated the crisis. The reason for this behavior is not that voters always hold their governments accountable, but that the likelihood of this happening has increased over time.
Third, voters do indeed reward responsiveness of their governments if the issues are politicized. Voters are much more likely to support a government if they think that it is responding to their positions on important issues. Governments are especially likely to benefit from this when the issues are politicized, and information about the conduct of the governments is available to voters. For example, German voters were more likely to vote for a politician who represented the voters’ positions on immigration and bailout policies in EU negotiations, defended these positions throughout the negotiations, and achieved more responsive outcomes. Whether the politician was able to achieve a responsive policy outcome was important to voters, even more so than whether that outcome was a bargaining success for the politician (but not responsive to the voter’s preference).
Fourth, whether governments can produce the outcomes that their voters want depends on their bargaining clout in the Council, and what the other two actors in the process of lawmaking – the European Commission and the European Parliament – want. EU governments frequently try to delay decision-making outcomes until after elections or blame the EU when the outcomes aren’t responsive to voters. They may also make their bargaining positions public in order to signal how willing they are to represent their citizens’ interests. Even smaller countries, which have less bargaining power, can deliver good outcomes to their citizens because the culture of negotiations allows governments to quietly cooperate over issues that are crucially important to particular member states. But outcomes aren’t the only things that matter. The willingness of governments to listen to citizens is important as well.
Finally, there are trade-offs between legitimacy and efficiency. The politicizing of European cooperation and an increasingly transparent decision-making process would increase the incentives for governments to behave responsively—making the Union more legitimate—but these measures come at a price. The way governments become more responsive—by standing firm on domestically popular positions and attempting to redistribute policy benefits and costs so that they favor their publics—is likely to cause much more conflict among governments. At the same time, relaxing the secrecy of the process will make it much harder to reach deals through compromise. Coupling this with more demanding and inflexible bargaining stances would lead to frequent breakdowns in policy cooperation. If the EU does become more responsive, it may become less effective in contributing to citizens’ welfare, perhaps undermining its long-term legitimacy.
Responsiveness without responsibility would doom the European project and, unfortunately, it is often well-nigh impossible to impress upon people what they have until it is gone. The silver lining is that the shock of Brexit has forced Europeans to think harder about the value of their Union, and to realize that there is much more to it than faceless bureaucrats in Brussels twirling their thumbs or spending their time penning long memoranda about the size and shape of bananas. It is painful to contemplate that it might have taken the self-immolation of one of the most valuable members of the Union to awaken the nascent European demos from its complacent slumber. But perhaps there is no other way. No institutional wizardry or economic pyrotechnics can substitute for the bedrock of a steady popular support. At the end of the day, the key to the survival of the European Union is the property of its citizens.
About the author:
Christina J. Schneider is Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. In 2019, she has published “The Responsive Union. National Elections and European Governance” with Cambridge University Press.