Last week about 500 million eligible voters had the opportunity to cast their ballots in the elections to the European parliament (E.P.). Like in previous elections, most of them did not bother to vote. The E.P. is the only directly elected institution in the European Union (E.U.), yet E.P. elections are considered second-order national elections accompanied by scant media attention and low voter involvement.
Although some Brussels insiders expected this election to be different because E.P. parliamentary groups raised the stakes by putting forward candidates for the commission presidency, the 2014 elections were similarly characterized by low voter turnout and an electoral rise of Eurosceptic parties such as Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France or Nigel Farage’s Independence Party in the U.K. These Eurosceptic voices claim that undemocratic and unaccountable European institutions infringe more and more upon the sovereignty and self-determination of member states. Accusations that the E.U. suffers from a democratic deficit are not new but seem more detrimental to Europe’s image today than ever before. The E.U. has invested heavily in strengthening representative democracy and fostering norms of responsiveness. However, we still lack a full understanding of how responsive members of the E.P. are to voter concerns.
In a recent study conducted in November and December of last year at the University of Oxford, I ran a field experiment with Elias Dinas and Hector Solaz. Following studies with U.S. state legislators, we designed an experiment in which ordinary citizens sent e-mails written in their original language to a member from their country. All 766 members received messages. The content of the messages was randomized in terms of the issues voters raised: left versus right wing or Europe versus national concerns (more details here). Here is what we learned about their responsiveness.
Result #1: Members are less likely to respond to voter messages compared to their U.S. counterparts
Roughly 29 percent responded to voter messages compared to more than 50 percent of U.S. representatives in similar studies. We do find considerable cross-national variation in response rates. Whilst in Luxembourg or Slovenia, roughly three-quarters of members of the E.P. responded. Less than a quarter of Lithuanian or French MEPs replied. No clear regional patterns emerge from the response rates (Note that small countries have small delegations and thus small sample sizes; making both positive and negative outliers more likely due to sheer randomness.) Interestingly, there is significant variation in the response rates of the bailed-out member states, with Ireland, Cyprus and Spain displaying relatively high response rates and Greece relatively low.
The fact that we find an overall rather modest response rate contrasts results from past surveys that show that members of the E.P. find it extremely important to represent their constituents, 75.1 percent of members claim this to be one of their most important aspects of their work, and 81.8 percent of members consider online and e-mail activity crucial to do so. Although many may well work hard and conscientiously for their constituents, in direct communication with voters they lag behind their U.S. counterparts.
Result #2: Extrinsic motivations matter
On second thought, this modest response rate compared to the U.S. might not be entirely surprising given that the personalized American electoral system that should trigger response as doing so might enhance reelection prospects. Given that each of 28 E.U. member states can choose its own electoral system (as long as it is a form of proportional representation) we can examine response rates of members of the E.P. facing very different electoral rules.
Specifically we compare members of the E.P. up for re-election or not in closed-list systems where parties present lists of candidates and voters can only choose between parties (for example: France, Germany, Italy, Romania or the U.K.) to those in open-list systems where voters choose between candidates and parties (for example: Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland or Slovenia). Does the fact that a member of the E.P. is up for reelection in an open-list system increase her likelihood to respond? A simple comparison test of proportions seems to suggest that this might indeed be the case. Members who were up for reelection are overall more likely to respond, yet the difference based on reelection is with 9.5 percentage points only significantly higher in open-list systems.
Result #3: Intrinsic Motivations Also Matter
Our results also indicate that intrinsic motivations might matter. As mentioned before, the E.U. has tried to combat accusations of democratic deficiencies through constitutional changes aimed at fostering norms of accountability and transparency. This seems to have had an effect at least within the E.P. Members with longer tenure in the parliament are more likely to respond compared to those with less experience (more evidence on the role of intrinsic motivations due members’ ideological beliefs can be found here).
Result #4: Members are unbiased in their responses to voter concerns
Lastly, we examine responsiveness to the content of voter messages. While legislative scholars analyzing roll-call behavior suggest that members represent voters’ left/right preferences, research on voting behavior highlights that voters’ pro-/anti-E.U. preferences are increasingly important. Our results indicate that members are equally likely to respond to left versus right or E.U. versus nationally coined messages. This finding holds even when we breakdown our results by member from more left- versus right-wing or pro- versus anti-E.U. parties.
Taken together, these results paint a rather gloomy picture of political representation in Europe. In what has been probably the most politicized E.U. parliamentary cycle, shaped by the Euro-zone crisis and its ramifications for the continent, members hardly appear responsive to the European demos. Neither E.U. nor left/right messages seem to boost response rates. However, what does seem to matter is the provision of electoral incentives, yet these are arguably still lower than in national elections. Perhaps the most optimistic finding is that longer E.P. tenure increases responsiveness indicating that members are socialized into norms of constituency service.
Catherine E. De Vries is a Professor of European Politics at the University of Oxford. Since 2013 she is also one of the General Editors of the new open source journal in Political Science: Research & Politics