The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People think that the E.U. is run by unelected technocrats. They’re wrong.

A European Union (E.U.) flag flies in Salzburg, Austria, as E.U. leaders gather on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. Photographer: Stefan Wermuth/Bloomberg

The recent elections in Sweden are just the latest European political contest in which populist and Euroskeptic parties (parties which are opposed to the European Union) have gained political ground. Outcomes like these are often attributed to widespread doubts about the E.U.’s democratic legitimacy. Many Europeans have come to see the Union as being run by distant and unaccountable political elites. They argue that domestic institutions can’t prevent governments, businesses and international bureaucrats from trampling over the welfare of the citizens in pursuit of their own interests. The impression that the Union implements policies that clash with what society wants has been worsened by the apparent policy disasters Europe has seen over the last decade.

The key question is: is such a gloomy view of the E.U. warranted? My new book “The Responsive Union. National Elections and European Governance,” recently published by Cambridge University Press, finds that the picture is more complicated and less damning than many think.

Contrary to the standard argument, there is little evidence that the E.U. is run by unelected bureaucrats who ignore the wishes of ordinary Europeans. While E.U. law-making is complicated, the key actor – the Council – is dominated by national governments.  This is especially true for immigration policy, the most hotly debated issue in Europe, which has contributed greatly to the rise of Euroskeptic parties. Any debate about the legitimacy of the E.U. must therefore assess whether national governments, which do the hard bargaining over these kinds of policies, are responsive to the needs of their domestic publics. This book presents evidence that indeed they are, and that it is precisely the domestic electoral institutions that motivate them to be.

National governments try to demonstrate their responsiveness to the people who elect them

My research examines how governments have behaved when they bargain with each other in the Council. It shows that this cooperation takes place in the shadow of national elections. Governments demonstrate their responsiveness to domestic publics by taking policy positions close to the ones preferred by relevant voters whenever they can, and by defending these positions as they negotiate over the formulation of the final policy. Of course, individual governments do not always prevail in these negotiations. The electoral motivation is so potent, however, that even in failure they try to avoid punishment by voters by delaying the negotiations until after their elections.

Elections give governments a big incentive to signal that they care about voters

Governments are more likely to signal their responsiveness to voters in the run-up to national elections. Their incentives to do so have gotten only stronger with the increasing politicization of the E.U., which began in the 1990s when the Union took on a host of new responsibilities. In the early days of the E.U., governments were able to strike deals behind closed doors and could largely ignore the wishes of the electorate. Things are quite different now. Governments ignore domestic demands at their own peril. Even when sound reasoning dictates that they adopt unpopular policy positions, governments do so in ways that reflect the power of national voters. For example, the widespread opposition among Germans to a financial bailout for Greece contributed to the German government’s decision to delay the adoption of a rescue package until after crucial regional elections; a delay that aggravated the crisis and increased the costs of containing it.

Voters respond to their government’s signals

My research uses experiments and observational surveys to show that voters are much more likely to support a government if they think that it responds to their positions on relevant issues. This support is especially forthcoming when the issues are politicized so that information about the conduct of the governments is readily available. For example, German voters are more likely to vote for a politician who represented their positions on immigration and bailout policies in E.U. negotiations, defended these positions throughout the negotiations, and achieved more favorable outcomes. Whether the politician is highly competent and manages to achieve the stated policy goal matters very little when this goal diverges from what they prefer.

Voters want their governments to listen and to act accordingly

Governments might make their policy positions public to signal that they are trying to represent the interests of their citizens. Listening to the citizens – what political scientists call input legitimacy – matters. And so do actual policies, although the situation there is more complicated. Whether governments can also produce the outcomes that their voters want depends on their bargaining clout with other governments, and on the wishes of the other two collective legislative actors, the European Commission and the European Parliament. The culture of consensual decision-making that permeates negotiations in the Council allows governments to cooperate with each other quietly on issues of critical importance to the citizens of some member states. As a result, even smaller countries that seem to lack the institutional weight and the economic power to make their voices heard can attain policy outcomes that favor the wishes of their publics.

There are trade-offs between legitimacy and efficiency

There is pressure on the E.U. to become more responsive to the public, and to demonstrate its responsiveness in visible ways. Doing so, however, comes at a price. As others have noted recently, the more an individual government responds to the wishes of its national electorate, the harder it is for E.U. members to negotiate mutually acceptable policies. By standing firm on domestically popular decisions, and shifting the distribution of benefits toward its voters, any government risks causing conflict with other governments. More transparency and less secrecy make it harder for governments to reach the tacit bargains that make cooperation easier. If the E.U. does become more responsive, it may become less effective in contributing to its citizens’ welfare, perhaps undermining its long-term legitimacy.

Christina Schneider is an associate professor of politics and Jean Monnet Chair at the University of California in San Diego