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A crisis of European democracy?

By Sara B Hobolt and James Tilley


During November 2012 hundreds of thousands of people across Europe took to the streets. The protesters were, by and large, complaining about government policies that increased taxes and lowered government spending. This initially sounds like a familiar story of popular protests against government austerity programmes, but there is a twist to the tale. Many of the people protesting were not aiming their ire at the national governments making the cuts in spending, but rather at the European Union. In Portugal, people carried effigies of their prime minister on strings and claimed he was a ‘puppet of the EU’; in Greece people burned the EU flag and shouted ‘EU out’; and in Italy people threw stones at the European Parliament offices. It was, at least for some people on the streets, not the incumbent national politicians in Lisbon, Athens, and Rome who were to blame for the problem of the day, but rather politicians and bureaucrats thousands of miles away in Brussels.

The economic crisis in Europe has illustrated that citizens are increasingly blaming not just their national governments, but also ‘Europe’ for their woes. This raises the question of whether citizens can hold European politicians to account for the outcomes for which they are thought to be responsible. The notion of democratic accountability relies on the critical assumption that voters are able to assign responsibility for policy decisions and outcomes, and sanction the government in elections if it is responsible for outcomes not seen to be ‘in their best interest’. This process, however, is clearly complicated in the multilevel system of the European Union where responsibility is not only dispersed across multiple levels of government, but there are also multiple mechanisms for sanctioning governments.

Symbolique 2006

Democratic accountability in multilevel systems can be viewed as a two-step process, where specific requirements need to be met at each step to allow voters to hold governments to account. The first step is one where voters decide which level of government, if any, is responsible for specific policy outcomes and decisions. This depends on the clarity of institutional divisions of powers across levels of government, and the information available about the responsibilities of these divisions. The second step is one where voters should be able to sanction the government in an election on the basis of performance. This depends on government clarity: that is the ability of voters to identify a cohesive political actor that they can sanction accordingly.

Both of these steps are important. Assignment of responsibility to a particular level of government is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition to be able to punish an incumbent at the polls. To do so, voters also need to know which party or individual to vote for or against. Yet, the EU lacks a clear and identifiable government. Executive power is shared between the European Council and the European Commission, and legislative power is shared between the Council of the EU and the European Parliament. The primary mechanism through which citizens can hold EU institutions to account is via elections to the European Parliament. Unlike in national parliamentary systems, the majority in the European Parliament does not ‘elect’ the EU executive, however. Despite the formal powers of the European Parliament over the approval and dismissal of the European Commission there is only a tenuous link between the political majority in the Parliament and the policies of the Commission, not least since there is no clear government-opposition division in the Parliament. Despite current attempts to present rival candidates for the post of Commission president prior to the European Parliament elections in May, there is still no competition between candidates with competing policy agendas and different records at the EU level. Without this kind of politicised contest it is simply not possible for voters to identify which parties are responsible for the current policy outcomes and which parties offer an alternative.

As a consequence, the classic model of electoral accountability cannot be applied to European Parliament elections. Even if citizens think the EU is responsible for poor policy performance in an area, they find it difficult to identify which parties are ‘governing’ and punish, or reward, them at the ballot box. This has broader implications for trust and legitimacy. When people hold the EU responsible for poor performance, but cannot hold it accountable for that performance, they become less trusting of the EU institutions as a whole. Thus the danger for the EU is that every time the system fails to deliver — such as during the Eurozone crisis — the result is declining levels of trust and a crisis of confidence in the regime as a whole, because voters lack the opportunity to punish an incumbent and elect an alternative. In other words, the lack of mechanisms to hold EU policymakers to account may lead to a more fundamental legitimacy crisis in the European Union.

Sara Hobolt and James Tilley are co-authors of Blaming Europe? Responsibility without accountability in the European Union. Sara Hobolt is the Sutherland Chair in European Institutions at the European Institute of the London School of Economics and Political Science. James Tilley is a university lecturer at the Department of Politics and International m Relations at the University of Oxford and a fellow of Jesus College, Oxford.

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Image credit: Photo credit © European Union, 2014 via EC Audiovisual Service.

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