The European Commission vs. the People

Note: re-post from the sister-blog

The Commission has recently published its vision about the future of European integration. The report is more than ambitious calling for full banking, economic, budgetary and political integration, including ‘dedicated fiscal capacity for the euro area’ which I believe means taxation powers for the EU. Here is the assessment of the Commission about the present state of EU’s legitimacy:

The Lisbon Treaty has perfected the EU’s unique model of supranational democracy, and in principle set an appropriate level of democratic legitimacy in regard of today’s EU competences. ..it would be inaccurate to suggest that insurmountable accountability problems exist. (p.35)

Wow, wait a minute! P e r f e c t e d    the model of supranational democracy?! Appropriate level of democratic legitimacy?! Are the Commissioners living on the same planet as the rest of us? According to data from autumn 2012, fewer than 1 in 3 Europeans said they trust the EU. 60% don’t trust the EU. For only 31% of European citizens the EU ‘conjures’ [sic] a positive image, while for 28% it ‘conjures’ a negative one. In late 2011 only 45% of European expressed satisfaction with the way democracy works in the EU. 43% were not satisfied with the ‘perfected model of supranational democracy’.

And what about the impact of the Lisbon Treaty? Here is a graph of the trust Europeans have in the different EU institutions. By the way, the Commission currently stands at 36% (click to enlarge the graph).

New Picture (1)

The trend is quite clear from a bird’s eye-view, but let’s zoom in on the period after the Lisbon Treaty entered into force:

New Picture

Trust in EU institutions has decreased by more than 20% (from its 2009 levels) so that currently even the directly-elected European Parliament doesn’t get the trust of more than half of the European population. The Lisbon Treaty has perfected things indeed.

Finally, let’s look more specifically at what people think about EU’s expansion into some of the policies mentioned in the report. An absolute majority of Europeans consider that it is only for the national governments to make decisions about public debt (51%), unemployment (58%), social welfare (68%), taxation (68%) and pensions (73%).

If these are not ‘ insurmountable accountability problems’, I don’t know what is. For all its ambition, the Commission offers few answers how the reforms will be pushed through in the face of such strong opposition from the people. There is no way to proceed behind the backs of the citizens, and there is no magic trick to earn their trust overnight. The Commission might be applauded for expressing a bold vision for future Europe, but some reality check is in order.

Why EU Commissioners Are Poor Politicians

Note: a highly-opinionated  piece re-posted from the EU blog I contribute to

EU Commissioners might be seasoned bureaucrats but make for lousy politicians. Viviane Reding, currently responsible for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, and Commissioner since 1999 (!) is surely a masterful mandarin, but doesn’t play the politics game very well. And by politics, I don’t mean the internal bickering between the Commission, the Council and the European Parliament: I am sure she is a world champion at that – I mean politics as the art of pleasing the public while getting things done. Perhaps after so many years in the Brussels bubble Commissioner Reding has forgotten altogether that pleasing the public is part of the politics game as all. But when public support for the EU is hitting a new low, I can’t help but think that the feelings of the public should be high on the Commissioner’s mind.

In September this year Viviane Reding announced that the Commission is coming up with a proposal to set a compulsory 40-% quota for women on boards of public companies. Immediately, nine countries (including the Netherlands and Britain) and a few fellow Commissioners (including several women) expressed very strong disagreement. This, however, was not enough to put the brakes – on 14 November, the Commission approved a watered-down version which ‘sets an objective of a 40% presence of the under-represented sex among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges’, a “flexi quota” and a statement that ‘given equal qualification, priority shall be given to the under-represented sex’. Now, I haven’t much to say about the quality of the proposal as such – to put my cards on the table, I agree there is a problem with the unequal representation of women on company boards, and I don’t know enough about the effects of quotas to have a strong opinion about the proposed solution.

What is blindingly clear, however, is that the European citizens do not feel that this is an issue for the EU to solve, and there is virtually no popular support for such action coming from Brussels. How do I know? It’s data collected by the EU!

According to Eurobarometer, in 2007 ten percent of the European population agreed that the EU has an important role to play in combating discrimination (page 26, QA11). That’s just one out of every ten Europeans! Only three percent mentioned that they would turn to the EU in case of discrimination at the workplace (p.32, QA 13). In all fairness, 77% said they want to see more women in managerial positions, but no indication they wanted Commissioners poking their nose into that, or a policy which guarantees 40% of these positions for women.

If anything the case for European involvement into the matter has become even weaker since. A red-hot new survey made available last week shows that only 31% of European citizens agree that there is widespread gender discrimination in their countries:  seven out of ten Europeans find gender discrimination rare or non-existent. Moreover, only 22% agree that being a female puts you at a disadvantage when looking for a job (page 87, QC4). In fact, more people feel that their accent might be a problem. Again, this is not to say that, objectively speaking, there is no underrepresentation of women in top positions. But it seems that the majority of people do not find gender discrimination at the workplace very widespread, nor a political priority.

In 2009 Europeans generally supported measures for monitoring hiring practices and the gender composition at the workforce, but 58% found enough was already being done in that respect. Interestingly, the new survey from 2012 doesn’t even ask people whether they think that it’s a good idea for the EU to get involved or whether a ‘compulsory quota’ policy is the way to go. These are quite curious omissions given that the survey is otherwise quite comprehensive and comes out in the same week as the Commission’s policy proposal.

In summary, there is no broad support for further EU action in combating gender discrimination and even less so for a policy of quotas. So why is Viviane Reding pushing this agenda in the face of absent popular support and explicit opposition from national governments? She probably strongly believes that this policy is the right and progressive thing to do. And that the Commission has the obligation to lead rather than blindly follow popular sentiments. But the fact remains that people, and many governments, don’t like the idea.

Irritating an increasingly hostile public with such proposals is not a very smart thing to do because the policy would never be approved by the member states anyways, but you still get the bad press. What is stuck in people’s minds is the fact that the Commission ‘approved’ something that they didn’t like: they won’t remember that the Commission only proposes and the Council and the Parliament decide, and that the initial proposal has been quickly watered-down to a more widely-acceptable version.

That’s why Reding’s recent actions are not smart and politically savvy in the way in which an EU-bashing politician like Nigel Farage can be politically smart and savvy. The forefathers of the EU from Jean Monnet to Jacques Delors managed to be both true to their ideals and politically shrewd in order to achieve them.

New policies like women quotas do not win new supporters for European integration. The people who like the idea of positive discrimination are likely to be the people who already support the EU: the more educated, cosmopolitan, and well-off. For the average woman, a position on the board of a top company is equally distant with or without a quota for females. But such policies would alienate people who disagree with the substance of the policy and are already suspicious of the EU. Which, as the numbers show, are by far the majority.

In her term as Information Society and Media Commissioner, Viviane Reding made a lot of efforts to increase the visibility of the European Union. Well, now people definitely pay more attention to what the EU does. And they often don’t like it. Now it’s time the Commission starts to pay more attention to what the people have to say.

Diffusion of smoking bans in Europe

My paper on the diffusion of smoking bans in Europe has been accepted in Public Administration. It probably won’t be published until next year so here is a link to the pre-print and a graph of two of the important results of the paper: the probability of enactment of a more comprehensive (full) smoking ban increases with lower levels of tobacco producton and with rising levels of public support for smoking restrictions:

  And the abstract:

Policy Making Beyond Political Ideology: The Adoption of Smoking Bans in Europe

Policy making is embedded in politics, but an increasing number of issues, like obesity, tobacco control, or road safety, do not map well on the major dimensions of political conflict. This article analyzes the enactment of restrictions on smoking in bars and restaurants in 29 European countries – a conflictual issue which does not fit easily traditional party ideologies. Indeed, the comparative empirical analyses demonstrate that government ideological positions are not associated with the strictness and the timing of adoption of the smoking bans. On the other hand, economic factors like the scale of tobacco production in a country, smoking prevalence in society and public support for tough anti-smoking policy are all significantly related to the time it takes for a country to adopt smoking bans, and to the comprehensiveness and enforcement of these restrictions. In addition, horizontal policy diffusion is strongly implicated in the pattern of policy adoptions.  

Writing with the rear-view mirror

Social science research is supposed to work like this:
1) You want to explain a certain case or a class of phenomena;
2) You develop a theory and derive a set of hypotheses;
3) You test the hypotheses with data;
4) You conclude about the plausibility of the theory;
5) You write a paper with a structure (research question, theory, empirical analysis, conclusions) that mirrors the steps above.

But in practice, social science research often works like this:
1) You want to explain a certain case or a class of phenomena;
2) You test a number hypotheses with data;
3) You pick the hypotheses that matched the data best and combine them in a theory;
4) You conclude that this theory is plausible and relevant;
5) You write a paper with a structure (research question, theory, empirical analysis, conclusions) that does not reflect the steps above.

In short, an inductive quest for a plausible explanation is masked and reported as deductive theory-testing. This fallacy is both well-known and rather common (at least in the fields of political science and public administration). And, in my experience, it turns out to be tacitly supported by the policies of some journals and reviewers.

For one of my previous research projects, I studied the relationship between public support and policy output in the EU. Since the state of the economy can influence both, I included levels of unemployment as a potential omitted variable in the empirical analysis. It turned out that lagged unemployment is positively related to the volume of policy output. In the paper, I mentioned this result in passing but didn’t really discuss it at length because 1) the original relationship between public support and policy output was not affected, and 2) although highly statistically significant, the result was quite puzzling.

When I submitted the paper at a leading political science journal, a large part of the reviewers’ critiques focused on the fact that I do not have an explanation for the link between unemployment and policy output in the paper. But why should I? I did not have a good explanation why these variables should be related (with a precisely 4-year lag) when I did the empirical analysis, so why pretend? Of course, I suspected unemployment as a confounding variable for the original relationship I wanted to study, so I took the pains of collecting the data and doing the tests, still that certainly doesn’t count as an explanation for the observed statistical relationship between unemployment and policy output. But the point is, it would have been entirely possible to write the paper as if I had strong ex ante theoretical reasons to expect that rising unemployment increases the policy output of the EU, and that the empirical test supports (or more precisely, does not reject) this hypothesis. That would certainly have greased the review process, and it only takes moving a few paragraphs from the concluding section to the theory part of the paper. So, if your data has a surprising story to tell, make sure it looks like you anticipated it all along – you even had a theory that predicted it! This is what I call ‘writing with the rear-view mirror’.

Why is it a problem? After all, an empirical association is an empirical association no matter whether you theorized about it beforehand or not. So where is the harm? As I see it, by pretending to have theoretically anticipated an empirical association, you grant it undue credence. Not only is data consistent with a link between two variables, but there are strong theoretical grounds to believe the link should be there. A surprising statistical association, however robust, is just what it is – a surprising statistical association that possibly deserves speculation, exploration and further research. On the other hand, a robust statistical association ‘predicted’ by a previously-developed theory is way more – it is a claim that we understand how the world works.

Until journals and reviewers act as if proper science never deviates from the hypothetico-deductive canon, writers will pretend that they follow it. While openly descriptive and exploratory research is frowned upon, sham theory-testing will prevail.

Eventually, my paper on the links between public support, unemployment and policy output in the EU got accepted (in a different journal). Surprisingly given the bumpy review process, it has just been selected as the best article published in that journal during 2011. Needless to say, an explanation why unemployment might be related to EU policy output is still wanting.

Spatial theory and Scottish Independence

The plans for a referendum on Scottish independence offer a nice opportunity for applying spatial analysis. The latest point of contestation is whether a third option (enhanced devolution) should be offered to the voters in addition to the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. The UK government is against including the third option, a Scottish movement is strongly in favor, and the major advocate of the independence camp Alex Salmond is undecided (as far as I can tell).

Assuming that the government in London prefers Scotland to remain in the UK (and enhanced devolution to full independence), why do they oppose the inclusion of the third option in the referendum? That would only make sense if the UK government believes that more people would vote ‘No’ to independence when faced with the choice between the two extremes. At the same time, proponents of full independence will be better off including the third option only if they believe that they will lose a Yes/No referendum.

Trying to check the current estimates of support for independence, however, does not lead to a straightforward answer. According to Wikipedia, the latest poll conducted in September 2011 places the two camps practically dead-even – 39% say they would vote ‘Yes’ and 38% say they would vote ‘No’. According to the betting markets on the other hand, Scottish independence in the near future doesn’t stand quite a chance.

Obviously, London trusts the betting markets more than the polls. With the decision to oppose a third option in an eventual referendum, the UK government is betting that more people would oppose full independence rather than support it. If in the time until 2014 (when the referendum seems to be most likely) it turns out that this is not the case, the government would wish it had supported the inclusion of ‘enhanced devolution’ as the lesser of two evils.

Governing by Polls

The study of policy responsiveness to public opinion is blossoming and propagating. Work published over the last two years includes the 2010 book by Stuart Soroka and Chris Wlezien (Canada, US and the UK), this paper by Sattler, Brandt, and Freeeman on the UK,  this paper on Denmark, my own article on the EU, Roberts and Kim’s work on post-Communist Europe, etc.  The latest edition to the literature is this article by Jeffrey Lax and Justin Phillips from Columbia University (forthcoming in AJPS).

“The Democratic Deficit in the States” takes a cross-sectional rather than a dynamic (time series) perspective and analyzes both responsiveness  (correlation)  and congruence between policy outcomes and public opinion in the US states for eight policies. In short, there is a high degree of responsiveness but far from perfect congruence between majority opinion and policy. More salient policies fair better, and having powerful interest groups on your side helps. Altogether, this is an interesting and important study that adds yet another piece to our understanding of policy responsiveness.

What starts to worry me, however, is that the normative implications of the policy responsiveness literature are too often taken for granted. Lax and Phillips seem to equate the lack of correspondence between public opinion and policy to democratic deficit(similarly, Sattler, Brandt and Freeman speak of ‘democratic accountability’). But there is quite a gap between the fact the a policy contradicts the majority of public opinion and the pronouncement of democratic failure. And we need to start unpacking the normative implications of the (lack of) policy responsiveness. 

Of course, at a very general level no political system can be democratic unless there is dynamic responsiveness and broad correspondence between the wishes of the public and what government does. But can we equate congruence of policy with public opinion with democracy? I don’t think so. Precise responsiveness and congruence are neither necessary nor sufficient for democratic policy making. Why?

First and foremost, public opinion as such does not exist. One doesn’t need to embrace a radical post-modern position to admit that the numbers we love to crunch in studies of policy responsiveness are, at best, imperfect (snapshot) estimates of a fluid social construct. It is not only that estimates of aggregate public opinion are subject to the usual measurement problems. It has been shown times and again that the answers we get from public surveys are sensitive to the precise wording, form, and  context of the questions (see George Bishop’s ‘The Illusion of Public Opinion’ for an overview). The questions themselves are often vague and imprecise. Polls will elicit responses even when the people have no meaningful opinion towards the issue (opinions will be regularly given even on fictitious issues). The availability bias is often a problem, especially in surveys of the ‘most important problem’ (open vs. close forms of the question).

A second problem is that public opinion as portrayed by mass surveys need not be the same as the opinion of a group of people after they (1) have been given relevant information about the issue, (2) have been allowed ample time to think about it, and (3) have had the opportunity to deliberate about it (on deliberative polls which come with their own set of problems see James Fishkin). People know astoundingly little about current policies even when they are personally affected by them (here). Do we expect congruence and responsiveness between policy and public opinion as given over the telephone after a modicum of brain activity, or policy and public opinion as it would have been if people made informed decisions with the common good in mind?

The third problem is that public opinion is expressed on various issues presented in isolation. I can very well support an increase in spending on defense, education, and health, and a decrease in the overall state budget at the very same time.  My opinion and preferences need not be consistent but policies need to be. The problem is compounded by the possibility of preference cycles in aggregate public opinion. Even if individual opinions are rational and well-behaved, preference cycles in aggregate public opinion cannot be ruled out.

There is some unintended irony in Stimson et al. designating the aggregate of attitudes and opinions they construct the ‘policy mood’ of the public. Normatively speaking, do we really expect policy to respond to the mood of the public with all the irrationality, instability and caprice that a mood implies? All in all, the lack of perfect temporal and spatial correspondence between public opinion and policy cannot be interpreted directly as a sign of democratic deficit and failure. Political institutions translating mass preferences into policy exist for a reason (well, a number of reasons, including preference aggregation, deliberation, and inducing stability).

The other side of the same coin is that responsiveness is not sufficient for democracy. The fact that a government follows closely majority opinion as expressed in the polls and adjusts policy accordingly cannot be a substitute for a democratic policy making process. This is especially clear in my own analysis of the EU: although I find that aggregate legislative production closely follows the ebbs and flows in public support for the EU during the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s this cannot dispel our misgivings about the democratic deficit of the EU during this period – the polls are not a substitute for elections, representation, and accountability.

The lack of sufficient reflection on the democratic implications of the (lack of ) policy responsiveness is especially worrying in view of the tendency (identified on the basis of my subjective reading of the political process in several European states) of more and more reference to and reliance on ‘instant’ polls in making policy. The increased availability and speed of delivery of ‘representative’ public opinion polls lures politicians into dancing to the tune of public opinion on every occasion. Sensible policies are abandoned if the poll numbers are not right (e.g. second hand smoking restrictions, see here), and retrogressive policies are enacted if the percentage of public support is high enough. But government by polls is only one step removed from the government by mobs. Politicians should sometimes have different policy opinions than the public and they should have the courage to pursue these opinions in the face of (temporary and latent) opposition by the citizens. Meanwhile, social science has the important task to uncover when and how policy responsivness and congruence works. But I see no need to inflate and oversell the normative implications of the research.