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.

Co-decision and decision-making speed in the EU

Our paper (with Anne Rasmussen) on the influence of early agreements (trilogues) on the speed of decision making in the EU has just been published by the European Integration Online Papers (EIoP). The abstract is below. Anne blogged about the findings here.  

Abstract: The increased use of early agreements in the EU co-decision procedure raises the concern that intra and inter-institutional political debate is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency. We investigate the effect of early agreements (trilogues) on the time it takes for legislation to be negotiated during the first reading of co-decision. We find that the first reading negotiations of trilogues on salient legislation take longer than first readings of similar files reconciled at second and third reading. First readings of early agreements also appear to last longer when considering all co-decision files submitted to the 5th and 6th European Parliaments, but the effect is masked by a general increase in first reading duration after 2004. We conclude that even if early agreements restrict access of certain actors to decision making, they allow for more time for substantive debate at the first reading stage than similar files reconciled later in the legislative process.

By the way, let me use the occasion to congratulate EIoP for being one of the very few free  and rigorously peer-reviewed, SSCI-indexed, journals. All articles are available online without a subscription and without a registration. While many people talk against the gated and hugely expensive academic journals, very few authors actually support the free alternatives by submitting to and reviewing for them.