Academic research on the EU, Europe in the news, European Parliament

The Politicization of the EU Commission

Last week the European Parliament has given its backing to Tonio Borg becoming the European commissioner for health. He was put forward by Malta to replace John Dalli, who resigned last month over allegations of fraud. The newly nominated EU commissioner had to dispel his image as a Roman Catholic hardliner in a bid to win MEPs’ approval in the hearing before two Parliament committees – for the environment, public health and food safety, and for internal market and consumer protection – that took place at 13 November. Borg came under criticism for his socially conservative views, on women’s rights, homosexuality and abortion. The hearing saw Liberal and Green deputies accuse him of homophobia and backward-looking views on contraception.  But the nominated EU health commissioner obviously has overcome concerns about his Roman Catholic views and won MEPs’ approval by a clear majority. In a vote during the plenary session in Strasbourg on 21 November, 386 mostly right leaning MEPS supported Borg, with 281 voting ‘No’ to his appointment and 28 abstentions. His antagonists in the EP said they will watch him like a hawk.

This confrontation in parliament, together with previous incidents, with Rocco Buttiglione in 2004 and Bulgaria’s embattled nominee, Rumiana Jeleva in 2010, illustrate how firm the grip of the EP has become in the selection of the EU Commission. In the September issue of the International Review of Administrative Sciences (Vol 78, Number 3) the article ‘The Politicization of the EU Commission’ explains how strengthened democratic control and accountability over the EU executive has politicized the selection of EU commissioners. This has become noticeable in the access and exit procedures of this part of the EU executive, but also in shifts in the demand and supply-factors in the process of EU executive recruitment. An analysis of the careers of commissioners shows ‘who’ is eligible for executive office. Shifts towards political professionalization have made that an extensive career through political institutions has become the most common route for entering the Commission. A look at the political background of Tonio Borg shows that his career fits well in this pattern of recruitment of commissioners. Not a technocratic background but political competences have become relevant for holding this office.

Academic research on the EU, Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Future of the EU, Public opinion

Budget negotiations and the EU public sphere

Although the talks on the EU budget ended last Friday without a conclusion, the media coverage on the negotiations does tell us something about the state of the ‘EU public sphere’.

When we use media coverage on EU issues as a proxy for the emergence of a European public sphere, it seems that such a Habermasian-sphere rapidly developed in the last couple of years; newspapers and television programmes provided information to their readers and viewers in the EU member states on Greek bail-out packages, the Euro-debt crisis in general, and the budget negotiations (like now).

 However, most cross-national longitudinal studies show that media coverage on EU affairs is marginal at best, with peaks around EP elections, referenda, and the budget negotiations.

In contrast, my own research indicates that in the last decade news coverage in national newspapers of the negotiations on EU directives in the ordinary legislative procedure (i.e. the day-to-day EU level decision-making process) closely follows the newsworthy developments. Hence, the interested citizen could have gotten its information on the day-to-day decision making process by reading the papers. Although I do not claim on the basis of this research that there is such a thing like a European public sphere, it was not all bad in the last decade.

Europe in the news, Public opinion, Social policy and anti-discrimination

Why EU Commissioners Are Poor Politicians

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, Sweden 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 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 Redding’s recent actions are not smart and politically savvy in the way in which EU-bashing politicians like Nigel Farage are 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 put a lot of effort 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.

Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Public opinion, the Netherlands

Burgers, nationale politiek en de politisering van de EU

Caspar van den Berg & Carola van Eijk

Gisteren debatteerde de Tweede Kamer over de meerjarenbegroting van de Europese Unie, het Meerjarig Financieel Kader. Misschien nog wel opvallender dan wat in het debat zelf naar voren kwam, was dat het debat niet alleen via live-stream te volgen was, maar ook dat er veel over getwitterd werd (o.a. met #MFK en #eurotop) en dat de Volkskrant op de eigen website vrijwel van minuut tot minuut volgde wat aan de orde kwam. De geïnteresseerde burger kon eenvoudig de grote lijnen en belangrijkste onderwerpen van het debat tot zich nemen vanuit de luie stoel thuis of onderweg. In tegenstelling tot de vroege jaren 2000 kan er de afgelopen periode niet geklaagd worden over de aandacht voor Europa in de media, het parlement en het publieke debat.

Deze verandering hebben wij centraal gesteld toen we gevraagd werden mee te werken aan de bundel van de Raad voor het Openbaar Bestuur (Rob) over de relatie tussen Europa en haar burgers, getiteld Europa, burgerschap en democratie. Over de gespannen relatie tussen burgers en Europa en mogelijkheden om die te ontspannen. Naast onze bijdrage bogen tien andere wetenschappers zich over de vraag hoe erg het gesteld is met de relatie tussen Europa en burgers, en hoe die te verbeteren zou zijn.

In onze bijdrage, getiteld “Van permissive consensus tot political by-pass” zijn wij ingegaan op de politisering van de EU in Nederland. Tot aan de campagne over het referendum over het Grondwettelijk Verdrag begin 2005 was het adagium bij veel politici en de mainstream media over Europa nog “Het lééft niet, en het scóórt niet”. We typeren de pre-2005 periode van relatieve desinteresse in Europa bij burgers, media en parlement dan ook als een tijdperk van permissive consensus: politici en ambtenaren konden praktisch ongestoord hun gang gaan waar het Europa betrof.

Van die permissive consensus is anno 2012 weinig meer over. De permissiveness is gedaald, wat blijkt uit het feit dat méér kiezers hun stem bij nationale verkiezingen laten bepalen door EU-thema’s (van 1 % in 2004 tot 10 % in 2012), en de consensus is gedaald, wat blijkt uit het gedaalde percentage Nederlanders dat voorstander is van Nederland’s EU-lidmaatschap (van 69 % in 2005 tot 58 % in 2012). De politisering van de EU in Nederland is een feit.

Het Nederlandse “nee” heeft een grote impact gehad op bestuurlijk- en beleidsvlak. Politici ontdekten Europa als een issue dat wél tot leven gebracht kon worden en waarmee je wél kon scoren. Er ontstond bij veel politici en ambtenaren een sterk gevoel van “alles moet anders”. En veel werd anders: Nederland is sinds 2005 veranderd in een kritische partner in Europa, heeft een korting op de afdrachten gekregen en Europees beleid wordt minder als buitenlands beleid en meer als binnenlands beleid gezien.

De conclusie lijkt simpel: het referendum heeft laten zien dat het de EU bij burgers gepolitiseerd was, en in reactie daarop politiseerde de EU ook in politieke en ambtelijke arena. Toch is die relatie minder rechttoe rechtaan dan zij lijkt. Er is namelijk iets interessants aan de hand met die post-2005 politisering. Uit onderzoek bleek dat het de meeste nee-stemmers in het referendum geen “nee” zeiden tegen Europa, maar hun onvrede uitten tegen het destijds zittende kabinet en over het tekort aan informatie over het Vedrag. De politisering van de EU onder burgers vond dan ook feitelijk niet plaats in 2005-2006, maar pas vanaf 2009-2010, zo blijkt uit cijfers van TNS-NIPO.

Er zit dus een duidelijk verschil in timing tussen enerzijds de politisering onder politici en ambtenaren (2005-2007), en anderzijds de politisering van burgers (2009-2012). Politici en ambtenaren zagen het “nee” als een aanval op Europa en handelden daarnaar, terwijl de werkelijke electorale politisering pas een paar jaar later volgde, toen de economische crisis een duidelijke EU dimensie kreeg. In die zin zegt het verhaal van de politisering van de EU in Nederland ons dus misschien wel meer over de kloof tussen de burger en de nationale politiek dan over de kloof tussen de burger en Europa.


My first blog on blogging

I’ve agreed to join my colleagues in cyberspace by becoming a regular contributor to this blog. What seems more appropriate than a first blog contribution on blogging based on recent research?

I am involved in the InterEURO project whose main purpose is to get a more comprehensive theoretical and empirical understanding of the role interest groups play in the European polity. The project is supported by the European Science Foundation and includes more than 20 scholars from a wide variety of European countries as well as North America.

At the moment one of the things keeping us busy is the coding up of the thousands and thousands of different actors that make up the EU interest group population. Fortunately, our students help us by participating in so-called “capstone projects” where they code a part of the data which they then use in their master dissertations. One of them is Amber van de Graaf. Together with her, Simon Otjes and I conducted a little “side project” to InterEURO on the usage of new media by interest groups. Based on detailed website coding we made a systematic investigation of the extent to which organizations use 11 different types of new media activities, including blogging. Next we looked at which factors explain variation in the usage of new media by these organizations.

Our preliminary analyses of app. 200 groups indicate that around 80 percent of the organizations that appear in “traditional media” also use some form of “new media”. However, we find that the factors that explain the usage of new media are somewhat different from the factors that explain the usage of many other strategies used by interest groups. Resources seem not to play much a role for the use of new media. Instead, we see that organizations which have individuals as members are more likely to make use of these new technologies than organizations which don’t. Moreover, the level of representation matters: Organizations with an international, global scope use new media more than others. Finally, we find some evidence that there may be differences in the use of new media by groups representing different types of substantive interests. Our results are preliminary but provide an interesting snapshot into the usage of these newer tools of communication, which has received very little systematic attention so far. Our next step is to investigate these relationships further and turn our little project into a proper publication…..

In the meantime, the coding of the EU interest group population continues. It’ll generate new information how the complex EU political system interacts with external actors at different levels of governance. By doing so we hope to provide answers to some of the more complex questions regarding the state of EU democracy, which figure high up on the political agenda.

I’ll update you as we come across more interesting results…..


Visions on Europe: what is your view on the ‘new’ Europe after the crisis?

We will starting a new Honours Class at Leiden soon on ‘Visions on Europe‘. What kind of Union do we want? How will the Union look after the current crisis? Will it be a more federal Europe, or one in which nation states still be the dominant actors? Or, only Union on intergovernmental governance dealing with the common market? What is your vision on Europe?  Students at Leiden University can participate in this experience: they will present their vision as a movie. Interested? Go to the Leiden University webpages and join us! Alternatively, post your vision on our blog.