Academic research on the EU, Enlargement, Europe in the news, Euroscepticism, Future of the EU, the Netherlands

The contradictions of the Dutch referendum on the Association agreement with Ukraine

As the day of the advisory referendum in the Netherlands on the Association agreement with Ukraine nears, the bulk of the commentary seems to focus on the campaign, its trends and its context rather than the referendum question and the agreement it addresses. There have been lots of commentaries focusing on the geopolitics of the referendum, evaluating Russia’s possible attitude or role, as for example this recent piece  assessing a potential ‘no’ vote as a symbolic victory for Russia. Many analysts note the passive stance taken by the Dutch government and political parties of the government coalition who, after all, participated in the negotiations of the agreement that started all the way back in 2008. In a highly critical post, Judy Dempsey denounces the lackluster campaign by Dutch and European politicians and the lack of visible commitment to the  treaty and the values it embodies (rather than just trade) by the Dutch Prime Minister Rutte himself. In terms of the implications of the referendum results, there is little agreement on the significance of a potential ‘no’ vote. Some, consider the whole exercise to be meaningless, as given the advisory nature of the referendum, the government could ignore the results if they are negative.This post by Korteweg provides an overview of recent history of both the agreement and the Dutch referendum and of potential scenarios after the referendum.

Yet, as Kristof Jacobs pointed out in the SRV blog and also in a debate we held yesterday, the political consequences of ignoring a possible ‘no’ vote would be much wider  and harder to ignore than the legal ones. Both domestic and international consequences could be quite broad and far reaching. At least one of the government coalition parties, the Social Democrats, has committed to respecting the outcome of the referendum. Changing the wording of the Association agreement to satisfy the Dutch voters would also be quite problematic: in a total of 486 articles and 179 pages without the annexes, identifying which bits would have been found objectionable by Dutch votes in case of a ‘no’ majority would be difficult. The EU’s credibility in other international settings and policies, such as the revised European Neighborhood Policy or even ongoing enlargement process with the Western Balkans, would be compromised.

If we accept that future accessions or associations will become more and more politicized, as found in our enlargement assessment project maxcap (see here), we should try to take the question of the referendum seriously and evaluate, to the best of our current knowledge, what effects the Association agreement might have. Given its scope and the fact that establishing a Deep and Comprehensive Trade Area is quite a novel enterprise, as shown in this legal analysis, effects are difficult to estimate ex ante. The political reform provisions in the treaty, however, are both far-reaching and promising, in the clear commitment to domestic reforms in Ukraine (art 6), extensive requirements for transparency and the planned involvement of civil society (articles 299, 443). All other things being equal (which is not a given in Ukraine’s neighbourhood), the Agreement will provide both a roadmap and a set of incentives for reforms in democratic governance, as the EU has done in the past for countries like Bulgaria, Romania or Slovakia. It will be up to Ukrainian policy makers and politicians to take this opportunity. Yet rejecting the treaty by means of a negative vote in the Netherlands, or letting it exist in some kind of legal and political limbo while the Dutch government decides how to react to a potential negative result, would sap what energy and determination exist for reforms in Ukraine. So paradoxically, if we assume that at least some of the initiators of the Dutch referendum care about democracy and citizens, their democratic impulse might kill the attempts to make democracy mean something in Ukraine. This would be a strange outcome indeed.


Academic research on the EU, Central and Eastern Europe, Uncategorized

Enlargement as a modernization or harmonization project?

On 30 May, we publicly opened a three year research project evaluating the lessons of the EU’s previous enlargements, especially the ‘big bang’ enlargement to the East as well as possibilities for integration in the future. The presentations at the opening conference, in Berlin, outline plans for research, but also, already sketched some interesting puzzles and questions. A key question which has occupied me – and other scholars – for many years, was raised by one of the European Commission speakers: in his view, fulfilling criteria for accession to the EU is not necessarily the same as becoming more developed economically. He suggested that pushing a development agenda through enlargement has its limits. It was stressed that the objective of pre-accession preparations is for candidates  to become as similar to the EU member states as possible – policy-wise, mostly – as it has always been in past enlargements – through adopting the acquis. From this perspective, economic development cannot be an accession criterion as such as it could delay accession forever. Neither was the EU’s political criterion from Copenhagen intended to be or equivalent to a fully fledged programme for democratization. In a way, the Eastern enlargement’s overall success and the success of the countries that participated in it to make huge progress in reform, can make us forget the limits of the EU’s mission and possibilities there.

While it is fully understandable that the European Commission and indeed, other EU institutions, need to define their mission in enlargement in terms of the EU’s overall strategy and in concrete terms based on pre-defined accession criteria, for most of the scholars dealing with the last enlargement, the modernization,  development  and democratization effects of the last enlargement appear unmistakable. There are, in fact, many scholars and commentators who see the completed Eastern enlargement primarily as a modernization project, whereby the term ‘Europeanization’ is used to denote structural reform, state building, restructuring, growth… Our project consortium colleague, Laszlo Bruszt, for example, has written about the state making effects of the EU’s big bang enlargement, which he sees as unintended consequences of the EU’s ‘demanding performance criteria’.

Similarly, among experts and policy makers engaged in this process from Central and Eastern Europe ‘Europeanization’  was used to denote their reform goals and equaled improvement of governance, economic development and administrative efficiency. I have talked to numerous civil servants and members of European integration working groups for whom joining the EU was the same thing as ‘Europeanization’ and ultimately equivalent to ‘becoming like…the Netherlands/Denmark/Germany…’

Remembering the start of post communist transformations, however, democratization and economic reform – uncertain as they were in some countries –  were domestically initiated and driven processes, which the EU was initially reluctant to commit to. Only after 1993 when the EU offered the so called accession perspective for Central and Eastern European states, did the Union provide a goal and a kind of reform template for the states that became serious candidates. So, as I have argued elsewhere, there are good  historical – and analytical reasons – to keep post communist transformations and pre-accession preparations separate. Yet there are also reasons to claim that the two processes reinforced each other and the one would not have succeeded without the other. This may be different for states that become candidates for accession at a different stage in their political and economic development. In other cases, as one of the conference papers noted (an earlier version of this argument has been developed here), the EU may act as stabilizer and not as ‘democratizer’. We should not forget that the provisions of the EU’s acquis (regulations and policies resulting from bargains between older member states), which candidates must adopt almost entirely before accession, may not be beneficial for all economies and in all institutional settings. In other words: despite more than a decade of scholarship, commentary and analysis, there may still be some major unanswered questions about the effects, processes and mechanisms underlying the EU’s enlargement: one of several themes which the MAXCAP project will research in the coming years. We will keep you posted.

Disclaimer: This post is written in personal capacity and does not represent the views of the MAXCAP partners, Leiden University or the European Commission, which funds this project under its Seventh Framework Programme.

This post was edited on 12 June 2013 to represent better some views expressed at the conference.

Academic research on the EU, Euroscepticism, Public opinion, Uncategorized

Europeanization and its discontents

The generally held view that the smooth functioning of political systems depends on trust has caused much concern about dropping levels of support for the EU political institutions. In his blogpost in December, Dimiter Toshkov showed that trust in the EU institutions has decreased by more than 20% (from its 2009 levels) implying a decline in the EU’s legitimacy. The latest results from the Eurobarometer published in December 2012 (Standard Eurobarometer 78) show that trust in the European Union has increased with 2 percentage points to 33% since spring 2012, but that the long-term trend since 2004 indicates a steady erosion of support for the EU. Trust levels in the EU are now approaching the trust levels of national governments (27 %) and national parliaments (28%).

How worrisome is this falling level of trust in the EU? It is commonplace to say that trust is good and that declines are bad. Declining trust generally connotes a public that is not happy with its political institutions. But the wealth of explanations found in the political science literature for the declining levels of trust in advanced industrial democracies, indicate that the erosion of political support is also a result of a better-educated, better-informed cohort of politically astute citizens that is more apt to use critical criteria when asked to evaluate governments or political institutions. Some political theorists argue that it is not trust, but vigilance and scepticism that provide the hallmark for well-functioning political systems. Declining levels of trust may, thus, represent the rise of a public that is—and perhaps as they should be—sceptical of political power. Trust in the EU falling to the (lower) levels observed in the member states suggests a progressive political normalisation of the EU. Citizens, when forming opinions, judge the EU apparently with similar standards and skepticism that they also use in their evaluations of political institutions at the national level. Maybe the problems of legitimacy facing the EU are not so fundamentally different from those facing the member states.

Academic research on the EU, Central and Eastern Europe, Europe in the news, the Netherlands, Uncategorized

Eastern Europeans in the Netherlands: A battle of the numbers or are journalists bad scientists?

RTL news  reported yesterday (link in Dutch) that the PVV, the Freedom Party led by Geert Wilders, have received 40 000 complains on their controversial website asking people to report Central and Eastern European citizens causing ‘problems’ in the Netherlands. More than half of these were, according to the news item of 13 December about ‘drunkenness, noise and parking problems’. No detailed breakdown of issues or problems or even an overview of the 40 000 (complaints/messages? filled forms?wesbite hits?) has been made available yet and still a number of Dutch media dedicated quite some attention to the figure mentioned by the PVV. 40 000 sounds, after all, very impressive, even of a percentage of the messages left on the website may have been  from people who had a positive story or complained about the website itself.  More importantly,  the journalists asking questions about the ‘Central and Eastern European problem’ seemed unaware of a report presented this very same week, on 12 December, of a broad representative study by the Polish Institute of Public Affairs  showing that the majority of Dutch people have a positive or neutral impression of Polish people working here.

This provides some food for thought. First, it appears difficult for the media to distinguish representative, science based results from any other numbers that get used and abused in public debates. Secondly, there is clearly a selection bias on the PVV website, which could be understood better if we could see a breakdown of the type of issues and complaints. This was also stressed by the Polish embassy, whose spokesperson rightly remarked that the PVV reported numbers have no scientific value whatsoever.  This latter comment reached us through the SPITS newspaper (link in Dutch here) that managed, in its turn, to confuse the authors of the report on Polish perceptions in the Netherlands – the research was done by the Polish Institute for Public Affairs and GfK, but not Leiden university ( we co-hosted a presentation of the results in our Campus in the Hague). In the end, the only conclusion that can be drawn so far from the coverage of the  perceptions of Poles in the Netherlands report as opposed to the PVV complaint numbers announcement appears to be that some journalists do not pay much attention not only to science, but also to the basic facts.

For anyone who is interested in the actual data related to the perceptions of Poles in the Netherlands, a link to a summary of the findings and figures of the study can be found here. The full report is yet to be finalized and we look forward to examining the complete results.

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.

Academic research on the EU

Co-decision and decision-making speed

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.