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.

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another warning from Polish minister Sikorski in the light of the ‘constraining dissensus’ on European integration

In a speech to Polish MPs in Warsaw on 29 March (via euobserver, link here), Polish Foreign Minister said the EU could unravel, dismantling common projects such as open markets and labour mobility and neglecting new initiatives such as the External Action Service. His warning was apparently of Poland’s fate if the EU disintegrated and the US abandoned its Atlantic orientation and NATO and turned to Asia. Quite clearly, other new(er) member states such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia or Bulgaria and Romania would fare even worse than Poland if such a scenario were to materialize. More importantly, however, why should we all take Sikorski’s warning seriously?

Rereading, with my students, Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks’s seminal British Journal of Political Science article of 2008, ‘A Post Functionalist theory of European Integration: From Permissive Consensus to Constraining Dissensus’, I am struck by their precise formulation of what seems to be one of the key problems of European integration today: ‘Citizens care – passionately – about who exercises authority over them. The challenge for a theory of multi level governance is that the functional need for human cooperation rarely coincides with the territorial scope of community’ (2008: 2). The EU’s current set of responses to the crisis, for example the reform package for Greece put together by the IMF/ the Troika, illustrate this point very well: the functional need to resolve the crisis comes up against the lack of a sense of community on both sides – in this case in the North and South of Europe.

But as Hooghe and Marks also state in their article,  when individuals do not have the time and inclination to determine their response to European integration measures, they rely on cues to determine their response (2008:10) – cues provided by the media, by politicians and political parties. The EU has long ceased to be just a vehicle for economic integration, but is ‘a part of a system of multi-level governance which facilitates social interaction across national boundaries, increases immigration and undermines national sovereignty. …(2008:11).  Based on a broad range of studies, they argue that ‘the jurisdictional shape of Europe has been transformed, but the way in which citizens conceive their identities has not’ (12)…but, they further state that  the connection between national identity, cultural and economic insecurity and EU policy issues cannot be induced from experience, but has to be constructed politically, through priming, framing and cueing (2008:13).

Mr Sikorski, to get back to his speech, has been campaigning consistently in the last year or so to provide fellow politicians and citizens in Poland and other EU member states with reasons to consider the positive sides of European integration and the dangers of European disintegration. His speeches provide a cue for possible responses to the current insecurity in Europe by seeing national identity as reinforced and defended  in a broader European framework, rather than weakened.  In my view, it is a  perspective very much worth considering.

Academic research on the EU, Euroscepticism

EU Research Digest (November 2011)

During the past few months several important academic articles dealing with EU attitudes and support were published. In this post I will briefly review the most important insights from these studies:

First, attitudes towards the European Union are multidimensional. This means that whether you trust the European Parliament for example is not strongly related to some other opinion on European integration like whether you perceive the EU as a threat to national identity. A survey in the Netherlands (2008) reveals five separate dimensions of EU attitudes – negative affection, identity, performance, utilitarianism, and strengthening the EU [2].  

As a result, several different factors relate to anti-EU voting in EP elections – assessment of the democratic deficit, low perceived utility of the EU, negative affection, opposition to EU integration, and the absence of EU identity [6]. This is an important finding because it shows that voting in EU elections is not related only to national concerns and satisfaction with the national government, and because it identifies several different aspects of EU attitudes that matter.

Similarly, specific issue concerns rather than general dissatisfaction with the EU or national governments explain the No votes in the French and Dutch referenda on the ill-fated EU Constitution [4]. Hence, voter attitudes towards the Constitution are multidimensional as well.

Second, group identity considerations affect strongly hostility towards the EU [5]. Attitudes towards immigrants are the most important predictors of Euroscepticism in Ireland and the Netherlands [5]. While how religious you are is not systematically related to your assessment of the EU, religious intolerance and negative feelings towards Islam increase Euroscepticism (in the Netherlands, and to a lesser extent in Ireland) [5]. Negative feelings towards immigrants (in NL) and religious intolerance (in Ireland) explain opposition to Turkey’s membership of the EU as well [5].

The importance of identity and the fear of economic migration, however, differs across the members of the EU. In wealthy states economic xenophobia matters more than in poor states, and for the high net-contributors to the EU budget the negative effects of exclusive national identity are greater [3].

So perhaps not surprisingly, EU contestation exists mostly in the realm of identity politics (during the last EP election campaign at least) [1]. Election and referendum campaigns matter because they emphasize certain issues and aspects of EU integration over others, thus priming the voters [4]. Right wing parties are the ones more likely to bring identity concerns during the election campaigns and countries with more Eurosceptic parties are more likely to put attention to EU issues [1]. But when the campaign environment is intense, party messages matter less to the voters [4].

In summary, from the many dimensions of EU attitudes that are important for how you assess and vote on EU issues, identity (and the related fear of immigrants) is one of the most important and the one that is the most likely to get politicized , mostly by right-wing and Eurosceptic parties.

[1] Adam, S. and M. Maier 2011. ‘National parties as politicizers of EU integration? Party campaign communication in the run-up to the 2009 European Parliament election’, European Union Politics, 12, 431-453.

[2] Boomgaarden, H.G., A.R.T. Schuck, M. Elenbaas and C.H. de Vreese 2011. ‘Mapping EU attitudes: Conceptual and empirical dimensions of Euroscepticism and EU support’, European Union Politics, 12, 241-266.

[3] Garry, J. and J. Tilley 2009. ‘The Macroeconomic Factors Conditioning the Impact of Identity on Attitudes towards the EU’, European Union Politics, 10, 361-379.

[4] Hobolt, S.B. and S. Brouard 2010. ‘Contesting the European Union? Why the Dutch and the French Rejected the European Constitution’, Political Research Quarterly.

[5] Hobolt, S.B., W. Van der Brug, C.H. De Vreese, H.G. Boomgaarden and M.C. Hinrichsen 2011. ‘Religious intolerance and Euroscepticism’, European Union Politics, 12, 359-379.

[6] van Spanje, J. and C. de Vreese 2011. ‘So what’s wrong with the EU? Motivations underlying the Eurosceptic vote in the 2009 European elections’, European Union Politics, 12, 405-429.