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Home » Elections and Governance

Blaming Europe? Responsibility without Accountability

Submitted by on 25 Nov 2013 – 14:49

By Dr James Tilley Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford, and Professor and Sara Hobolt, European Institute, London School of Economics


Last November hundreds of thousands of people across Europe took to the streets. The protesters were, by and large, complaining about government policies that increased taxes and lowered government spending. This initially sounds like a familiar ‘dog bites man’ story given that tax increases and reduced public services rarely prove popular, but there is a twist to the tale. Many of the people protesting were not aiming their ire at the national governments making the cuts in spending, but rather at the European Union. In Portugal, people carried effigies of their prime minister on strings and claimed he was a ‘puppet of the EU’; in Greece, protesters burned the EU flag and shouted ‘EU out’; and in Italy people threw stones at the European Parliament offices. It was, at least for some people on the streets, not the incumbent national politicians in Lisbon, Athens, and Rome who were to blame for the problem of the day, but rather politicians and bureaucrats thousands of miles away in Brussels.

It matters what level of government people blame for deteriorating conditions, such as the current economic crisis. At the heart of the notion of democratic accountability lies the electoral process of sanctioning or rewarding an incumbent on the basis of past performance, which relies on the assumption that voters are able to correctly assign responsibility for outcomes. This is clearly complicated in the EU where citizens face the additional challenge of distinguishing between the powers of multiple levels of government. In our forthcoming book, Blaming Europe? Responsibility without Accountability in the European Union (Oxford University Press), we explain when and why people blame ‘Europe’ and what consequences this has for citizens’ choices in European Parliament elections and their opinions of EU institutions. In this short article we highlight some of our main findings and discuss their implications. In a broad sense, our findings can be divided into two sets of arguments concerning the causes and the consequences of blaming Europe.

We first look at how people form judgements about responsibility in the EU. A crucial question is whether citizens can make sense of who is responsible and assign responsibility accordingly. To understand that process, it is not sufficient to simply look at the formal divisions of institutional responsibility. We must also consider the type of information available about these institutions, as well as the pre-existing attitudes that citizens hold about the institutions. We thus distinguish three mechanisms of assigning responsibility: mechanisms that relate to institutions, mechanisms that relate to information and mechanisms that relate to individual biases. First, we find that people’s views are sensibly shaped by institutional divisions of power. Figure 1 shows how both political experts and the general public in countries inside and outside the Eurozone place responsibility for interest rates (on a 0-10 scale, where 0 implies the EU has no responsibility and 10 implies it has full responsibility). Clearly, experts and the public in Eurozone countries think the EU is more responsible for interest rates than experts and the public in countries with a floating currency like Britain. The differences between experts may be more pronounced, but they are similar in type to the differences between ordinary people.

FIGURE 1: EU responsibility for interest rates – expert and public perceptions

Note: This figure displays mean scores on the 0-10 scale of EU responsibility for experts and the public, with all countries equally weighted within the currency groupings: Eurozone member, countries with their currency pegged to the euro and countries outside the Eurozone with a floating currency.

Data: European Election Study (EES) 2009 and political expert survey 2010.

Nonetheless for most policy areas, such as the economy, immigration or healthcare, perceptions of EU responsibility across countries are actually very similar. We argue that this is partly because institutional responsibilities are inherently difficult to judge, but also because there is often little high quality information from politicians and the media about responsibility and the EU. Examining media coverage during the 2009 European Parliament election campaign in all EU countries, we find that while there is a great deal of coverage of the EU, most relates to the ‘horse-race’ of the elections and little relates to policy. In particular, EU responsibilities for specific policies are rarely mentioned.

The figure below shows how little coverage of the economy involves mention of the EU in either newspapers or on television. Most broadcasts and articles that mention performance mention responsibility, but very few mention that the EU is responsible.

FIGURE 2: Responsibility for the economy in the media

Note: This figure displays the percentage of stories on the economy that assigned responsibility (mentioned the actor as handling, working on, or taking care of) to the national government, other national actors (political and non-political) and the EU. N = 4,822 stories

Data: EES Media Study 2009.

Given this lack of information, we find that many people rely heavily on biases to estimate where responsibility lies. Existing views about the EU colour people’s views of responsibility. When conditions are thought to be worsening, people who are sceptical about the EU tend to blame it. Figure 3 shows data from 2011. People across Europe were asked who was responsible for ‘current economic problems’. Those who dislike the EU project blame the EU, but EU enthusiasts tend to absolve the EU of blame. These are patterns we find repeatedly using multiple data sources in all EU countries. Judgements of responsibility are thus not just a product of institutional differences in responsibility, but importantly are also used to reconcile predispositions about the EU with information about changing policy performance.

FIGURE 3: The selective attribution of responsibility for ‘current economic problems’ by EU opponents and EU supporters

Note: This figure displays the percentage of people who say the EU is first or second to blame for the country’s current economic problems (of those who said that the current economic situation was somewhat or very bad). EU supporters are people who had a very or somewhat favourable view of the EU. EU opponents are people who had a very or somewhat unfavourable view of the EU.

Data: Pew Global Attitudes Project 2011.

Our second set of arguments concern the consequences of these responsibility judgements. A key component of democratic accountability is that voters hold politicians to account for the actions for which they are deemed to be responsible. This process generally functions well at the national level. National governments are punished for poor performance if they are held responsible, especially when a single party government is in place. But we find no evidence that performance and responsibility matter in a similar way for the dominant Europarty in the European Parliament. It seems that just as it is challenging for voters to hold large coalition governments in national parliaments to account, it is close to impossible for voters to identify which parties to reward and punish at European elections. Since citizens are unable to vote for or against a ‘government’ in the EU, when voters hold the EU responsible for poor performance they lose trust in the EU institutions instead. Indeed, since the onset of the economic crisis in 2008, public trust in EU institutions has declined 17 percentage points, according to the most recent Eurobarometer surveys.

These findings have implications for the future course of the European Union. First, people often do not accurately know which level of government is responsible. Second, even if they did have accurate knowledge of EU responsibilities, they cannot hold EU level political actors to account for performance. Are there any solutions to these problems? Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes. Improving institutional clarity, so people are able to more accurately identify responsibility within the EU, is difficult given that shared competence is the default position both formally and substantively in the EU. Moreover while increasing the amount, and quality, of the information about the EU might help, it is unrealistic to expect that efforts by the EU institutions to increase information will make much difference. Rather, it seems likely that high quality media coverage will only occur when the policy choices at the European level are more clearly defined; in other words, when there is greater politicization and contestation at the EU level.

That brings us to the second problem: the lack of government clarity at the EU level. Greater contestation at the EU level would also help here by enabling people to match performance to particular incumbent governing parties which could be rewarded and punished. Proposals to improve this have typically focused on either encouraging a more parliamentary form of government at the EU level, for example by making Europarties propose rival candidates for Commission president, or facilitating a more presidential form of government, by introducing a directly elected Commission president. Whichever reform path is favoured, the basic idea of increasing government clarity, by strengthening the link between individual voters and executive policies in the Union, remains the same. The practical problems underlying these changes are clearly large, and many remain sceptical that Europarties could truly resemble a national party system. Indeed, it seems to us that even if this vision of European political parties competing with each other for office at the European level did come to pass it would not by itself solve the fundamental problem of responsibility at the EU level without accountability. This is because it is unclear on what basis voters would evaluate any incumbent EU governing party. Are they concerned with the performance of the European Union as a whole, or do they focus on the outcomes at the national level? In a federal election in a federal state the expectation is that citizens will not primarily consider the performance of their own state, but rather the wider economy at the federal level. When somebody living in Kansas votes for or against the US President they are, in the main, considering unemployment in the US as a whole, and not merely unemployment in Kansas. When that same person votes for governor of their state they are more likely to consider unemployment in Kansas. Performance is relative.

The multi-nation European Union remains rather different. In the EU, citizens evaluate policymakers at all levels primarily on the basis of what they have done for their nation and not on the basis of what they have done for the prosperity of the Union as a whole. This may change in the long term, but since Europe still largely lacks the common identity and public sphere found in many federal states, it is unlikely to change radically in the foreseeable future. European citizens simply do not view events from a European vantage point; few voters care about performance at the European level. Until Greek voters care about unemployment across the whole of the EU, and not only in Greece, public evaluations will inevitably focus on performance at the national rather than at the European level. In that sense, unless people start to care not only about what the EU institutions can do for them and their nation, but also what these institutions can do for Europe as a whole, there seems little prospect of democratic accountability becoming a reality at the European level.

Blaming Europe? Responsibility without Accountability in the European Union (Oxford University Press), by Sara Hobolt and James Tilley will be published in early 2014.