Jun 25 2015

Eurobarometer surveys provide an important insight into the European Commission’s role as an agenda setter

By Markus HaverlandMinou de Ruiter and Steven Van de Walle

What passes for public opinion and public support in the European Union consists largely of the answers of European Union citizens to questions regularly posed to them in surveys commissioned and controlled by the European Commission. These ‘Eurobarometer’ surveys not only enquire about general problem perceptions and attitudes towards the EU (Standard Eurobarometers); but also include batteries of questions about specific policy topics, ranging from nuclear waste disposal to sex tourism, food safety and child care. These questions are built into comprehensive Eurobarometer ‘waves’, consisting of around 25,000 face-to-face interviews.

The results take the form of comprehensive reports of about 100 pages. There have been more than 400 of these so-called ‘Special Eurobarometers’ so far, and they are the key source of knowing what the ‘European’ public thinks about specific policy issues and the appropriate political level to deal with them. Individual Special Eurobarometers have aroused the interest of scholars working in specific policy areas, but to our knowledge no systematic mapping of these massive investments in gauging citizen opinion has taken place.

This is surprising for a number of reasons. First, from a normative perspective Special Eurobarometers could be perceived as an important link between the Commission and citizens. This link may become more relevant since diffuse support of the EU (the permissive consensus) has been replaced by politicisation and declining trust. Second, other instruments linking citizens and civil society to the EU, such as internet consultations, have received scholarly attention. Third, in strategic terms, the Commission can use public opinion data to build-up input legitimacy for new EU proposals. Yet, as the Commission is in the driving seat when selecting and dis-selecting topics, the Special Eurobarometer might not be the innocent instrument it appears at first glance.

In a recent LSE ‘Europe in Question’ discussion paper, we make a first effort to map and explore the policy topics that the European Commission invites public opinion on through Special Eurobarometers, and on which topics it does not. While we do not investigate the further usage of public opinion results in the policy process, we believe that our endeavour is important in its own right: Citizens’ opinions can only matter if they are measured in the first place.

Special Eurobarometers: development, topics and involved DGs

We have systematically analysed all of the Special Eurobarometers listed on the European Commission’s website (1970-2014). Two researchers, using the EU codebook of the Comparative Agenda Setting Project, independently coded the topics of each Eurobarometer. We observe a dramatic increase in the number of Special Eurobarometers over time. As Figure 1 below shows, from the 1980s on, each Commission has executed more Special Eurobarometers than its predecessors.

Figure 1: Number of Special Eurobarometers by Commission presidency (click to enlarge)

Source: European Commission (1970-2014); authors’ calculations.

For comparing the relative importance of different policy topics, it is difficult to establish a benchmark. We took the degree of policy competences at the EU level and compared the topics addressed in Special Eurobarometers to the division of competences in the Lisbon Treaty, which is admittedly a rather broad brushed approach. The table below illustrates these topics.

Table: Topics addressed in Special Eurobarometers mapped on division of competences in the Lisbon Treaty

Note: Topics marked with * are added by authors and not contained in TFEU.

We find a roughly curvilinear pattern with relatively less Special Eurobarometers in areas of far reaching EU competences and areas that clearly lie in the (sub) national domain. The lion’s share of Special Eurobarometers is conducted in areas of shared competences. Within this category, we counted more (and more recent) Special Eurobarometers in areas of recently acquired EU competences, such as freedom, security and justice, and public health, rather than in older ones like transport or energy. Cohesion policy, the area that most explicitly aims at redistribution is present only two times and there has never been a Special Eurobarometer on immigration.

Many topics cut across several Commission DGs, requiring coordination and potentially leading to conflict and bureaucratic politics. Therefore, it is worthwhile to assess which Directorates General actually requests information on public opinion. Figure 2 shows DGs varying starkly in their effort in this respect. DG Communication, DG Employment and Social Affairs and DG Health and Consumer Affairs commissioned almost half of all Special Eurobarometers. DGs focused on economic policy fields and on foreign affairs almost never invite the opinion of European citizens. A longitudinal perspective suggests DGs of more recent vintage and tasked with subjects that received treaty status relatively recently, are particularly eager to invite public opinion.

Figure 2: Special Eurobarometers by requesting DG

Source: European Commission (1970-2014); authors’ calculations.

Exploring the scope and content of Special Eurobarometers leads to interesting puzzles regarding the European Commission as an agenda setter. The fact that the European Commission inquires rarely into areas where competences are national fits the image of an institution that is both responsive and aware of competency limits. However, if the Commission is indeed responsive, why does it seldom ask for citizens’ opinions concerning policies in areas of exclusive EU competences? If on the contrary, the Commission is a competency maximiser, why does it display no stronger effort in national policy areas? Also, can the likelihood of “negative” results explain why the Commission eschews surveys on redistributive issues, which by definition involves “winners” and “losers”, and on immigration issues?

This post first appeared on the LSE’s EUROPP Blog.

Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of the Euro Crisis in the Press blog, nor of the London School of Economics.


Markus Haverland  is a Professor of Political Science in the Department of Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands and Fellow at the Montesquieu Institute in The Hague and the European Research Centre for Economic and Financial Governance (EURO-CEFG).

Minou de Ruiter is a Research Assistant and PhD candidate in the School of Governance at Utrecht University.

Steven Van de Walle is a Professor of Public Administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands. In addition, he is a Fellow of the Public Management Institute at K.U.Leuven, and a senior member of the Netherlands Institute of Government.

Related articles on LSE Euro Crisis in the Press:

“Something Olde, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue…”. On the twenty-eight separate European elections of 2014

Crisis Discourses in Europe: Media EU-phemisms and Alternative Narratives

Time for the 89ers to Defend Europe

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