Serguei Kaniovski and Dennis C. Mueller assess the notion that a ‘democratic deficit’ exists in the EU by examining how well MEPs represent the preferences of their citizens in the European Parliament. They find that there is no strong link between citizen preferences and voting in the Parliament, with MEPs voting largely in accordance with their own views, not those of their constituents. This has implications for the EU’s democratic legitimacy, particularly if the powers of the Parliament are strengthened as part of a solution to the Eurozone crisis.
In July of 2009, the German Constitutional Court rejected the Lisbon Treaty on the grounds that it gave the EU too much control over German affairs, and that the EU is not sufficiently democratic. More specifically, the Court argued that the European Parliament (EP) is not a proper legislature. The Constitutional Court is not the first to complain about a “democratic deficit” in the EU, but it is certainly one of the more authoritative voices lodging this critique. Is the charge justified? Our findings suggest that the link between citizen preferences and votes in the EP is not strong, and thus concern about a democratic deficit is justified.
One reason to fear that the connection between citizens’ preferences and voting in the EP may be weak is that elections for the EP do not serve the same purpose as elections to national parliaments. They do not reward parties for good past performance, or punish them for bad performance. Instead, they mainly serve as vehicles for voters to express their satisfaction or frustration with the parties in power in their national parliaments. Thus, while the punishments and rewards associated with national elections tend to align voting in national parliaments with citizens’ preferences, the same may not be true of EP elections.
Consider two possible distributions of citizens’ preferences with respect to EU questions. (I) All citizens in a given country have the same preferences toward EU legislation, but they differ from the preferences of citizens in another EU country, in which all citizens again have identical preferences. When EU issues take this form, all delegates from a county should vote in the same way, if they vote in accordance with the preferences of citizens in their countries. (II) Citizens’ preferences within countries are heterogeneous. Accurate representation of their preferences requires divisions in the votes of each country’s delegation.
Note here that the Council of the EU would be a good vehicle for representing citizens’ preferences, if they took the first form. Council members could represent all of their citizens on EU issues, since all have the same preferences. If, on the other hand, citizens’ preferences are heterogeneous within countries, then the Council is a bad way to represent these preferences, since representatives of the national governments can be expected to represent only the preferences of voters who supported them. Moreover, since most EU legislation now requires the concurrence of both the Council and the EP, we can conclude that at least one of these bodies will not be accurately representing the preferences of the citizens who elected them.
The logic underlying our empirical investigation is as follows: if the preferences of citizens in two countries (country pairs) are identical, their delegations must vote identically in the EP to represent these preferences accurately. Thus, we seek to explain differences in the percentages of yes votes between country pairs. There are many factors that might explain why Germans have different preferences toward EU policies than Italians – differences in income, education, ideology, etc. We assume that these differences are stable, and thus that all of the underlying differences, which explain why two delegations vote differently, can be captured simply by identifying the two countries. We also included measures of the ideologies of the members of a country’s delegation, its division among the different parties, and various country characteristics like GDP per capita as explanatory variables.
Our empirical tests used data on roll call votes in the EP from 1979 through 2004. As expected a large fraction of the differences in voting between country pairs could by explained simply by identifying the issue voted upon – some issues elicit consensus others are divisive. The key variable capturing the underlying differences between a county pair, on the other hand, produced only modest increases in explanatory power for the pooled sample of all votes, and in 10 of the 11 categories of voting into which the sample was divided. The lone exception was for votes on issues regarding EU enlargement. Knowledge of the country differences in this category more than doubled the explanatory power of the model. Thus, with the exception of votes related to EU enlargement our results imply a rather weak correspondence between the underlying citizen preferences in a country and the way its delegation to the EP votes. We conjecture that the exceptional case arises, because issues involving EU expansion are more salient for EU citizens, and knowing this their delegates to the EU represent citizens’ preferences more faithfully on these issues.
Further support for the conclusion that members of the EP vote according to their own preferences and not those of their constituents was provided by the results for the measures of ideology. We found strong positive relationships between the ideologies of the delegates from a country and how they voted – delegates did vote according to their own preferences. Again, however, there was an interesting exception for votes on EU expansion. The more pro-EU a country’s delegation was, the more likely it was to vote against its own ideology, presumably because its citizens were less pro-EU than the delegates.
One response to the ongoing Eurozone crisis has been a call for greater economic, financial, and political integration. The latter usually implies more powers for the EP. At the same time citizen surveys report growing disenchantment with the EU in many countries, and concern about a democratic deficit in the EU. Our findings suggest caution in handing over more power to the EP lest the size of the democratic deficit increase. The EP may in many ways behave like a well-functioning national parliament, but differences in how delegations to the EP vote do not have a strong relationship to underlying differences between the countries they represent, including differences in their citizens’ preferences.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Serguei Kaniovski – Austrian Institute of Economic Research
Serguei Kaniovski is an Economist at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) in Vienna. His main research interest lies in the field of probabilistic modeling of voting behavior, measurement of voting power and collective expertise in committees. He has published a number of theoretical and applied papers in the areas of public choice and voting theory.
Dennis C. Mueller
Dennis C. Mueller is Professor Emeritus at the University of Vienna. Previous appointments include the University of Maryland, Cornell University and the Science Center Berlin. His research is concentrated in the areas of public choice and industrial organization.