The role of the European Commission in the EU’s policy process is often cited by Eurosceptic actors as one of the main problems with EU democracy. But how responsive is the Commission to the views of European citizens? Presenting findings from a new study, Christopher J. Williams and Shaun Bevan find evidence that the Commission is likely to increase its policy activity during periods when the public is more Eurosceptic, and decrease its policy activity when the public is more positive toward the EU.

Much of the anti-EU rhetoric heard today focuses on the lack of democratic legitimacy of the European Union. Eurosceptics claim that policy-making in the EU is made by unelected bureaucrats who pay little attention to the preferences of the public. Indeed, the nomination by the European Council of Ursula von der Leyen, who was not originally put forth as one of the Spitzenkandidaten, for the presidency of the European Commission has highlighted the “democratic deficit” that many Eurosceptics have talked about for years.

As Eurosceptic parties on both the right and the left gain traction, this rhetoric grows stronger. Thus, it is important to dig into these claims. In a recent study, we do just this, testing whether the European Commission responds to public attitudes regarding the European Union, and if so, how.

The European Commission is a particularly important institution in the EU. Not only is it the point of legislative genesis (all legislation passed by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament must begin in the European Commission), but it also maintains a significant amount of power through the use of unilateral legal acts. That is, the Commission has been given the power to shape certain public policy through implementing acts, which tell member states how to put EU policies into action, and delegated acts, which amend existing policies passed by the Council of Ministers and European Parliament. We refer to these types of acts as unilateral legal acts.

We examined whether public attitudes towards the EU (negativity, positivity, and neutrality) influence Commission usage of unilateral acts. A finding that a decrease in Commission output of unilateral acts when the public is more negative towards the EU (i.e. Eurosceptic), and an increase in output of unilateral acts when the public is more positive towards the EU (i.e. Europhillic) would indicate that the Commission is responding in the normatively expected way in a democracy. This would imply that the “democratic deficit” may not be as pronounced as previously believed. However, a finding that the Commission does not respond in this way may suggest a democratic failing.

We posited two theoretical arguments regarding Commission responsiveness to public attitudes regarding the EU. The first of these suggests that the Commission will reduce unilateral legal act adoption when the public is more Eurosceptic, and will increase it when the public is more Europhilic. The causal mechanism behind this expectation is the desire of the Commission to maintain legitimacy. As an unelected body, the Commission needs to signal, not just to the public, but also member state governments, that they care about public preferences. Thus, giving the public more policy when the public is more positive towards the EU and less when the public is more negative towards the EU provides that signal and produces greater legitimacy.

The second theoretical argument, however, suggests that the Commission will increase unilateral legal act adoption when the public is more Eurosceptic, and decrease it when the public is more Europhilic. While this might seem counterintuitive, this expectation is grounded in the idea of responsibility trading between institutions of the European Union. Previous research has established that the more democratically accountable institutions of the EU (the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament) respond in the normatively expected way, decreasing policy output when the public is more Eurosceptic and increasing policy output when the public is more Europhilic. This response by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament actually creates a policy vacuum. Put simply, Council and EP inaction leads to legislative gridlock. In order to overcome this gridlock, the Commission increases unilateral legal act adoption. When the legislative gridlock lessens, as a result of increasing Europhilia, unilateral legal acts are less necessary. Thus, the Commission reduces unilateral legal act adoption.

We tested these two competing hypotheses using Error Correction Modelling to examine the effect of EU wide public Europhilia, Euroscepticism, and neutrality on the number of unilateral adoptions of Commission directives and regulations. Our findings were remarkably robust. When the public was more Europhilic in the previous semester (t-1) the Commission decreased the issuance of unilateral legal acts. Similarly, when the public grew more Europhilic between the previous (t-1) and current (t) semesters the Commission decreased the adoption of unilateral legal acts (see the bold results in Model 1 in Table 1). These findings were substantively significant as well. An increase of 1 percentage point in public support for the EU led to a drop in the number of legal acts unilaterally adopted by the Commission of about 17.

Table 1: Effect of public opinion on unilateral Commission legal act adoption

Note: Standard Errors are in parentheses; * p<0.1; ** p<0.05; *** p<0.01

Additionally, while the level of public Euroscepticism in the previous semester (t-1), and the increase in public Euroscepticism between the previous (t-1) and current semester (t) did not result in a statistically significant change in the number of unilateral legal acts adopted by the Commission (see Model 2 in Table 1), we did find an effect for public neutrality. Specifically, we found that when the public was one percentage point more neutral towards the EU in the previous semester (t-1) the Commission increased unilateral legal act adoption by nearly 28 (see Model 3 in Table 1).

These findings appear to support the theoretical argument grounded in responsibility trading. In order to examine this theoretical mechanism more thoroughly, we included two variables to directly measure legislative gridlock, the change (Δ) in the legislative output of the Council of Ministers and the overall level of legislative output of the Council of Ministers in the previous semester (t-1).

What we found supports even further the responsibility trading theory. When these two variables are included we find that in all cases the substantive effect of public attitudes towards the EU on Commission unilateral legal act adoption decreases substantially, and in some cases, statistical significance disappears (see Table 2). Put differently, when we control for legislative gridlock, the Commission is less responsive to public opinion. This suggests strongly that the effect of public opinion on the unilateral adoption of legal acts by the Commission runs through legislative gridlock, and thus we find substantial support for the responsibility trading theory.

Table 2: Effect of public opinion on unilateral Commission legal act adoption including control for legislative gridlock

Note: Standard Errors are in parentheses; * p<0.1; ** p<0.05; *** p<0.01

The question now becomes, what does all of this mean for democratic legitimacy in the European Union? On its face, this suggests that there may be a democratic failing in the EU. After all, when elected officials (the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament) respond to the public, the unelected officials (the European Commission) appear to do the exact opposite of what the public wants. Of course, the answer to this question is not so simple. It appears that the Commission is filing a void left by legislative inaction, but we do not know if the Commission is filing that void to the same level as it would be through legislative action. Thus, the next step in our research is to examine whether Commission unilateral legal acts are as large in scope and far-reaching as legislative policies.

For more information, see the authors’ recent article in European Union Politics

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: CC BY 4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP

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About the authors

Christopher J. Williams – University of Arkansas
Christopher J. Williams is an Assistant Professor in the School of Public Affairs (Political Science) at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Shaun Bevan – University of Edinburgh
Shaun Bevan is a Senior Lecturer in Quantitative Political Science at the University of Edinburgh.

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