The EU’s bureaucracy is a frequent target for criticism across Europe. Drawing on new research, Jan Vogler demonstrates that negative views of EU bureaucrats are strongly tied to citizens’ experiences with their domestic bureaucratic institutions.
When Eurosceptics are asked which aspect of the European Union they dislike most, they often refer to its bureaucracy. The EU has frequently been portrayed as being “dominated by a single giant bureaucracy” and one often hears that EU governance is equal to governance through “unelected bureaucrats”. Although this notion has been debunked many times and is contradictory to the EU’s true polycentric character, both the belief that the EU has a “giant administrative apparatus” and the opposition to this apparatus are widespread and deeply rooted across the continent.
There are two striking aspects of this rejection of EU bureaucracy. First, in comparison with other, comparable entities, such as the US federal bureaucracy, the EU’s administrative apparatus has a marginal size. Specifically, the EU, which is responsible for more than 440 million citizens, employs only around 60,000 people, while the US federal bureaucracy has more than two million employees that govern a territory with about 330 million inhabitants. Accordingly, the EU bureaucracy is comparatively small and far from being the “bureaucratic monster” which it is frequently portrayed as.
Second, in light of the marginal size of the EU bureaucracy, one must wonder how people develop their opinions about this public administrative organisation. Certainly, simplistic portrayals in tabloid newspapers opposed to European integration play a role here, but hardly any EU citizens ever engage with the EU bureaucracy in practice. Except for the residents of Brussels, Luxembourg and Frankfurt, we would not expect anyone to have regular interactions with the EU’s administrative apparatus. There is also a clear lack of detailed and reliable substantive reporting about the EU bureaucracy. Given these circumstances, how can we explain the very strong attitudes many citizens hold about the topic?
The role of heuristics
In a recent study, I argue that heuristics play an essential role in shaping people’s view of the EU bureaucracy. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that allow humans to make quick judgements in a broad variety of situations. Their role in human decision-making was most famously explored by the pioneering authors Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann, whose work sparked the emergence of a broad scientific literature. In line with some perspectives in this literature, I suggest that, with respect to citizens’ views of the EU bureaucracy, a variation of the so-called representativeness heuristic may be at work.
What role does this heuristic play in the formation of citizens’ attitudes? Most European citizens have quite comprehensive experience with and information about domestic bureaucracies. This is true for both the local and national levels. Specifically, they often directly interact with local public administrations, observe the quality of public services and receive comprehensive information about the successes and failures of domestic bureaucracies through the media and the reports of friends and family members. These wide-ranging experiences allow citizens to form a clear picture of what a “prototypical” bureaucracy looks like.
Although the EU bureaucracy exhibits a range of substantive organisational differences when compared to most domestic bureaucracies, heuristics may lead citizens to believe that their experiences with domestic institutions are a proper template to assess the EU bureaucracy as well.
Thus, when asked for their opinion of the EU bureaucracy, many people likely transfer their prototypical image and evaluations of the qualities of domestic bureaucracies to the EU public administration. This means that if citizens believe their domestic bureaucracy is corrupt, they will be more likely to believe that the EU bureaucracy is corrupt as well. Moreover, if citizens have high levels of trust in their domestic public administration, they might also have more trust in the EU’s public administrative apparatus.
To empirically test if such heuristics can explain variation in perceptions of the EU bureaucracy, I gathered survey data in Romania. Romania is an ideal case to study this question for various reasons. Among others, it is geographically distant from the EU’s administrative institutions, which effectively prevents most of its citizens from ever interacting with its bureaucratic employees in practice. Additionally, the country has a mix of pro- and anti-European citizens and exhibits significant regional variation in the quality of administrative institutions. Specifically, in many municipalities, corruption is a serious problem, which means that citizens there have wide-ranging first-hand experiences with corrupt bureaucracies.
My empirical analysis reveals two important patterns. First, evaluations of domestic bureaucracies are extremely strong predictors of attitudes toward the EU bureaucracy. People who evaluate domestic bureaucracies as corrupt and untrustworthy are much more likely to view the EU bureaucracy as corrupt and untrustworthy as well (which cannot plausibly be explained by concrete information about the EU bureaucracy). Moreover, it is perceptions of domestic central bureaucracies in particular that affect attitudes toward the EU bureaucracy. One inference we may draw from the latter fact is that the EU bureaucracy is seen as more similar to the central domestic public administration than local public administrations.
What lessons can we draw from these findings?
In line with my theory, these findings point to the key role that heuristics play in shaping people’s attitudes toward the EU. A reason for this key role is that many citizens do not have concrete substantive knowledge of the European Union and its administrative institutions. Heuristics only need to be applied in the absence of such detailed knowledge. Thus, a potential solution to breaking the observed patterns could be to provide more comprehensive and reliable information about the EU bureaucracy to citizens through public educational institutions or other means.
In general, my findings regarding the application of the representativeness heuristic, connect to an influential literature in EU studies that has explored similar themes in the past. Among others, prominent EU scholars have suggested that domestic “cues” or “proxies” play a key role in forming attitudes to the EU. Additionally, Catherine de Vries has presented a benchmark theory that suggests that people engage in complex two-sided evaluations of domestic and EU institutions, which are related to the use of heuristics as well.
All in all, the main insight that my study adds to this burgeoning literature in EU studies is that views of and experiences with domestic bureaucratic institutions are of central importance for forming attitudes toward the EU bureaucracy, which is possibly the most disliked – yet least well known – aspect of EU integration. If politicians and policymakers want to break this detrimental use of heuristics, they need to ensure that citizens have easy access to reliable, high-quality information about what the EU bureaucracy does for them. Without such access, negative stereotypes will continue to flourish and continue to determine public perceptions of essential EU institutions.
For more information, see the authors’ accompanying article in the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy (JPIPE).