Europe’s Complicated Democracy

Europeans are heading to the polls now in one of the world’s largest and most complicated democratic experiments. Moreover, these European elections are probably the most consequential we have seen since Europeans started voting directly for members of the European Parliament in 1979. This is a good opportunity to think hard about how Europeans are represented, how they make their decisions about voting, and what kind of Europe is on offer. Three recent books suggest new and important lines of argument. Christina Schneider shows that much of the responsiveness of Europe to the voters actually takes place through the Council of the European Union; Jennifer Fitzgerald reveals how votes on the extremes are more likely to be local than national, even if they have an anti-European tinge to them; and Sergio Fabbrini argues that many of the tensions we see surrounding the European project could be resolved if we just changed the way we think about constitutional federalism. These arguments are challenging and sophisticated in ways that much of the commentary that surrounds the European elections tends not to be; they are also counterintuitive. Now that everyone is focused on Europe, it is a good time for some well-grounded, lateral thinking.


Representation and responsiveness

Let’s start with the most important claim about the nature of European democracy, which is that the European Union may be more democratic – or at least more responsive to democratic pressures – than you think. The reason lies in the intergovernmental bargaining that takes place in the Council of Ministers (or, more accurately, the Council of the European Union). The national politicians who come together to make decisions are all elected, or at least their coalitions are elected. Hence, they have an incentive to demonstrate that they are pursuing the interests of the voters they represent. In an ideal world, they would secure policies that work to the advantage of their electorates. At a minimum, they have an incentive to delay any policy decisions likely to go against their voters’ interests until some quiet moment between elections. ‘Democratic responsiveness’ lies at the juxtaposition of the signaling, bargaining, and delaying tactics used by national representatives. This is perhaps not as elegant as having an all-powerful European Parliament, but it is more realistic given the central role of national politics and it is more democratic than the usual tropes about Brussels bureaucrats.

The challenge is to come up with some way of demonstrating that this more optimistic view of democratic responsiveness corresponds with how the politics that surrounds the Council. Christina Schneider uses an array of analytic strategies to accomplish that objective. She starts by introducing a parsimonious theory of democratic responsiveness in a European context. She deploys experimental techniques to show that the voters are paying attention. And then she uses a series of statistical models and datasets to suggest the implications of her argument as they play out in multi-annual budget negotiations and in the more general legislative process. She also sets out case studies based in part on interviews with many of the participants to show how the budget negotiations evolved in the early 2000s under the shadow of Europe’s historic enlargement and how the Germans failed to slow down the bailout required at the start of the Greek sovereign debt crisis. The conclusion she offers is that politicians can try to be responsive, but that does not mean either they or the voters always get what they want. Democracy at the European level is as imperfect as everywhere else.

Schneider’s argument is impressive both in terms of the simplicity of the message and in terms of the sophistication of the data collection and analysis. This book is sure to become a touchstone in debates about Europe’s ‘democratic deficit’. Even so, however, the argument raises questions. To begin with, Schneider focuses her large-scale statistical analysis on national elections, but her case study on Greece hinges on the regional elections in North-Rhine Westphalia. That case study also included two very different German governments – a grand coalition that existed until national elections in September 2019 and a center-right coalition that came after. These governments had opposite perspectives on Greek finances, but it was the German Social Democratic finance minister facing national elections who chose in February 2019 to signal his support for a backstop. How do we know ex ante which contests matter and why did the politician facing the national poll go against the expectations of the model?

Another set of questions concerns the role of elections to the European Parliament. These are elections that involve all member states and where we would expect European policy issues to be most salient. They are also elections that create a natural break in the legislative process associated not only with the changeover in parliaments but also the appointment of a new Commission. If Schneider’s model is correct, these events should show particularly high levels of democratic responsiveness. The late Peter Mair (cited by Schneider) worried that they did not. It would be useful to know if he was right. Democracy in the Council is important, but a responsive European Parliament is even more so.


Extremism is not European, but local

The risk, of course, is that the European Parliament will respond to the voters in ways that many pro-Europeans do not want. Certainly, that risk has captured the popular attention in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliamentary elections. Along the way, however, many analysts have committed a fallacy of aggregation – they look at the size of the protest vote across Europe and worry that it is pointed in some coherent direction. That is not a new analytical problem, but it is an important one. When we worry about the future of European democracy, we tend to focus on the European or national levels. Nevertheless, the local level may be more important. Support for radical groups varies significantly from one locality to the next. Such variation is hard to explain exclusively with macroeconomic or macro-political variables. The composition of support within localities varies as well. Often that compensation varies in ways that cannot be explained using the stories we tell about whole parties. The ‘losers from globalization’ is not a compelling thesis for explaining the attachment of left-leaning women to new radical right parties, for example.

Jennifer Fitzgerald has an explanation for this localized variation in support. She argues that emotional attachment to local community is an important component in support for the new radical right. Indeed, such attachment is a strong predictor of support among left-leaning women who support groups like the Rally for the Nation in France or the Swiss People’s Party. Moreover, we can see the influence of that emotional attachment on national electoral results whenever local issues come to the fore. In practice this means that countries which run their national and local electoral contests closely together are likely to see more support for parties on the radical right in national elections that cannot be explained using the standard ‘losers from globalization’ story.

Fitzgerald’s argument is subtle, and she qualifies it in at least three important ways. The first qualification is explicit. Fitzgerald makes it clear that emotional attachment to the local community is not the same as local involvement. On the contrary, the more people are involved in local affairs, the less likely they are to support new radical right parties. In this sense, the ‘local ties’ that Fitzgerald emphasizes belong to an ‘imagined local community’ (borrowing from Benedict Anderson) rather than to real people or institutions. The other two qualifications are implicit. To begin with, ideas do not cause ideas. That is why the word ‘predictor’ is so important in the previous paragraph. Fitzgerald can show in her statistical models that some ideas tend to cluster together – like left-leaning, emotional attachment, and support for new radical right – in some demographic groups – in this case, women – but not why these clusters are so common. Finally, these idea clusters do not capture large numbers of people. The standard stories for new radical right support explain most of the variation across localities within countries and from one country to the next. Nevertheless, Fitzgerald’s argument unlocks important variation that the standard stories do not.

In the current electoral climate in Europe, even small unexplained variations in support can be decisive. Emmanuel Macron only led in the first round of the 2017 French presidential elections by a narrow margin; the differences across political parties in the Dutch parliament are even smaller. Moreover, the cluster of ideas that Fitzgerald identifies also includes a strong anti-European Union sentiment. Here Fitzgerald’s research set up may even suggest a causal argument. She finds the cluster to be strongest ‘in areas with either high levels of local autonomy or areas that recently lost such autonomy’ (p. 162). This finding suggests that the source of the cluster may be a threat to local status, whether imagined or real. Such a threat can come from many sources, among which immigration is only one and perhaps not even the most important (p. 171). This is all the more encouragement for scholars researching democratic responsiveness in Europe (like Christina Schneider, see previous review) to think creatively about ways to take subnational levels of democratic politics into account.


There is a better Europe

The anti-European thread Fitzgerald identifies in local protest voting is sometimes hard to unpack. The paradox surrounding the European project is that the institutions have succeeded in navigating an unprecedented crisis that has unfolded across multiple policy dimensions; Europe’s heads of state and government have engaged in a flurry of initiatives that have pushed the project forward; and yet popular attitudes toward Europe have deteriorated nonetheless. Worse, the mainstream political parties that have traditionally supported the European project have ceded electoral ground to a rash of nationalist populist or populist nationalist alternatives. Relations between the member states have grown ever tenser and more contentious. Even without the spectacle of Britain’s departure, there is a palpable sense of crisis. The question is whether and how proponents of ‘Europe’ can shore up its institutions and membership so that the project does not run aground.

Sergio Fabbrini believes he has found an answer. The solution is to distinguish between the European Union’s two main patterns of decision making, one intergovernmental and the other supranational. In the current arrangement, the two patterns overlap with supranational institutions managing most of market-making institutions during normal times and the intergovernmental institutions tackling more contentious matters both in substantive terms, like taxation and foreign policy, and in times of crisis. The problem, Fabbrini argues, is that the recent crisis upset the European Union’s delicate constitutional balance. Yes, European heads of state and government created an impressive array of new institutions, but they also entrenched the practices associated with intergovernmental decision making. This new emphasis on intergovernmentalism has overridden the European Union’s horizontal checks and balances and so made it easier for larger countries to dominate what are supposed to be deliberative forums through the exercise of power politics. It is small wonder, therefore, that many weaker member states have become disenchanted both with the process of decision making and with the distribution of burdens that get agreed through the policy process.

Fabbrini believes we can rectify this situation by decoupling the supranational and intergovernmental constitutional arrangements. Drawing upon the experience of federalism in the United States and Switzerland, Fabbrini argues that the European Union should split into a large and relatively loose common market governed by supranational institutions, and a smaller but more intense federal union that could divide sovereignty between the member states and ‘Europe’. This federal union would not aspire to statehood in the Westphalian sense, and neither would it aim to replace national identities. Nevertheless, it would have authority over key policy domains that would require legitimation across the whole of its participants. This way, Fabbrini concludes, those countries that strive only for the economic benefits of membership could be released from the obligations of political union, while those countries that share a view on ‘Europe’ as a political objective could move toward an ever-closer union.

Fabbrini’s argument is both innovative and, in many respects, persuasive. The central problem is the relationship between Brexit and the internal market. The British objected not to monetary union or even migration policy so much as they objected to regulations from Brussels and freedom of movement. Fabbrini tries to resist the parallel by distinguishing between sovereigntists in Britain and those on the Continent (p. 60), by highlighting Britain’s unique history of ‘self-sufficiency’ (p. 71), and by ascribing British scepticism of Europe to ‘the idiosyncrasies of an island’ (p. 130). He may be right. But experience with ‘beyond-the-border’ trade negotiations suggests that market integration is no longer a matter of ‘low domestic political salience’ (p. 24). Meanwhile tensions in the Franco-German relationship suggest there may be fundamental disagreement over Europe’s political goals. The ‘decoupling’ Fabbrini advocates is a creative solution, but it may not be enough to address the European Union’s underlying problems.


The Responsive Union: National Elections and European Governance. By Christina J. Schneider. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

Close to Home: Local Ties and Voting Radical Right in Europe. By Jennifer Fitzgerald. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Europe’s Future: Decoupling and Reforming. By Sergio Fabbrini. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


These book reviews were originally published in Survival. You can download the edited version of these reviews here.