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EU Actors Under Pressure: Politicisation and Depoliticisation as Strategic Responses

Edoardo Bressanelli (Sant’Anna School, Pisa & King’s College London), Christel Koop (King’s College London) & Christine Reh (Hertie School of Governance)

By Edoardo Bressanelli, Christel Koop & Christine Reh

As the unfolding coronavirus crisis powerfully shows, long gone are the days when EU decisions – including decisions not to act – left Europe’s citizens indifferent, and when the supranational was largely irrelevant for public opinion and electoral politics across the member states. Indeed, the current pandemic is only the last in a string of existential crises that have struck and unsettled the Union over a decade. These crises have politicised Europe, tested the endurance and survival of the supranational system to its core, and put EU-level actors under unprecedented pressure. Our Special Issue “EU Actors Under Pressure: Politicisation and Depoliticisation as Strategic Responses” explores how and why actors respond to the various, sometimes competing, ‘bottom up’ demands.

Our collection challenges the view – captured most prominently by the post-functionalist idea of a “constraining dissensus” – that domestic contestation necessarily limits EU-level room for manoeuvre. Strategic adaptation to the new, politically charged environment, we argue, opens space, too, for ‘enabling dissensus’. Actors may opt for self-restraint, but they may also seek to capitalise on pressures to advance their substantive goals, to expand their competences, and to bolster their long-term survival. As Frank Schimmelfennig argues in his contribution, EU-level actors have agency in response to bottom-up pressures, and they engage in “strategic politicisation management”.

In our introduction, we contend that actors will choose the response most likely to further their shared goal: the survival of the Union and, therefore, the long-term preservation (and, potentially, expansion) of their own powers. Behaviour at the supranational level, we argue, is based on how EU-level actors perceive and process the pressures from domestic politics. If acting ‘politically’ is acceptable for national political elites and the broader public, EU-level actors will attempt to politicise decision-making, behaviour or outcomes at the supranational level; if not, they will pursue depoliticisation strategies.

Depoliticisation strategies aim to ‘reclaim the shadow’ and to make new conflict over integration less visible and polarising. This is the case for the EU’s Court of Justice which, as Blauberger and Martinsen show in their contribution, engages in judicial self-restraint under high levels of contestation. This is also true, partially, for the European Commission, which, assertively, uses its power to withdraw legislation when facing domestic opposition (Reh, Bressanelli and Koop). Moreover, in the process of reforming the EU’s economic governance, Franchino and Mariotto point to a shift towards the more technocratic and implementation-focused supranational level.

By contrast, politicisation strategies are designed to move matters into the heart of politics. Hobolt and Wratil show that the Council of the EU shifts away from its consensual logic when policy issues are salient domestically; Moschella, Pinto and Martocchia Diodati observe that the European Central Bank, under conditions of domestic contestation, moves communication away from an exclusive focus on monetary policy. Bunea demonstrates that the Commission has recently increased openness and consultation beyond established stakeholders in inter-institutional negotiations, whilst Reh, Bressanelli and Koop find that an under-pressure Commission uses decisions not to withdraw legislation to pursue its own ‘responsive’ agenda. Finally, Kelemen explores a paradox of EU politicisation: a leader like Orban benefits from membership in the European People’s Party while consolidating his illiberal regime in Hungary. Growing Euroscepticism and the domestic politicisation of Europe do not necessarily lead to a stand-still. As our Special Issue shows, EU-level actors – facing intense pressure on the system they serve and on their own existence – choose differentiated strategic responses. Some limit and depoliticise EU action; others politicise and, even, empower the supranational level. As yet another crisis hits Europe, we will soon see which (de)politicisation strategies actors like the Commission and the ECB choose to pursue. ‘Business as usual’ would be a very risky and unlikely option indeed.

No match made in heaven: Parliamentary sovereignty, EU over-constitutionalization and Brexit

Susanna K. Schmidt (University of Bremen, photo credit: Lukas Klose)

The British electorate’s choice to leave the EU has been tied to a lack of European identity among the British public, high unemployment rates in some areas of the United Kingdom, as well as voters’ education and income. In her article “No match made in heaven: Parliamentary sovereignty, EU over-constitutionalization and Brexit” published as part of Journal of European Public Policy’s special issue on “The Brexit Policy Fiasco”, Susanne Schmidt argues that existing accounts explaining the Brexit referendum overlooked an important institutional factor. Susanne argues that the EU’s political system, riding on integration through European law interpreted and enforced by the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU), has always stood in stark contrast to the United Kingdom’s polity, with strong roots of parliamentary sovereignty and majoritarian decision-making. Focusing on one of the most politicized policy-fields in the context of the Brexit decision, Susanne traces how the CJEU’s case law gradually constitutionalised the EU’s policy-making on intra-EU migration, imposing limits on Member States’ majoritarian decision-making. Ironically, in light of its common-law tradition the United Kingdom’s administration ranked among the most effective compliers with EU law, magnifying the tension between EU law’s constraints on political decision-makers and the United Kingdom’s tradition of parliamentary sovereignty. Susanne’s analysis shows that recognizing the institutional mismatch between the EU’s and British political systems “is necessary to understand why ‘taking back control’ could resonate so easily with British voters.”

The threat of social decline: income inequality and radical right support radical right support

Sarah Engler (University of Zurich) & David Weisstanner (University of Oxford)

Recent research has sought to identify the drivers of the rise of radical right parties (RRPs) across Western democracies. Several observers point out that RRPs appeal to those who feel left behind in the course of globalisation, suggesting a link between rising income inequality and a surge in RRPs’ electoral prowess. In their article “The threat of social decline: income inequality and radical right support radical right support” recognized with the CES/JEPP Political Economy and Welfare Best Paper Prize 2019, Sarah Engler and David Weisstanner offer a novel perspective on the complex relationship between income inequality and voters’ support for RRPs. Increasingly unequal societies not only see a larger share of voters actually experience relative deprivation, voters higher up in the hierarchy also fear a steeper social decline. Sarah and David provide evidence from 14 OECD countries between 1987 and 2017 suggesting that RRPs’ stance against globalisation and rhetoric pitting natives against immigrants resonates particularly with middle-income workers concerned about protecting their status in the social hierarchy. Their analysis emphasizes the importance of looking beyond indicators of voters’ experience of actual decline, as “the voting behaviour of individuals higher up in the social hierarchy is even more crucial to understanding how income inequality fuels RRP support.”

Austerity and the path of least resistance: how fiscal consolidations crowd out long-term investments

Olivier Jacques (McGill University)

In the aftermath of economic crises and recession, fiscal austerity has been the measure of choice across many OECD countries. Against the backdrop of counter-cyclical spending and costly bailouts, governments need to make tough choices to keep their budget sheets balanced. In his article “Austerity and the path of least resistance: how fiscal consolidations crowd out long-term investments” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Olivier Jacques analyses how governments choose which types of state expenditure fall victim to fiscal austerity. Drawing on budget data from 17 OECD countries between 1980 and 2014, Olivier shows that governments implementing fiscal austerity programmes tend to protect policies that enjoy broad support among their constituencies, such as health care expenditures and pensions. On the flipside, expenditures delivering societal benefits exclusively in the future, including investments into infrastructure as well as research and development, are more likely to be scaled back in the course of fiscal austerity programmes. Olivier warns that governments’ tendencies to prioritize short-term benefits over policies producing long-term gains “reduces the proportion of public investments that would benefit future generations, generating concerns about intergenerational equity.”

Money, power, glory: the linkages between EU conditionality and state capture in the Western Balkans

Solveig Richter (University of Erfurt) & Natasha Wunsch (Sciences Po & ETH Zurich)

Over the past few years, EU candidate countries in the Western Balkans have gradually improved their formal compliance with the EU’s membership criteria. At the same time, democratisation in the region has stagnated at best. How can we explain patterns of decoupling between formal compliance and democratic transformation in the Western Balkans? In their article “Money, power, glory: the linkages between EU conditionality and state capture in the Western Balkans” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Solveig Richter and Natasha Wunsch identify informal, clientelist networks’ capture of political institutions as a formidable obstacle to the consolidation of democracy in the region. Solveig and Natasha argue that rather than countering state capture, EU conditionality involuntarily strengthened informal networks’ role instead. The weakening of political competition in the face of top-down conditionality and a liberalisation of markets have favoured a small ruling elite, whose interactions with EU officials have legitimized their influence in Western Balkans’ societies. Solveig and Natasha caution that “the current approach towards enlargement risks enabling and reinforcing informal networks by providing them with the resources to capture state institutions, undermine domestic mechanisms of accountability, and maintain their countries in a state of permanent hybridity.”

Unity in diversity? Polarization, issue diversity and satisfaction with democracy

Julian M. Hoerner (London School of Economics) & Sara B. Hobolt (London School of Economics)

Several recent studies have suggested that an increasing polarization of political views within a society is detrimental to voters’ satisfaction with democracy. Polarization may sour the political discourse and impede meaningful discussions among voters. However, voters may not only hold fundamentally diverging views on a number of political issues, but also disagree on which issues are important to them. In their article “Unity in diversity? Polarization, issue diversity and satisfaction with democracy” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Julian Hoerner and Sara Hobolt argue that the negative effects of polarization on voters’ satisfaction with democracy are moderated by the number of political issues they consider as important. Drawing on Eurobarometer survey data and estimates of the polarization of party systems in 31 European countries between 2003 and 2018, Julian and Sara show that negative associations between polarization and satisfaction with democracy are diminished when the political discourse is not dominated by a single or small number of issues. Julian and Sara argue that these “findings suggest that we can be less concerned with an increase in ideological polarization if it manifests itself across a number of cross-cutting issues.”

Turning out to turn down the EU: the mobilisation of occasional voters and Brexit

Lukas Rudolph (ETH Zurich)

In June 2016 more than 70 percent of eligible voters turned out to cast their ballot in the United Kingdom’s referendum on membership in the EU, far above turnout rates usually seen for the UK’s general and European elections. Did voters who would not usually make their way to the ballot box sway the outcome of the Brexit referendum? In his article “Turning out to turn down the EU: the mobilisation of occasional voters and Brexit” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Lukas Rudolph makes use of the fact that on the day of the referendum heavy rainfall in some of the UK’s regions induced occasional voters to stay at home. Comparing referendum results for regions with higher and lower turnout rates, Lukas shows that voters who would not usually turn out were more likely to vote in favour of Brexit. Drawing on survey data, he shows that occasional voters were not generally favouring Brexit. Instead, empirical evidence suggests that Leave-campaigners were more effective in mobilising occasional voters supportive of Brexit to turn up at the ballot box on referendum day. Drawing on these findings, Lukas concludes “that turnout is critical to understand electoral outcomes and policy choice in democracies, and even more so in single-issue referendums when partisan attachments are weak.”

What we don’t talk about when we talk about carbon markets

Oscar Fitch-Roy (University of Exeter & Warwick Business School), Jenny Fairbrass (University of East Anglia) & David Benson (University of Exeter)

By Oscar Fitch-Roy, Jenny Fairbrass & David Benson

As witnessed at the recent session of the climate change Conference of the Parties in Madrid (COP25), carbon markets dominate discussion about climate change policy.

At times, it can seem difficult to talk about anything else.

But if everyone is talking about carbon markets, what are they not talking about? In our article “Ideas, coalitions and compromise: reinterpreting EU-ETS lobbying through discursive institutionalism” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, we examine an episode of reform of the EU emissions trading system in order to reveal the role of policy discourse in shaping advocacy strategies.

We argue that between 2012 and 2015, reforms to the EU-ETS in order to avert its collapse were aided by environmentalists’ efforts to mobilise businesses in favour of tighter rules. By skilfully creating new norms of collaborative working, a diverse and influential coalition of interests was assembled which appears to have contributed to bringing about the reforms.

However, the article goes on to make a case that this ‘policy entrepreneurship’ was only possible by framing the potential failure of the EU-ETS as the overriding problem faced by EU climate policy, a departure from the typical scepticism about carbon markets within the environmental movement. The article highlights that the ‘win’ of tighter EU-ETS rules came at the ‘cost’ of accepting and amplifying the ‘technology-neutral’ narrative of climate change mitigation favoured by fossil-fuel interests in which decisions are ‘left to the market’. Finally, we point out that further entrenching the idea of ‘technology-neutrality’ within the policy discourse may have implications beyond the original campaign. One of these is to weaken the position of advocates for technology-specific policies such as renewable energy targets or energy efficiency. This observation is especially pertinent given the notable failure of carbon markets to bring about the change needed to tackle the climate crisis to-date and ongoing doubts about their ability ever to do so.

Do burqa bans make us safer? Veil prohibitions and terrorism in Europe

Nilay Saiya (Nanyang Technological University) & Stuti Manchanda (Nanyang Technological University)

In recent years, restrictions on the wearing of Islamic face veils have been implemented in several European states. Supporters of such restrictions often point out that the wearing of face veils prevents Muslim women from integrating into European societies, thus creating populations vulnerable to radicalization. Further, some perceive the Islamic face veil as a symbol associated with terrorism or even a physical threat. In their article “Do burqa bans make us safer? Veil prohibitions and terrorism in Europe” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Nilay Saiya and Stuti Manchanda offer evidence that bans on face veils do not foster national security. To the contrary Nilay and Stuti’s analysis of panel data for 28 European states between 2003 and 2017 shows that states which had restricted the wearing of Islamic face veils were more likely to experience terrorist events in response. Nilay and Stuti argue that rather than aiding cultural assimilation, limitations on religious dress engender grievances among Muslim populations and may even provoke violent backlash. Bans on face veils thus appear ill-suited to achieved their desired effect, ensuring national security. Nilay and Stuti’s findings underscore that “[i]t is important for governments to consider not only the human rights implications of restricting religious expression and women’s rights in the name of combatting terrorism, but the social, political and economic consequences as well.”

More Catholic than the Pope? Europeanisation, industrial policy and transnationalised capitalism in Eastern Europe

Visnja Vukov (Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

When several Central and Eastern European (CEE) states joined the EU in the mid-2000s, some observers feared that Europeanisation of national policies would remain shallow among the union’s latest members. Expecting compliance on paper only and poor implementation rates, institutional and policy changes would fail to be locked-in and remain at risk of reversal. Recent signs of resurging economic nationalism in some CEE states appear to confirm these fears. In her article “More Catholic than the Pope? Europeanisation, industrial policy and transnationalised capitalism in Eastern Europe” published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Visnja Vukov challenges these assessments by zooming in on national industrial policies. Visnja shows that CEE states have embraced horizontal state aid policies favoured by the EU and record even better compliance rates with EU state aid regulations than their Western neighbours. She attributes this somewhat puzzling pattern of ‘deep’ Europeanisation of industrial policies in CEE states to EU pre-accession conditionality and EU-led efforts to support institution-building. Visnja concludes that “[t]ogether, these elements played a key role in shifting domestic developmental strategies towards FDI-oriented ones, and building capacities for EU compliant industrial policies.”