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Simon Hix: Limited democratic politics

“What is missing is the substantive content of democracy: a battle for control of political power and the policy agenda at the European level.”


Simon Hix is Professor of European and comparative politics at the London School of Economics. His book, The Political System of the European Union, first published in 1999, is basic reading for students of European politics. Most of Hix’s papers can be downloaded from his website.

There are widespread claims that the EU is not democratic enough: that European integration has led to an increase in executive power at the expense of national parliamentary control; that the European Parliament is too weak; that the EU is too distant from voters; and that European policies, including enlargement, are not what EU citizens want.

In his most recent book, What’s wrong with the European Union and how to fix it, Simon Hix argues that these standard claims about the EU’s democratic deficit are largely wrong. Except for one: that neither political office nor the direction of EU policies are subject to democratic electoral contest. In order to address this, Hix proposes to introduce what he calls “limited democratic politics.”

In order to fully understand his argument, we need to start with what Hix thinks are the EU’s three major problems: policy gridlock, collapse of popular legitimacy, and democratic deficit.

First, the current policy gridlock has arisen because the policy agenda of the EU has shifted from integration and the creation of a common market towards economic reform.

“The key thing to understand about the internal market project is that the reason the EU was able to pass more than 300 pieces of legislation in this period was that there was a very large range of policies that all the key actors were willing to accept since the alternative, of not having a working internal market in a wide range of goods and services, was so undesirable.”

Since the late 1990s, the main debate in the EU is the liberalisation (and extent thereof) of the internal market. As a result, changes now mean moving the system leftwards or rightwards on the political ideological axis. Unlike the creation of the internal market, this is bound to produce opposition. While the construction of the market was in everyone’s interest, changing the system is liable to produce both winners and losers.

Second, Hix points to a “dramatic collapse of popular legitimacy of the EU” since the early 1990s. For a decade now the percentage of Europeans who think their country’s membership in the EU is “a good thing” has hovered at or just above 50 percent. (Andrew Moravcsik points out that most of the remainder are “neutral” and only 14% have a negative perception of the EU.) Hix thinks this is because Europeans are now more knowledgeable about the EU and make their own judgements about the costs and benefits of membership.

“Citizens who perceive that they gain new economic opportunities from market integration in Europe tend to support the EU, while citizens who perceive that market integration threatens their economic interests tend to oppose the EU. Moreover, citizens who feel that EU policies (such as social and environmental regulations) are closer to their personal political views than their current national policies are likely to support the EU, while citizens who feel that EU policies are further from their personal political views than their current national policies are likely to oppose the EU.”

Public relations will not change this, says Hix. The same EU policy decision will win the support of one group of EU citizens and draw the opposition of another. In a typical political system, those opposed to a particular policy move will usually blame the government. When it comes to the EU, however, they are liable to blame the political system as a whole.

This brings Hix to his third point: the EU’s “democratic deficit”. Though he dispenses with many of the standard criticisms of the EU’s democratic shortcomings, Hix does deplore the lack of competition for the control of political authority at the European level. The president of the European Commission is chosen by secret horse-trading between the heads of the member states.

“The election of the Commission President is closer to the election of a pope – who emerges from a secret conclave of cardinals – than to an open and competitive battle.”

European Parliament elections have very little to do with Europe, argues Hix. For most voters, what is at stake at the national level is much greater than what is at stake at the European level.

“There is an extremely weak connection between voters’ choices in national and European Parliament elections and the policy outcomes at the European level… What is missing is the substantive content of democracy: a battle for control of political power and the policy agenda at the European level, between rival groups of leaders with rival policy platforms.”

The EU’s current institutional framework, says Hix, is ripe for an injection of “limited democratic politics”. Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) is on the rise. The Council now passes about half of the legislation by QMV. The European Parliament has now more power in co-decision procedures and MEPs already vote much more along party lines than national lines.

“The institutional and behavioural prerequisites for limited democratic politics in the EU already exist. On the institutional side, as a result of the treaty reforms since the 1980s, a broad majority coalition can dominate EU policy-making. A coalition of governments in the Council and political parties in the European Parliament has the potential to appoint a clearly left-wing or right-wing Commission President and then pass the legislative proposals of the Commission. This is how politics works in all democratic systems and is how politics could work at the European level.”

Hix proposes the following concrete changes.

The European Parliament, he argues, should move from a fully proportional to a “winner-takes-more” model. Instead of the two big European caucuses sharing the presidency for 2½ years each, the EP President could be elected for a full five year term. Committee chairs could also be allocated increasingly to those parties that secure the greatest share of the vote. “Which European party ‘won’ the elections would matter for the first time.”

“Despite the recent changes, the Council is still probably the most secretive legislative chamber anywhere in the democratic world,” Hix maintains. That said, all of the Council’s legislative documents should be made accessible to the public, as should all of its legislative deliberations. Hix also proposes to restrict amendment rights to coalitions of governments and to put all decisions to a vote and record the votes in the minutes.

Finally, Hix suggests an open contest for the president of the European Commission. While the selection process has become more political, it still happens behind closed doors.

“The ‘election’ of the Commission President – and it is an election, regardless of the procedure – will not be a democratic process unless it is clear what each of the potential candidates stands for, in terms of what he or she intends to do if elected, and which national government and party leaders back which candidates.”

Proposals to this effect have not made it into the Lisbon Treaty. However, Hix suggests, it is enough for a number of national party leaders, government leaders and party leaders in the European Parliament to take the initiative and change the process. Groups of national party leaders should declare their support for a specific candidate before the EP elections. Once one group proposes a candidate, others would be pressed to follow. The nominated candidates should then set out their policy agendas, allowing for genuine debate. The EP should invite each of the candidates to a live parliamentary debate. The winner’s policy agenda should guide the allocation of portfolios and the multi-annual work plan.

“Even without treaty reforms, if rival candidates were presented before European Parliament elections and then played a role in the election campaigns, the initiative would be taken away from the European Council, as after the elections the heads of government would be under a lot of pressure to formally nominate the candidate of the Euro-party that emerges as the largest group in the newly elected Parliament.”

The media would have an incentive to cover the appointment. The public would be more capable of identifying with the Commission President and his or her agenda. The “losing side” in a contest for Commission President would have an incentive to put together an alternative policy package and find a good candidate for the next round.

“The Commission as a whole would still be a broad coalition, as the governments would still control the nomination of the other members of the Commission. The Commission would still be constrained by the checks and balances of the EU system, which mean that any elected Commission President would need a very broad coalition of commissioners, governments and MEPs to be able to pass legislation.”

Assuming that European politics is modified along the lines suggested by Hix, enlargement might well end up as one of the divisive policy questions. Would this render the process more legitimate? Hix’s colleague Andrew Moravcsik argues that issues that are decided at the EU level are too boring for most European citizens to bother about. Forcing public participation on such topics “would simply hand the European issue over to extremists.”

  • Simon Hix, What’s Wrong with the European Union & How to Fix It, Polity Press, 2008. The basics of his argument were already presented in a shorter article published by Hix together with Andreas Follesdal: “Why There is a Democratic Deficit in the EU: A Response to Majone and Moravcsik”, in Journal of Common Market Studies (JCMS), Vol. 44, Nr. 3, 2006, pp. 533-62.
  • Simon Hix’s homepage at the LSE, with access to electronic versions of most of his papers.
  • VoteWatch.eu, an excellent website tracking all voting in the EU parliament. It is a joint project with Sara Hagemann, Adul Noury, Doru Frantescu and Simon Hix.