Andrew Moravcsik: EU enlargement as rational choice

“The European democratic deficit is a myth.”


Andrew Moravcsik is professor of politics and international affairs and director of the European Union programme at Princeton University. He has extensively published in academia (for a list of his publications visit his webpage, mainly on European integration, transatlantic relations, international organisations and multilateral institutions. He is also a contributing editor of Newsweek Magazine and has published over 100 commentaries, including in the Financial Times, Prospect, and Foreign Affairs. He has also been a trade negotiator for the US government, a special assistant to the deputy prime minister of the Republic of Korea and an assistant in the press office of the European Commission.

A number of political thinkers, including Larry Siedentop and Simon Hix, argue that the EU is haunted by a democratic deficit. To varying degrees, they portray the EU as an unaccountable technocratic superstate run by powerful officials that work together with the governments of the member states to circumvent national political processes.

Andrew Moravcsik begs to differ.

“Across nearly every measurable dimension, the EU is at least as democratic, and generally more so, than its member states.”

In “The Myth of Europe’s ‘Democratic Deficit’”, Moravcsik responds to what he sees as the six most frequent accusations levelled against the EU.

Myth 1: The EU is a powerful superstate encroaching on the power of nation-states to address core concerns of their citizens.

There is no superstate, counters Moravcsik. EU policy-making is limited to around 10-20 percent of national decision-making, “largely in matters of low salience to voters, while the national polities retain control over most other, generally more salient issues.”

Myth 2: The EU is an arbitrary, runaway technocracy operated by officials subject to inadequate procedural controls, such as transparency, checks and balances and national oversight.

The EU’s budget amounts to less than 2 percent of total European public spending, “over which officials enjoy little discretion, since broad spending priorities are laid down by interstate consensus” or the European Parliament. The EU’s bureaucracy comprises not more than 20-30,000 officials, “an administration equalling that of a medium-sized European city”.

“Normal ‘everyday’ legislation in Brussels must likewise surmount higher barriers than in any national system. Successively, it must secure: (a) consensual support from national leaders in the European Council to be placed on the agenda, (b) a formal proposal from a majority of the technocratic Commission, (c) a formal 2/3 majority (but in practice, a consensus) of weighted member state votes in the Council of Ministers, (d) a series of absolute majorities of the directly elected European parliament, and (e) transposition into national law by national bureaucrats or parliaments.”

Also, with so many actors in the game, it’s utterly impossible to legislate secretly, claims Moravcsik. Access to public information is so well developed in the Union that it could serve as a model for a number of member states.

Myth 3: EU decisions are made by unelected officials not subject to meaningful democratic accountability.

In reality, says Moravcsik, big changes (to treaties) require approval by all governments and are made subject to national ratification mechanisms. In the case of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, “a negative margin of less than 10 percent among a population totalling only 1 percent of Europeans has stalled continent-wide reform indefinitely.”

“In the everyday legislative process, democratic control is just as tight. Nearly every critical decision-maker – national leaders, national ministers, European parliamentarians, national parliamentarians – is directly elected.”

Myth 4: Negative referendum results in places like France, the Netherlands and Ireland expressed the fundamental mistrust of European citizens towards the EU and its policies.

While it is tempting to read these referendum results “as a considered public vote of ‘no-confidence’ in the EU”, Moravcsik maintains that in reality “there is almost no connection between voting behaviour on referendums and public attitudes on Europe.”

“Consider, for example, the recent Irish referendum, where 42% of ‘no’ voters admitted to pollsters (thus surely an underestimate) that they opposed the treaty because they were ignorant of its content … a substantial group admitted voting ‘no’ because they believed the constitution contained specific clauses that were not in it, e.g. the EU would be able to reinstate the death penalty, legalize abortion, conscript Irish into a European army, impose taxes by majority vote … – all matters entirely outside Brussels’ legal competence.”

Moreover, in no single member state can one find a significant part of the electorate favouring withdrawal from the EU or its major policies.

Myth 5: European institutions are disliked or mistrusted by publics because they do not encourage public participation.

While it is true that only about half of Europeans have a positive image of the EU, according to a 2007 Eurobarometer poll only 14% have a negative image (34% neutral). In fact, as Moravcsik points out, the EU’s popularity compares favourably with that of national institutions.

“The European Parliament is significantly more trusted than national parliaments, the EU significantly more than national governments, and the European Court of Justice slightly more than national legal systems.”

There is no correlation between political participation and trust. In fact, decidedly non-participatory institutions like courts, central banks, the army and the police enjoy more trust than elected bodies.

Myth 6: Voters fail to participate actively and intelligently in European politics because existing EU institutions disillusion or disempower them.

Moravcsik turns the argument around and maintains that apathy is not the result of unresponsive EU institutions, but of citizens’ attitudes toward European issues, which most of them find boring.

“There is good reason to believe that European citizens refuse to participate meaningfully – regardless of the institutional forum – because the issues they care about most are not handled by the EU. They are rational, choosing to allocate their time and energy to other matters … Future efforts toward forcing participation in the context of widespread popular apathy would simply hand the European issue over to extremists.”

In sum, argues Moravcsik, “Europe is no worse off, overall, than its constituent member states. Reform to increase direct political participation, moreover, would almost likely undermine public legitimacy, popularity and trust without generating greater public accountability.”

Now, what about EU enlargement? Is it also one of the “non-salient issues” that people do not care about?

Moravcsik argues that the fifth enlargement was based on rational choice. In his prominent study “The Choice for Europe”, Moravcsik wrote that “European integration can best be explained as a series of rational choices made by national leaders”. In an article written together with Milada Vachudova, Moravcsik maintains that “European governments, West and East, calculated the expected economic and geopolitical consequences of enlargement for their domestic societies and acted accordingly.” This was hardly a new phenomenon.

“Each previous round of EU enlargement has gone through a parallel and predictable negotiation process … In each and every round, applicant countries have consistently found themselves in a weak negotiating position vis-à-vis their EU partners, and accordingly have conceded much in exchange for membership.”

Moravcsik and Vachudova explain this by reference to basic bargaining theory. “Those countries that gain the most through more intense interstate cooperation … have the most intense preferences for agreement and thus are willing to compromise the most on the margin to further it.” Called “asymmetrical interdependence”, a concept of international relations theory coined by Nye and Keohane, this phenomenon could already be observed during the negotiations for the Treaty of Rome.

“The country whose foreign minister had initially proposed the customs union and which benefited the most per capita from its realization – namely the Netherlands – was forced to make the greatest concessions on the margin to achieve agreement. The result was that the treaty was viciously criticized by Dutch politicians and the public – more so, perhaps, than in any other of the six original member states, even though (or precisely because) non-ratification by the Netherlands was never a realistic option. The obverse case in the 1950s was that of France, which achieved almost all of its negotiating goals in large part because, as a large and macro-economically uncompetitive country, French non-ratification was a realistic possibility up until the final moment.”

The same pattern of bargaining, say the authors, has characterised all type of EU negotiations – accession talks included – ever since.

“In each case, bargaining demands by applicant countries for recognition of their particular circumstances were stripped away one by one until a deal was struck that disproportionately reflected the priorities of existing member states. Thus Britain in 1973, though relatively poor, ended up a large net contributor to the EU budget. Ireland, Denmark, Greece and Spain were subsequently forced to accept agricultural arrangements not particularly well suited to their particular comparative advantages.”

The pattern is the same with regard to the Eastern enlargement, Moravcsik and Vachudova maintain. Though both old member states and applicants benefit, the applicants benefit more, which puts them in a disadvantageous bargaining position. In the pre-accession process, “applicants have had to satisfy the Copenhagen criteria and adopt the acquis in its entirety to qualify for membership … the requirements are massive, non-negotiable, uniformly applied and (usually) closely enforced.”

But this has also been to the advantage of the applicants.

“For the construction of a well-functioning market economy and a strong, democratic state – long-term goals that are hardly in question – the requirements for EU membership have been, on balance, positive. They have promoted valuable reforms: creating an independent civil service, overhauling the judiciary, improving oversight of financial markets, and blocking bailouts of uncompetitive but influential sectors. To be sure, applicants have had to divert their meagre public resources from health and education to implementing an acquis devoted primarily to the regulation of economic production. Still, locking the applicants into the EU’s legal and regulatory frameworks promises to limit corruption, improve administrative capacity, attract foreign direct investment and facilitate full insertion into the EU and global economy – thereby bringing substantial returns to the national budget over the long term.”

  • Andrew Moravcsik, “The Myth of Europe’s Democratic Deficit”, in: Intereconomics – Journal of European Public Policy, November/December 2008, pp. 331-340.
  • Andrew Moravcsik and Milada Anna Vachudova, “Preferences, power and equilibrium. The causes and consequences of EU enlargement” in: Frank Schimmelfennig and Ulrich Sedelmeier (eds), The Politics of European Union Enlargement. Theoretical Approaches, Routledge, 2005, pp. 198-212.
  • Andrew Moravcsik, The Choice for Europe: Social Purpose and State Power from Messina to Maastricht, Cornell Studies in Political Economy, Cornell University Press, 1998.
  • Andrew Moravcsik’s homepage.
15 March 2010