Democracy and administrative legitimacy of the European Union

While there has been much emphasis on the democratic shortcomings of the European Union, few have discussed how the administration might strengthen the EU’s legitimacy. Zuzana Murdoch outlines how she and her colleagues indeed find evidence for such ‘administrative legitimacy’ in the EU.

Av Zuzana Murdoch*

Regular, free and fair elections, in which ruling parties can be voted out of office when people think their performance was unsatisfactory, are conventionally taken to establish policy-makers’ accountability and legitimacy. In EU policy-making, this electoral mechanism is largely absent given the central role and power of unelected executive agents (e.g., European Commissioners) and indirectly elected EU parliamentarians. As a result, many observers claim that the legitimacy of decision-making at the European level is undermined, and that the EU is left with a gaping democratic deficit.

While electoral accountability is an indispensable component in any assessment of the EU’s democratic deficit, it should not be the only criterion. As policy advice, development, interpretation, implementation and enforcement in the EU involves public officials from all member states, this substantial public administration should also be looked at. From this perspective, it is important that policy-makers’ legitimacy depends on the extent to which they can claim to represent some groups or social interests. Civil servants thinking like their wider community and sharing their policy preferences thus provides a way to achieve a ‘government of the people’ (i.e. input legitimacy). In other words, the legitimacy of the EU institutions and their policy decisions should be measured also in terms of the (un)representativeness of the administrative staff involved in its policy-making (relative to public policy preferences) – something that Johan P. Olsen calls ‘administrative legitimacy’.

To measure this concept of administrative legitimacy, we propose two complementary measures. The first rests on the idea that whenever one group (e.g., Belgian citizens) wants more/less of a certain policy relative to another group (e.g., Irish citizens), public administrators representing these groups should replicate this preference ordering. This implies evaluating the strength in the connection between the policy preferences expressed by EU administrators from a particular country and their country’s population—for each EU country.

Still, a positive correlation between both sets of policy preferences need not imply that public officials from certain countries are ‘closer’ in a spatial sense to their home population than public officials from other countries. To capture this ‘closeness’ of administrative legitimacy, our second measure assesses a distance between the position of each EU administrator and European citizens from his/her country in a context where several issues can be dealt with.**

We calculated these two measures using Eurobarometer data on the policy preferences of European citizens, as well as information on Commission officials’ policy preferences from two original datasets collected by Sara Connolly, Hussein Kassim and myself., What we find is a significant match between the beliefs and policy preferences of member state nationals in the Commission and their compatriots at home. As such, even though these constituencies did not elect them, the Commission does exhibit some degree of administrative legitimacy.

These results highlight that administrative legitimacy, which has so far been absent from the EU debate, needs to be applied in consideration of the EU’s democratic credentials. Although the EU’s ratings may not match national political systems on the standard measure of electoral accountability or the existence of a demos, the European Commission appears to score better on the representative bureaucracy dimension. This finding stands in direct contradiction to the popular view that the EU is undemocratic specifically on account of the Commission’s status and influence.

Kilde: Murdoch, Z., S. Connolly and H. Kassim (2017). Administrative Legitimacy and the Democratic Deficit of the European Union, Journal of European Public Policy (forthcoming).

*Zuzana Murdoch er førsteamanuensis ved institutt for statsvitenskap og ledelsesfag ved Universitetet i Agder.

** Where EU administrator is i (BURi) and European citizens from his/her country (POP) are placed in a j-dimensional policy space (with j=1,…,J) : DISTANCE i = √∑(BURij-POPj)²

The authors also recommend:
Piattoni, S. (2013). Representation as delegation: A basis for EU democracy? Journal of European Public Policy 20(2): 224-42.
Saward, M. (2010). The Representative Claim, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Schmidt, V.A. (2013). Democracy and legitimacy in the European Union revisited: Input, output and throughput, Political Studies 61: 2-22.


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