The world has undergone major political changes in recent times. This includes the shift away from the dominance of national government to control at a regional level.
As a result, old norms and ways of doing things have changed. One example is the changing roll of national governments in the European region and in particular the rise of interest groups and the importance that they play in policy development and the exchange of ideas.
The question is whether these interest groups enhance or diminish democracy in the European Union.
I want to argue that, because of the changes to global political governance (which includes the rise of global institutions, regional trade and governance blocs, as well as the challenges that they pose to the Nation State), interest lobbying groups have altered the meaning of the EU democracy in a way that threatens its existence. This is well illustrated in the current European economic crisis.
While traditional democratic methods such as citizens’ participation in the parliamentary elections may have worked in the past and still work well at the national level, changes in the global political system to include a new level of government at the European level might well see changes to what we regard as democratic.
Kingdoms and later the nation state have not always been in total control of domestic affairs. Europe is now very different now that kings are no longer the ruling power. Not only has power become largely secular but the autonomy of national governments has decreased.
As power shifts from the national to the supranational, Beetham and Lord raise the interesting conundrum which faces the EU. They argue that on one hand ‘the only valid source of political authority lies with the people’ (1998, p. 6) but at the same time raises questions about how this concept applies to the EU when they say that ‘the legitimising belief that the people constitute the ultimate source of political authority’ raises acutely the question ‘who constitutes the people?’ (ibid).
This idea of ‘who constitutes the people’ and ‘does the EU have legitimacy’ is in danger of losing relevance when the turnout to EU elections appears to be decreasing at an alarming rate. Malkopoulou cites that citizen participation in the EU elections peaked at 62% in 1979 with a 3% periodic drop (7% drop occurring in 1999) at each election to a grand total of 43% turn out in 2009 (2009, p. 1). These figures raise an interesting question regarding how society engages in the democratic process. If only 43% of the voting population of Europe turned out to vote in its elections, does it make the region really democratic and representative of its citizens?
On the other hand, while the number of voters in elections is decreasing, the number of interest and pressure groups are increasing at an alarming rate (Watson and Shackelton, 2009). This issue of electoral apathy is a complex one; it does signal that maybe democracy is changing from the traditional voters casting a ballot for those whom they want to represent them, to advocacy undertaken by interest groups around a particular issue – not necessarily chosen by voters.
Lobbying groups are becoming more part of the political landscape as time goes on and the reasons for this are many. As this blog has already discussed, both the development of a supranational government and the number of people voting in European Parliament elections are decreasing each election, resulting in a change in the nature of European democracy.
Watson and Shackelton argue that ‘ever since the 1970s, the number of organised interests has grown six-fold from the mere 400 or so such bodies existed at the time’ (Watson and Shackelton, 2009: p. 3). These groups range from business groups similar to chambers of commerce and trade unions who represent a membership, to international non-government organisations who often agitate around a particular issue such as environmental sustainability, womens affairs or animal rights.
To some extent, the distance between the individual citizen and the EU political structure maybe a factor in the voter turnout. Therefore, as individuals become more an arm’s length away from the European institutions, they are less likely to vote than they would for their national parliament. While the voter turnout has never been high in countries such as Great Britain, where voting is not compulsory, the EU institution has not communicated the role that they play in the national politics and in the every-day lives of their constituents.
Another point is that the distance issue requires more resources and know-how to access the decision-makers at the Commission who develop policy and legislation. The perceived distance between the citizens and the European government, resulting in the lack of interest in EU politics has caused democracy to shift from representing the citizens to representing only the opinions of the interest groups that lobby the decision-makers.
Since interest and business groups are very aware of how EU politics influences their business and organisational goals, they are more likely to engage with the political process and they have had to develop strategies to overcome the ‘tyranny of distance’. As Coen and Richardson point out ‘the creeping competencies of EU institutions and the establishment of the single market, in addition to pulling interests into the political orbit, also altered the political nature/structure of domestic interest groups, with an increase in cross-border activity, joint ventures and political alliances’ (2009, p. 7). Coen and Richardson mention another reason why interest groups join together to approach the EU policy makers; it is the rise of issues that come under EU control and legislation, making it more important for smaller groups to ensure that their voices are heard by those who govern them.
Another aspect of this debate is that the EU is also quite happy to develop a relationship with a ‘coalition’ of interest groups. Since the EU has limited access to funds it often struggles to develop research as well as hire expertise because both of these come at a price. On one hand Research and information is vital to the work of the EU, and without it Brussels would struggle to be relevant and effective.
On the other hand the relationship poses the question of how reliant is the EU on interests groups and the services that they are keen to offer in return for access to European Commission and Parliament Staff and the hoped-for ‘favourable’ outcome of decisions they make. Even with the work that the EU has done to improve transparency and set clear guidelines for the relationship between the EU and the lobbyists, there are still many questions regarding how much value the current structure adds to the democratic process. These still need to be answered.
Whatever your views on this issue, it appears that interest groups have filled the void left by a decrease of political engagement by citizens. Since it is instilled to those in western liberal democracies from early childhood that individuals or “the people”/demos have a role to play in our democracy, it is difficult to say whether the filling of this void by interest groups has been a positive paradigm shift. However, the rise in the number of interest groups may not be a negative. While the number of groups goes up, so does the diversity of interests that are represented.
List of References
Coen, D and Richardson, J (2009) “Learning to Lobby the European Union: 20 Years of Change” in Coen, D and Richardon, J. (eds) Lobbying the European Union: Institutions, Actors and Issues. (Oxford, Great Britain: Oxford University Press)
Malkopoulou, A (2009) Lost Voters: Participation in EU elections and the case for compulsory voting(Brussels: Centre for European Policy Studies)
Watson. R. and Shackelton. S., (2008) “Organized Interests and Lobbying”, in: Elizabeth Bomberg, John Peterson and Alexander Stubb, The European Union: How does it Work? (Oxford, Oxford University Press)