Representing Europeans: A Pragmatic Approach, by Richard Rose

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Europe has always been a continent of diverse peoples but diversity has never been an obstacle to political union. To strengthen alliances or gain territory, monarchies arranged dynastic marriages that created the multi-national empires that dominated Europe before 1914. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was an extreme example of diversity, for the majority of peoples living under the Habsburg crown were neither Austrians nor Hungarians. However, nationalist movements led to the break-up of multi-national empires. After the First World War, new nation-states were created that emphasized ethnic exclusivity, even when they had large minority populations and Germany under Adolf Hitler sought continental domination claiming to represent a Herrenvolk (master race). The Second World War discredited claims to national superiority while the Holocaust and the displacement of minorities increased the ethnic homogeneity of European states.

Richard Rose will turn 90 in April this year; his first two books, co-authored in 1960, were an analysis of the 1959 election and an investigation of why the Labour Party kept losing. He also carried out a very important analysis of public sentiment about politics and government in Northern Ireland just before the Troubles broke out, which has become an essential baseline for understanding what happened last century. My father greatly respected him, and when he came to Brussels in between the Brexit referendum and the pandemic, I made contact and we had a couple of very friendly dinners on the Grand’ Place.

He was kind enough to give me a copy of this short book about the political system of the EU, and its democratic deficits. It’s a lucid guide to how the structures actually work – too many such guides are hypnotised by the institutions’ own accounts of themselves – and makes a lot of the points on the dangers of disconnection between the EU decision-making process and the citizens who are affected by it. The book came out before Brexit (and assumes that it won’t happen) and before the pandemic, both of which have changed things a bit but maybe not all that much.

I’m going to disagree, however, with a couple of the points he makes. He spends an entire chapter criticising the allocation of seats between countries in the European Parliament, which (as you know, Bob) varies between Malta’s six (one MEP per 80,000 population) to Germany’s ninety-six (one MEP per 800,000 population). I don’t really think that this is a problem. Divergences from proportionality are tolerated in a lot of democratic electoral systems for different reasons, usually in order to give extra representation to groups who need it. The large member states already have a massive amount of soft power within the EU system, and I don’t find it outrageous that they shave a couple of the MEPs that they would have been entitled to on a strict population ratio, in order that the diversity of voices from smaller states is not completely extinguished. I think Rose’s argument also faces an issue about differential turnout between different countries, which he doesn’t address.

He also has a solution that I disagree with – holding EU-wide referendums on crucial issues. Here I think he unrealistically discounts the practical and political difficulties of doing this; election laws and procedures are very different across the 27 member states, referendum laws even more so; and how do you explain to, say, Slovaks that the democratic choice they make nationally can be over-ridden by French and German voters? My own feeling is that we should not try too hard to erode the extent to which the EU is a union of member states, since that’s an important element of its legitimacy.

Anyway, these are debating points surrounded by thorough and lean analysis. You can get it here.