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The European Commission and Euroscepticism

April 17, 2012

The Economist’s Charlemagne section this week features an interesting and wide-ranging analysis of the European Commission. Proving the old adage that a crisis is always somebody’s opportunity, it points out that the European Commission has gained greater authority during the ongoing currency crisis. The recently signed fiscal agreement gives the Commission new powers to monitor national budgets and impose penalties on countries who flout deficit limits. Citizens of Greece and other countries who have received EU-funded bailouts feel as though their economic policies are being dictated by bureaucrats in Brussels, rather than by the national leaders they elected. In recent times, Hungary has complained that the Commission is holding the IMF back from releasing a long-awaited loan because of concerns over political centralization in that country.

The Commission has always been the main enemy in the eyes of genuine eurosceptics. It has been the most active promoter of European integration since the EU’s creation. It is the supranational face of the EU, a counter to the nationally-oriented Council of the European Union. Because its directorates are responsible for monitoring the implementation of EU laws on the ground, it is the most visible manifestation of the EU’s interference in national sovereignty. In the current climate of economic malaise and EU-bashing, such concerns have intensified.

For those concerned about the oft-cited “democratic deficit,” the European Commission represents an obvious example of the phenomenon. While the European Parliament is directly elected, and the Council of the EU is composed of national ministers who attained their position through national elections, the members of the Commission are selected by national governments with little input from citizens. In this sense, the Commission’s links to ordinary citizens are arguably more tenuous than in the case of the other institutions.

Recently, this blog analyzed various proposals to reform European Parliament elections in light of decreasing turnout. As the Economist article notes, there are similarly numerous proposals for how to reform the Commission, both its composition and method of selection, to make it more accountable to citizens. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, called last year for the Commission President to be directly elected. The Economist article mentions a few other proposals that have been floated around and does a good job illustrating their downside as well as their putative benefits.

It’s interesting to consider however, how the supposedly distrusted Commission fares in comparison to other EU institutions in terms of its reputation among citizens. The Eurobarometer series of surveys has tracked citizens’ level of trust in various EU institutions for several years. As the graph below illustrates, the level of distrust towards the Commission has increased in recent years, but so has the level of distrust in other EU institutions. Interestingly, the Council of the EU seems to be the least trusted institution, with the European Parliament being the most trusted. In the last five years, attitudes towards the various institutions have gone up or down together, although the figures for the European Central Bank are the most jumpy.

Source: European Commission

More interesting still is that levels of trust in the EU as a whole have been higher than levels of trust in respondents’ national governments and parliaments. While trust in the EU has flagged during the economic crisis, so has trust in national governments.

Source: European Commission

Although it is difficult to draw to many inferences from this limited data set, these numbers offer an interesting counterpoint to the discussion of euroscepticism. Yes, distrust in the EU has risen in recent years, but does this reflect any particular disdain for the EU and European integration per se, or are citizens just generally angry at the decision makers they hold responsible for the crisis, whether they be in Brussels or their national capitals?

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