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‘Europe actually listens’: three Leiden political scientists about the responsiveness and effectiveness of EU policy

The image of the European Union (EU) as a remote law-making machine is widespread. Quite often journalists and politicians deliberately depict ‘Brussels’ as bureaucratic, even undemocratic, bypassing its citizens. And many of us buy into that image. Nikoleta Yordanova, Anastasia Ershova and Aleksandra Khokhlova, three political scientists from Leiden University, offer a different perspective: ‘If you look closer, the European Union’s actions regularly align with the interests and preferences of us, Europeans.’ To be explored further on 16 June 2022 at the NWO Synergy ’22 conference in the Hague, where researchers, policy developers and interested citizens will convene to address the societal impact of research, activism in science and trust in and skepticism towards institutions.

Engaging with a wider audience

Nikoleta Yordanova (Associate Professor), Anastasia Ershova (Postdoctoral Researcher) and Aleksandra Khokhlova (PhD candidate), all three based in Leiden University’s Institute of Political Science, work together with researchers from the Universities of Mannheim (Germany) and Strathclyde (United Kingdom) on a project called ‘Willingness and Capacity for EU Policy Action in Turbulent Times: Conflicts, Positions and Outcomes’ (EUINACTION). The Leiden team will present some of the intermediary findings, engaging with a wider audience, at the NWO Synergy ’22 conference on 16 June 2022.

Yordanova: ‘Our project is reaching the second-year mark. While the final results are not yet in, we would like to share our first findings. They are quite interesting!’ Ershova: ‘We will be part of Synergy ‘22’s “Building Trust” theme, which is fitting well with our project. The EUINACTION is about building trust in EU policies: we investigate, simply put, to what extent the EU’s policies correspond with the preferences of its citizens.’ Khokhlova: ‘For us, engaging with the very citizens we study, gives more meaning to our profession as academics. In turn, we may also be able to change some perceptions here and there.’ Ershova: ‘We do not have these opportunities that often, so this is exciting.’ Yordanova: ‘We are really looking forward to Synergy ‘22. Often, people from outside our field, and from other backgrounds than academia, ask the best questions and bring in the most valuable insights.’

A responsive, adaptive, and effective EU

What EUINACTION has taught us, so far, is that the EU is much more responsive than its critics suggest. Also, contrary to what the Eurosceptics believe, its policies can be quite effective. ‘Okay,’ says Yordanova, ‘there are dossiers in which the EU seems to have grinded to a halt, such as the current and recent migration crises.’ ‘And’, Khokhlova adds, ‘in many respects even maintaining the status quo proves to be extremely difficult for Brussels: just look at market regulation.’ But the researchers have also found examples of a responsive, adaptive, and effective EU. Yordanova: ‘While national governments initially were almost paralyzed by the COVID-19 pandemic and citizens looked at the EU for solutions, the EU acted quite swiftly, which is the reason why closed borders could be reopened and the COVID recovery fund was launched so quickly.’ The same may happen with the ‘Green Deal’, the EU’s ambitious programme for combating climate change and environmental degradation. ‘The Green Deal’, Ershova explains, ‘is, to some extent, driven by the fact that Brussels knows that this is what the people want.’

Aleksandra Khokhlova, Nikoleta Yordanova and Anastasia Ershova
(L to R) Aleksandra Khokhlova, Nikoleta Yordanova and Anastasia Ershova (photo: Ruben Verheul)

Stereotypes, scapegoating and underselling

The deep-rooted lines of division across and between the Member States are often used to characterize the European Union. This portrayal, in turn, shapes the perception of who may benefit from and support the EU policies most and why. Yordanova: ‘Our aim is to test such stereotypes. The results we are seeing, is that the European population might actually be far more united than the leaders representing them.’ ‘A case in point,’ Khokhlova adds, ‘would be Poland and Hungary, where the citizens are very much pro-Europe. Unfortunately, the negative stance of their government makes for better headlines.’ ‘Also in other countries,’ adds Yordanova, ‘national governments like to scapegoat the EU. Citizens, in turn, do not always have a clear, realistic view of the EU’s mandate, of what it can and cannot do.’ ‘Part of the misperception’, Khokhlova indicates, ‘stems from the EU not communicating properly with the population.’

One of the explanations of the EU’s responsiveness is the fact that the European Commission actively probes the ‘will of the people’. Yordanova: ‘The EU regularly polls its citizens, to find out what their policy preferences are. And just recently, in her speech at the closing event of the Conference on the Future of Europe, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen emphasized that the views of the public will be taken very seriously. Her words, literally: “Your message has been well received. And now, it is time to deliver.”

Citizens’ influence

The EU's policies are responsive to various pressures and interests. Ershova: ‘Our research shows that EU policies are initiated in response to “bottom-up” demands’. The public preferences strongly affect EU action if the citizens regard policies as important. ‘In other words, we should not underestimate the power and reach of our voice’, Yordanova concludes. ‘Europe actually listens… to those who care, who are vocal and do not just take it for granted.’

Further information

NWO Synergy ’22 event (16 June 2022)


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