British Public Opinion and Mass-Elite Relations on EU Enlargement: Implications on the Democratic Deficit Debate

By Dursun-Ozkanca, Oya | CEU Political Science Journal, February-April 2014 | Go to article overview

British Public Opinion and Mass-Elite Relations on EU Enlargement: Implications on the Democratic Deficit Debate


Dursun-Ozkanca, Oya, CEU Political Science Journal


1. Introduction *

There is very little consensus among scholars concerning what democratic deficit is and even whether or not it exists in European Union (EU) policymaking. (1) Dahl maintains that international organizations are inherently unable to support democratic decision-making. (2) The EU, according to many, is no exception. It is not uncommon to see European elites initiating projects even when most of the public is against such ventures.

The EU is on the verge of major sea changes as a result of the 2014 European Parliamentary elections, the crisis in the Eurozone, and the planned future rounds of EU enlargement. Even though 2013 was declared to be the European Year of Citizens by the EU, democratic deficit criticisms have still been prevalent in EU affairs. Since the legitimacy of elite actions depends upon the level of public support for European political processes (3), it is important to study mass-elite relations and political communication processes on European affairs. (4)

While 2014 marks the 10th anniversary of the 2004 enlargement, the literature has so far provided either only aggregate-level studies of public opinion data on EU enlargement or analyses of the influence of media coverage on public opinion about EU enlargement, generally ignoring the determinants of public support for widening or EU enlargement. (5) Since the Eastern enlargement of the EU in 2004 was a vital development shaping the nature and the composition of the EU, the public opinion on this issue commands special attention. Through the accession of 10 new member states and 74.1 million people, it was the fifth and the largest round of enlargement in EU history.

Popular attitudes in EU member states are significant for the success of enlargement. (6) Even though no EU member state has ever conducted a referendum on enlargement, Austria has already pledged to hold a popular referendum on the Turkish membership into the EU. Analyzing the public opinion on the biggest round of EU enlargement has significant repercussions for understanding the public opinion in future rounds of enlargement. Furthermore, scholars are in disagreement about the nature of the public-elite relationship on EU affairs. This article examines the nature of the relationship between elites and public opinion on the 2004 enlargement by focusing on Britain, a key player in EU decision-making. Throughout the debates on the 2004 enlargement, the cleavage between the British elites and the people was strikingly manifest. Only 31 percent of the people in Britain supported the enlargement just before May 2004. (7) Despite the fact that the majority of people in Britain had negative attitudes toward enlargement, the British government endorsed this initiative.

Following a survey of the relevant literature, this article first conducts an individual-level multivariate logistic regression analysis in Britain using Flash Eurobarometer Survey on EU Enlargement 132.2 (8) (November 2002) to determine the demographic, political, economic, and cultural factors influencing people's attitudes towards enlargement. Building on findings from this quantitative analysis, it then provides an in-depth qualitative study of the public-elite nexus on the issue of EU enlargement through an analysis of primary and secondary sources from 2002 to 2004 to determine if and to what extent the elites responded to the people's enlargement-related concerns in Britain. It aims at shedding light on the nature of the relationship between the British elites and masses on an important EU topic, and concludes with a discussion of the empirical and theoretical implications of its findings. The results of this study become even more important in the context of the speech that UK Prime Minister David Cameron delivered in January 2013 promising to hold a referendum on Britain's membership in the EU. Furthermore, in the upcoming European Parliament elections in May 2014, the UK Independence Party, a major Euro-skeptic party in Britain, is expected to acquire a significant increase in its voting share. …

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