Conversations with Simon Hix

Democratic Deficit, Brexit, and the Future of the EU

M.A. in Political Science, European Union Policy Studies

By Francesca Ragonese

On November 14th, the EUPS program had the pleasure of hosting a guest lecture by renowned political scientist, Simon Hix. Hix is a British author and political scientist well known for his reflections about democracy in the European Union. He received his PhD in Political and Social Sciences from the European University Institute (EUI), and currently serves as the Stein Rokkan Chair in comparative politics at the EUI. Previously, he held the Harold Laski Chair of political science at the London School of Economics and Political Science, where he was also pro-director for research. Through his numerous publications about the European Union (EU), Hix has significantly impacted theory and research on the EU as a political system.

In an open discussion with the cohort, Prof. Hix discussed the evolution of the EU over the past few decades, the implications of democratic deficit in the EU, and shared his views on what the future of the EU might look like. He also responded to questions about the current and future implications of Brexit, both for the EU and for the UK. 

The term ‘democratic deficit’  emerged in the 1990s when a European referendum saw the rejection of the Maastricht Treaty by Denmark and growing disenchantment by European publics towards the EU integration process. Eventually, in the 2000s also Ireland rejected an EU treaty, and attitudes towards the EU Constitution were so negative that it was rejected by the French in a referendum in 2005. In 2006, Hix’s article with Andreas Follesdal “Why There is a Democratic Deficit in the EU: A Response to Majone and Moravcsik” was published in the Journal of Common Market Studies. Hix and Follesdal argued that the democratic deficit was a relevant issue and noted that a large driving factor for the perceived decline in legitimacy of European institutions was the lack of a real electoral contest for political leadership at the EU level. Reflecting upon the democratic deficit, more than 15 years since his seminal article, Hix noted that it is much smaller now than it was back then, but it still exists to some degree, although for different reasons. Considering the many enlargements of the EU since its foundation, the union today is far more constrained than it used to be by the diversity of member state interests and values, forcing it to “pump the brakes.” The expansion of European Parliament (EP) powers via the Lisbon Treaty enabled far more checks on the legislative process and improved EU democracy, by allowing members of parliament (MEPs) to have a crucial say on the composition of the EU executive, the Commission. However, increasing apathy toward European elections means electorates still think national politics counts more than European politics. This enables national governments to act as gatekeepers, making it increasingly difficult not only to transform EU institutions to fully overcome their structural democratic legitimacy issue, but also to produce policy outcomes that address the many policy problems the EU has to face. 

The problem facing the EU today, Hix notes, is therefore a new one: gridlock - but “if you are ever going to overcome gridlock in the EU, you have to make the EU more democratic.” This seems to be a conundrum which is hard to tackle. Hix did not seem too optimistic. Rather than implementing strategies to help with gridlock, the EU has actually been doing some things that make gridlock worse. Hix attributes this to a lack of creativity in the Commission, stemming from the emergence of a ‘culture of crisis management.’ Instead of acting as a strategic, problem solving, regulatory body, the EU tends to be constantly responding to crises and planning for a new crisis that could emerge. At the same time, integration has fostered “the ability of the EU to find a way to muddle through”, and so while the crises are being addressed on one level, on the other not enough is achieved in many other areas of policy making. 

Faithful to the theory he has been putting forward in the past two decades, Hix still believes an actual electoral contest to select the European executive, the Commission, would be crucial for improving democracy in the EU. Rather than maintaining the facade that the Commission is just a largely technocratic bureaucracy, the EU should be transparent to the public and admit that the Commission is indeed a political actor. Electoral competition for the Commissioner posts could potentially improve civic engagement. Looking across the Atlantic, Hix pictures an EU that would reflect the level of political contestation in US presidential elections. With a multitude of media outlets covering political debates and public statements, US presidential elections are some of the most politically charged electoral contests in the world. He believes that implementing direct elections for a Commission president, along with stronger media coverage across the EU, could serve as a catalyst for EU democratization. Ultimately, the EU cannot be fully democratic if it is not truly representative of and accountable to the will of the citizens. 

Skepticism about the EU and the way that it functions is what led to the decision from the UK to leave the union. Six years since the British voted in a referendum to leave the EU, it is important to consider the implications of this decision, both in the UK and the EU. Hix recalled that the pro-Brexit camp was split into two groups based on their main justification for leaving the EU. On one hand, there were those who desired economic independence, thinking Brexit would be advantageous for the British economy. On the other hand, there were groups who believed Brexit would lead to a strengthening of border controls and a reduction in migration. Neither of the two groups was right in its expectations. Contrary to popular assumptions by Brexiteers, leaving the EU has had exactly the impact that all economic models were projecting. With new barriers to its exports and imports, the UK is now experiencing a supply chain crisis and small businesses are quickly losing their markets. Consequently, GDP in the UK has dropped between 4 and 8 percent. Similarly, despite the anti-immigration sentiments that drove Brexit, the UK has continued to observe a steady flow of immigrants, with about 300,000 people migrating to the UK each year. Even more interestingly, the composition of migration flows has changed. Before Brexit, about 60 percent of migrants came from within the EU, and 40 percent from outside of the EU. Now, the UK receives only about 20 percent of EU migrants, while 80 percent come from outside of the EU - largely from the Indian subcontinent. Despite this stark contrast to the intentions of those who voted for Brexit, these migration trends lack attention and are not being politicized. One potential explanation for migration no longer being a top issue in the UK is that the geography of migration has shifted. Rural areas that were highly opposed to migration before have seen a decline in migration, and consequently these areas are experiencing labor shortages. By contrast, urban areas that were pro-migration have not reacted negatively to the continuing migration flows, because they are already highly international areas. 

Given the negative effects of Brexit on the UK’s economy thus far, Hix noted that there is a growing appetite for building back bridges with the EU. Though it is unlikely that the UK will rejoin the EU, it will have to find new ways to liaise with the single market and form closer trade agreements with the European continental space, from which so much of its trade and prosperity depends. One good example in this respect is Northern Ireland. Although Northern Ireland is part of the UK, it still shares its land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. After Brexit, this raised concerns over trade due to the lack of any physical borders between the two regions until that moment, prompting the Northern Ireland Protocol which enables it to remain in the single market so long as it adheres to EU product standards. Evidently, the Northern Ireland deal shows the importance of remaining a part of the EU market, in order to prosper and guarantee peace on the Irish isle.

A key takeaway from our conversation with Prof. Simon Hix is that the European Union, particularly the Single Market, is a magnificent achievement that has still a potential for growth. As demonstrated by Brexit, many Europeans take for granted the rights they have to sell, buy, trade, and consume products from all over Europe without leaving where they live. Though there is still a lot of progress to be made, as the EU continues to expand and change it is important to keep in mind how far it has come and the multitude of protections that EU citizens are able to enjoy due to their union.

Francesca Ragonese is an EUPS student pursuing the Economic and Social Policy track and serves as the EUPS program’s Communications and Recruitment Graduate Assistant. In May of 2022, she received her Bachelor of Arts from JMU in International Affairs, with a concentration in Global Human Development and a minor in Sociology. After graduation, Francesca hopes to pursue a career in the development sector, particularly in humanitarian aid and refugee resettlement.

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Published: Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Last Updated: Thursday, January 4, 2024

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