ID Conference: Matthijs Bogaards on the Politics in the European Union

Our next keynote speaker of IDC 2020 is Matthijs Bogaards – an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Central European University and a member of the editorial board of the academic journals Party Politics, Democratization, the Italian Political Science Review, and Politics & Governance. He will deliberate on the European Union as a diverse society and the challenges for democracy such a system faces.

Photo courtesy of Matthijs Bogaards

Photo courtesy of Matthijs Bogaards
© Central European University

– What will your talk be about?

– My particular contribution to the set of topics proposed for the IDC will be about the European Union (EU) from the perspective of divided societies. The EU society is diverse and member states differ not only among each other, but within themselves. My paper starts with a very basic question: how can democracy survive and prosper in diverse societies? There is a huge bulk of literature on this topic from comparative politics, but strangely enough, very little of that has been used to shed light on the EU. In my paper, I am trying to cover two different sets of literatures: on divided and diverse societies, as well as the literature on the EU, the European Parliament (EP), and its elections.

The EU is not as democratic as it should be – how can we overcome these defects and what role does a truly European EP play in Europe’s future? Talk about “a European party system” and “Europarties” suggests that at the European level parties look like those on the national level – this is not true. It is more complicated. There are at least two party systems: one within the EP and one that is related to elections. My paper asks, how can elections to the EP be conducted, what proposals are currently on the table to make European parties more truly European, and how do these proposals relate to what we know from the literature on political engineering in diverse societies.

It turns out that the comparative politics literature is extremely helpful in making sense of the EP elections and especially in systematizing different proposals for electoral reform. The paper makes a distinction between two types of reforms which respond to the two main schools in the comparative politics literature on diverse societies. One is consociationalism, associated with A. Lijphart, the other one is centripetalism associated with D. Horowitz and B. Reilly. Consociationalism is all about power-sharing, how democracy works in diverse societies and how leaders of the different groups and communities collaborate. Even though there might be a division at the bottom, at the top there is cooperation, which is crucial in making democracy work. Centripetalists argue that it is not that simple and that consociationalism has a lot of drawbacks: it is elite-focused, slow, inefficient and perpetuates the very divisions that it is supposed to overcome. They offer a different package of institutional recommendations focusing on electoral systems. Basically, this is about an electoral system that gives an incentive to candidates and voters to pool votes. In a centripetal electoral system it would be impossible for candidates or parties to win elections by just counting on support from their own group. They would have to reach out to other groups.

– And then I suggest an alternative electoral system, which is based on an aborted experiment in Uganda in the 1970s. I will not call it my solution for the European democratic deficit but it is an alternative for electoral reform of the EP elections we should have a look at. What I propose is to divide the EU into four quarters: north-west, north-east, south-east, and south-west. In each of these quarters we identify electoral districts or constituencies. The innovation comes from the linking of districts across these quarters. To win a seat in the EP it would not be enough to be popular only in one district – the candidate would have to pool votes from all over Europe. The candidates will have to go out and campaign across Europe and appeal to European voters in different places that may have different concerns. Climate change, employment, migration - that is the kind of theme the candidates would have to aim for, themes that have a European dimension and are relevant to people across Europe.  

– What are the major consequences, if any, of COVID on European politics and decision-making?

– I will give an answer that relates to my professional and personal circumstances. I am an associate professor at the Central European University, which is now a dual-campus university based in Vienna and Budapest, as the university was forced out of Hungary by the government. And the Hungarian government has seized upon the pandemic to grab even more powers than they had already accumulated. Thanks to the emergency legislation, I think, Hungary has left the family of democracies, and the logic of the governance follows that of a competitive authoritarian regime.

Generally, in the EU member states the pandemic has weakened democracy. Sometimes because this is deliberate, sometimes it is unfortunate damage of emergency measures that are taken with the best intentions, but at the same time weaken certain liberties and rights. Hopefully, those measures and consequences will be addressed very soon. I do not think that in the case of Hungary the damage was a coincidence.

At the European level, the pandemic follows the logic of every crisis. Whenever the EU gets into some crisis and existing institutions are deemed insufficient, the answer is always the same – more Europe, more European integration, and coordination. It is natural because the pandemic by definition is a problem that the member states cannot handle on their own. So, of course, you need to look beyond the national level for solutions.

– Do you observe any differences in COVID responses in majoritarian and consensus democracies?

– If I look at the way consensus democracies react to pandemic in comparison to majoritarian democracies, there are indeed clear differences. Just to mention one: leadership. In majoritarian democracies what we see now is a further concentration of power, whereas in consensus democracies leaders still seek to establish a broad basis for decision-making, which includes more input from experts.

 – What are your expectations from the IDC and online conferences in general?

 – I do not have any opinion on online conferences, because this will be my very first experience. And I am curious, even though I am deprived of the opportunity to go and see St. Petersburg and meet everybody in person.

Looking at the program, I see a very nice mix of more senior and younger scholar. I do intend to attend as many panels as I possibly can. There undoubtedly will be a time of “Zoom fatigue” when you just cannot stare at the screen much longer. But I look forward to it and I think it is great that the Conference goes ahead. Events like this are very important as a way for people to get together. These are very challenging times, even ordinary teaching and being in touch with students have become much more burdensome, very few people are doing research and there is a tendency for the world to become smaller. And to have such a Conference, where you can learn from colleagues and listen to other people presenting their research, – I think that is very welcome.

Interview by Yury Kabanov and Angelina Silaeva