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>The EU: Viable or friable?


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I should know better. I should only, only read books that generate immediate research outputs, the life blood of contemporary academia and never, not ever succumb to the temptation to read things that are simply interesting, But somehow this is one New Year’s resolution I never keep. So as well as reading Scandinavian crime novels and a book about the fall of the Roman Empire – actually rather instructive on issues of statehood for your average contemporary political scientist, I thought – I’ve also a soft spot for what Giovanni Capoccia recently termed the ‘historical turn in democratization studies’ , so it wasn’t the greatest of holiday chores to have to read Andrew Glencross’s  What Makes the EU Viable?: European Integration in the Light of the Antebellum US Experience.  

The book adds to a small but growing literature comparing the emerging EU political system with the experience of US federalism. However, Glencross says, the best period for such anachronistic historical comparison is not the early constitution-making of the Founding Fathers or the functioning  of modern US federalism, but the antebellum period – ie. the decades between the foundation of the American Republic and outbreak of the Civil War – when the relationship between member states of the union and political centre was most ambiguous and contested.

Such a comparison Glencross argues, means we need an expanded concept of ‘viability’ embracing not only the formal allocation of institutional and legal powers and ‘competences over competences’, but also actors’ understandings of the purposes of the union and whether popular sovereignty is ultimately invested in the centre, the member states, or both. Applying this framework, he identifies two distinct approaches to achieving viability in a semi-federal, semi-confederal state unions like the EU or the early US: ‘1) voluntary centralization’ where the different actors negotiate their way to a stronger, more integrated state; and 2) ‘dynamic equilibrium’ where institutional and political ambiguity – far from being a problem to be solved – is the key to viability.
The viability of the antebellum US, he argues, was in the end fatally undermined by an emerging politics of ‘voluntary centralization’, while the EU has survived precisely by sticking to a pattern of ‘dynamic equilibrium’. In this light, projects to fix the European Union through various forms of democratization and constitutionalization appear best irrelevant and at worst dangerous. There are, Glencross acknowledges, important differences between the two cases: the US was created through a constitutional instrument, the EU through an inter-state economic treaty; the US had a nationwide party system with a dominant cleavage (slavery) dividing member states, the EU has only an embryonic party system with many cross cutting divides between states. Nevertheless, he argues, the parallels are sufficient to merit serious rethinking about the reform of EU governance.
What Makes the EU Viable? is, admittedly, an uneven book given, in places, to opaque and overlong and over-defensive theoretical asides as books-of-PhD-dissertation often do. It would also benefit from more simply explained engagement with mainstream EU studies literatures and the burgeoning subfield of historical democratization. However, at bottom, I thought it succeeded in its objective of asking a big and timely question and deploys anachronistic comparison to deliver some genuinely unexpected and worrying answers. Academic viability, if ever I saw it.

>Post-communist democratization: Is your name.. Rumpelputin?


Late at night I’ve been sitting up reading: reading Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Postcommunist World (Cambridge University Press) edited high-powered US specialists on communism and post-communism. McFaul is now a senior advisor to the Obama presidency at the National Security Council. This new collection – available in paper and hardback and Kindle – basically tries to regime change in the former communist world into a new perspective by linking the collapse of one-party rule in 1989-1991 with more recent experiences of democratisation in Eastern Europe and the former USSR. As the editors argue in the opening chapterswe should think of postcommunist democratisation as three overlapping phases: 1) the breakdown of Communist Party rule in the late 1980s; 2) democratisation processes in 1990s driven by the prospect of EU membership, which stopped some new democratic states in Central and Eastern Europe sliding into semi-authoritarianism; and 3) more recent ‘coloured revolutions’ in the former USSR, which were triggered by electoral fraud in states without any clear prospect of joining the European Union.

And what’s more Michael McFaul suggests, theses three phases underline the role of the international system as a missing (or at least, under-played) variable which has shaped the different waves: the collapse of Soviet power and  its later re-emergence under Putin; the EU’s decision to enlarge Eastwards; and a growing US preoccupation with the ‘War on Terror’ after 2001. However, contributors differ in their views of precisely how – and how strongly – international influences have come to bear. Milada Anna Vachudova sees EU leverage on CEE’s more problem atic states as a key motor of liberalisation and reform, while– despite making points similar things in a slightly different language – Alina Mungiu-Pippdi at bottom claims that the EU’s political conditionalities were easily bypassed by anti-reform elites. Horizontal economic integration and broader European norms were, she claims, the important factors. Sadly, this is the type of domestic vs. European factors arguments that no one has convincing really worked out how to settle. Similarly, in his finely-researched chapter on Ukraine’s ‘Orange Revolution, McFaul is unable to conclude more than that US and international influences were indirect, although here one detects a certain politically inspired pulling of punches. There seems plenty of evidence in McFaul’s thoroughly researched chapter for arguing the case one way or other and if I was in the opposition in a semi-authoritarian state, I surely as hell would want USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy training my youth volunteers and election monitors and bunging a bit of cash to friendly NGOs.
As Valerie Bunce and Sharon Wolchik note, changes the geo-political environments mattered because they altered the incentives of domestic actors and changed patterns of diffusion between states. Diffusion mechanisms – while always at work- evolved over time. Would-be democratic revolutionaries in Eastern Europe have been copying tactical innovations; drawing parallels between national contacts; and forming of collaborative networks since at least 1980, if not 1848. However, as various lcase study chapters on ‘electoral revolutions on  Slovakia (1998) and Serbia (2000), Georgia (2004), and Ukraine (2004) make clear by the millennium the transnational activist networks and election monitoring had become the key paths  for change.
However, post-communist authoritarians too have been learning lessons. As Kathryn Stoner-Weiss and Vitali study on Putin’s Russia and Lukashenko’s Belarus – and Lucan Way’s comparison of post-Soviet authoritarianisms – show, an effective formula for blocking democratisation is at hand:  the key ingredients are well trained, well paid security forces; regaining  Soviet-era levels ofcontrol of the media and the economy; a well organised new ruling party backed by some kind of an ideological claim to legitimacy s Nevertheless, extreme weakness of post-Soviet state institutions can be a still more fundamental obstacle to democratisation: Scott Radnitz  illustrates the point bluntly in a chapter arguing that Kyrgyzstan’s repeated ‘electoral revolutions’ are more a sign of failed statehood than social pewssures for democratisatio.
As the book shows, despite the Year of Miracles in1989 – the dominant image of regime change for Western obsevers – post-communist transition  has most often been a story of failed or partial democratisation creating semi-democratic ‘hybrid regimes’, whose closed political systems, semi-open societies and corrupt public adminstration set the scene for further democratic upheavals. The net effect of such waves, however, has been a gradual polarisation of the region’s initially weak democratisers into consolidated (if low quality) democracies (Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Slovakia) and consolidated autocracies (Russia, Belarus, Armenia).
As you would expect, Democracy and Authoritarianism in the Postcommunist World offers a wide-ranging and sophisticated overview of South East European and post-Soviet democratisation By joining up Europeanisation, ‘electoral revolutions’ and transitions from one-party rule in 1989-1991, it offers an original perspective highlighting the unfolding of a kind of Kondratievian long wave of democratisation across a single region. However, I found explanation and description in the book were too often blurred. Many of the causal factors its contributors highlight beg more questions than they answer. Why were some authoritarian elites more united in the face of opposition? Why were some security and police apparatuses more cohesive? Oil, victory in neighbourhood wars and timing all seem to be part of the bigger story. Too often, however, we are left with accounts where wily authoritarians like Putin or Lukashenka appearing Rumpelstiltskin-like at the wrong moment.  If only they would disappear as easily.

>Drowning in Berlin


The last few days have found me at a workshop on populism and democracy in Europe and Latin American at the Wissenschaftzentrum in Berlin, trying to see what the (politically) late and unlamented Dr Sládek and his far right Republican Party can contribute to debate about comparative populisms. It’s been a mixed experience from the outset: a smooth train journey to Luton is followed but a hellish two hour Easyjet check in queue and stressful sprint across the airport to get to the departure gate; Berlin’s Schonefeld seems to be the Luton airport of Germany, but after a long trek to the station all is redeemed by a fantastic Wurst with lashing of mustard at a down at heel kiosk and a soothing Russian fairy story my Ukrainian fellow passengers on the train into town are reading their small son.

The academic side is similarly mixed: I take my hat off to Kevin Deegan-Krause’s superb discussion of populism and democracy, which somehow slipped into his paper on Slovakia, and watch him editing his powerpoints only to discover that he is, in fact, doing an on the spot analysis elegantly integrating the diverse mix of cases. If I still had a metaphorical hat , I would need need to take it off again.

Dr Sládek and his party, however, seems to be a less than useful addition to proceedings: too small to have much influence on Czech democracy and too defunct to be very interesting. My discussant helpfully suggests there might be some kind of legacy stemming from Dr S, but the contemporary Czech far-right is so marginal – and so varied – that it must at best be a micro-legacy and More generally, it is hard to avoid the impression that European and Latin American cases, as too often with inter-regional studies, are passing like ships in the nights: superficially united, like the city itself, but with a host of underlying differences. I am dog tired.

Early the next day I get a yellow double decker and watch an odd mix of 19th century, state socialist and ultra-modern buildings drift by until we pass the Bundestag and get to the Hauptbahnhof. Right platform, right carriage, right seat and go sleep. When I wake up we are Dečin. There is no border control now, but the train has broken down. and a locomotive needs to be rep[laced (it is, 20 minutes later) There is torrential rain. Outside the river Labe looks fit to burst its banks (it does two days later).

Despite the dire weather and the black skies, as sometimes happens, I really am glad to be in the Czech Republic.

>CEE: A democracy of no qualities?


Notions of ‘democratic quality’ have become increasingly widespread over the past decade in the study of both new and established democracies. However, Andrew Roberts notes in his excellent new book The Quality of Democracy in Eastern Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2009) the concept remains fuzzy and ill-defined Scholars, who have used the notion, he rightly notes have basically tended to define it in three ways: 1) superabundance of the basic components that make up the procedural minimum of liberal democracy; 2) a set of favourable social and cultural prerequisites standing outside the political system; or 3) a set of desirable or efficiently arrived at policy outcomes promoting the public good, loosely overlapping with the concept of ‘good governance’ championed by many international organizations and NGOs.

However, he convincingly argues, all are unsatisfactory either because they conflate the attributes of high quality democracy with those of democracy in general, or because they confuse democratic quality with things such as social structures or policy outputs that, strictly speaking, fall outside the nature of the relationship between citizens and their elected representatives. Democratic quality, he suggests, must instead be understood in terms citizens’ abilities to influence their rulers through three forms of linkage: 1) electoral accountability (voters’ ability to dismiss politicians, who have broken promises or performed unsatisfactorily); 2) mandate accountability (voters’ ability to make meaningful choices from a range of distinct programmatic party positions) – and politicians’ willingness and ability to deliver on campaign promises; and 3) policy responsiveness (politicians’ willingness when in office to fit policy to public opinion – and voters’ ability to monitor and pressurize them to ensure that they do).

The book then seeks to operationalise and measure democracy quality (thus defined) across the new EU member states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), widely considered to be stable and functioning liberal democracies, but also to have consolidated democracy in a flawed and low quality form burdened by legacies of the communist past, a detached and alienated citizenry, and a corrupt and self-serving politicians – you know the standard journalistic-cum-academic shtick you have probably come across a million times in The Economist and The Journal of Democracy or wherever. But is that really the case?

In successive uses a mixture of quantitative analysis and re-analysis of existing literature assesses electoral accountability, mandate accountability and policy responsiveness in CEE as well as comparison of the region with Western Europe and Latin American and finds that it ain’t necessarily so simple.

Based on data on economic performance, Roberts finds that CEE democracies show high level of electoral responsiveness. Despite significant general anti-incumbent voting, voters in the region do hold governments to account for poor economic performance. However, although CEE party systems are programmatic, mandate accountability in the region is much weaker – and, he finds, has remained consistency weak since the fall of communism. Party positions in the region are less clear and – usually as result of a politics of populist outbidding – the range of party positions on offer to voters tends to be less varied than in either Western Europe or Southern Europe. Examining politicians’ follow-through on campaign promises, Roberts finds that the relationship between winning parties’ campaign promises on (economic) reform and the subsequent direction of policy weak, although they are few volte faces on reform commitments of the kind common in Latin America. In CEE we are talking shades of economic liberalism from full-on to half-hearted.

However, contrary to the image of ‘lonely reformers’ by-passing popular preference through blame avoidance strategies, Roberts finds that, when making policy, CEE politicians are relatively responsive to public opinion. Although there is little active public input into policy making, qualitative case studies of pension and housing reform in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, highlights how favourable public opinion has been a key prerequisite for reforms to go ahead.

Overall, Roberts argues, CEE enjoys a reasonable quality of democracy, albeit democracy characterised by distinct patterns of accountability. Weak civil societies, constraints imposed on left and right imposed by international and European conditionalities and CEE voters’ tendency to punish all incumbents at the polls, reducing politicians’ incentives to fulfil campaign promises, sharply depresses mandate accountability, Roberts suggests. The region’s surprisingly good democratic quality, juxtaposition with Western Europe and Latin America suggests, can be traced to a single factor: its relatively high levels of socio-economic development and, in consequence, its well educated, capable and rational citizenries.

Overall, the book offers an elegant, and generally convincing set of arguments about how we should view democracy in CEE, cutting through much current conceptual fog and going rounding in circles and – what’s more opens to way to genuine pan- comparison of democratic systems in the old and new EU. What are debates in the ‘advanced democracies’ if not about ‘democratic quality’?

True, the empirical basis of book’s findings is, in some respects, rather limited and broadbrush (not really much sharp cross-national comparison) and its formulations leave some questions unaddressed. The stress on citizen-state linkages as at the heart of its conception democratic quality might, for example, be taken as implying that forms of direct democracy offer better quality democracy. Not a conclusion I personally would shy away from or loose any sleep over, but an issue that goes unmentioned in the book, which is quite party-centred.

Such limitations, however, arguably reflect a concern with mapping out new territory broad agenda-setting, rather than making slam dunk cast iron, empirical judgements over narrow range of cases or issues, which frankly makes for dull and pointless political science. I personally like the rather unusual research-in-progress fee to the book. For all the above reason, it may, I suspect come to be a seminal work for research on comparative quality of democratic governance. Will CUP kindly grace us a paperback copy or an affordable e-version?

>Greying democracies


As Facebook and other contacts may know, I have research interest in interest-group politics and ageing societies in CEE, so it was a pleasure to review Achim Goerres’s recent book The Political Participation of Older People in Europe: The Greying of Our Democracies. (Basingstoke: PalgraveMacmillan, 2009). In the book, Goerres, who has been one of the pioneers in comparatively exploring the political consequences of population ageing in European democracies offers a characteristically empirically thoroughly comparative study of the political participation of older people in 21 European democracies, including the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia.

The book skilfully unpacks the notion of ‘old age’ into a series of age-related factors, which Georres argues fall into three broad categories: 1) life cycle effects such as the transition to retirement; 2) political generational effects linked to political socialization in youth; and 3) socio-economic cohort effects linked to (post-) modernization trends affecting successive (rising educational levels; and individual ageing effects such as the tendency to habituate to social norms with age. After presenting an ‘age-related model of political participation’ which basically integrates these factors into a modified resource perspective, the book considers older people’s electoral turnout; party choice; membership in parties and interest groups; and involvement in unconventional direct forms of participation.

Goerres relies mainly on number crunching quantitative techniques usually examining individual level survey data to gauge age-related effects which he them statistically interacts these findings with country-specific factors to account for further variation. The chapter on party choice, however, uses a paired country comparison of Germany UK), while quantitative findings on unconventional participation are supplemented by a chapter based on interviews with British pensioner activists protesting the impact of local property taxes.

The book’s findings are rich and complex, but the overall picture they present is one of a shifting complex of age-related factors shaping older people’s participation, sometimes working against one, sometimes important only in combination with country-specific factors, but always varying in significance according to the specific form of participation under review. Interesting general findings running through the book include the role played by life experience in substituting for formal education as an influence on participation and tendency of younger citizens to participate more in societies with higher proportions of pensioners or more strongly pro-senior public opinion. There’s not much on institutions and limited cross country comparison, but overall, it’s clearly written, thorough and original book offers a corrective to superficial notions that population ageing is turning Western democracies into gerontocracies subject to a growing monolithic ‘grey vote’ or a war of generations– see this week’s Economist on David Willets- and offers an excellent springboard for the development of the more sophisticated political science agenda on ‘greying democracies’ Goerres calls for.

>Model pupils

>André Krouwel’s well received presentation at SSEES about party transformation – which drew on earlier doctoral research specializing on Otto Kitscheimer and the ‘ctach-all’ made a number of very valuable, and possibly long overdue points about the way political scientists have studied parties: there has been a profusion of party ‘models’ on offer, many saying essentially the same thing using different labels and usually (over)emphasisng one particular aspect of party change (ideology, organization, or whatever) depending on the most striking developments of the moment or the cases on which authors were most familiar.

While model-heavy much party scholarship, he pointedly suggested, was evidence-light: either the data was not there or was not easily accessible (historical party development; contemporary parties’ use of state resources) or it posed methodological headaches (problems of coding pary programmes and documentation; obtaining data on small parties grouped as ‘others’ in even official statistics.

A ruthless synthesis of the many (often redundant) models was therefore in order and clearly André offered us one breaking party development into several dimensions and – for practical purposes – superficially rather recognisable historical phases: more radical, however, was the implicit suggestion in his work that party scholars‘ model-making and model fitting obsessions have led them to think in the wrong terms: rather than studying parties and typees of party – more often than not trying to pin them down in terms of various ideal-typical models – they (we) should be studying and comparing different types of party transformation.

At one time, I thought this a weakness of East European party studies – the unusual historical circumstances of CEE tending to buckle models based on West European experiences – but now I wonder if it is a more general affliction. In party studies, it seems, the Emperor has no clothes – due to weak and patchy data – but he may have been claiming to be wearing the wrong kind of clothes in the first place. Refreshingly, as well Andrew offered us to no underlying Grand Narrative of party development: there are many transformations in many directions, depending on historical circumstances. Some parties, such as the Dutch Socialist for example – an East Europeanist might think of Hungary’s Fidesz as a parall, have atavistically re-invented mass membership and ancilliary organizations.

>Unpublishable but readable

>There are, it seems, few blogging political scientists in the UK. Perhaps we all too overloaded reserved, or chastened by the brouhaha surrounding the excessively candid blogged comments of Dr Erik Ringmar at LSE (now formally of LSE) a few years back. For all these reasons, I was pleased to stumble across the blog written by Jonathan Hopkin in LSE Department of Government who writes on politics, political economy, trivia and football under the moniker Unpublishable Thoughts.

There’s perhaps too much on political economy, British politics and Hull City for my personal tastess, but also some must-read stuff on parties and party organization, electoral politics, clientelism and corruption.

Many years ago Jonathan was internal examiner for my PhD at the University of Birmingham

No doubt that put him off party studies…

>View from a castle

Two days later I find myself, still somewhat to my surprise at a conference on Society, History and Politics organized by Prague’s Institute for Contemporary History at the chateau-cum-conference centre of the Academy of Sciences in Liblice.

The chateau is lovely, almost embarassingly so, and perhaps not something the Academy will want to draw attention to as it tries to fight off swingeing cuts in its budget driven partly by post credit crunch austerity and partly by the shifting balance of power in Czech higher education. The universities want to get their hands on more of the research spending, hinting very sotto voce that the Academy is an old-style centralized monopoly based on the Soviet model and needs shaking up.

I am something of fish out of water, although the difference in approach are fascinating: dense detailed investigation of localities and time periods without the usual ‘model fitting’ preoccupations of most political science conferences or the concern with big scale (national, European) institutions. The papers (well not mine obviously) are of almost uniformly high quality and perhaps because the Czech language medium forces me to concentrate more, I realise that I learned a lot.

The central focus is much more on 1989 than the Brno conference, but there a still new insights on offer . The mass spontaneity of popular mobilization during the Velvet Revolution was more a subjective experience of surprise and togetherness than a reality; the mass flyers and leaflets produced during the early weeks of the revolution in the Czech lands and Slovakia, when caredully and painstakingly analyzed reveal – outside the more radical and anti-communist capital cities – a desire for a kind of monitory popular democracy firmly rooted in social(ist) property relationships.

Interestingly, Czech contemporary historians’ research interests also bleed into political science and sociology. There are papers on the not-in-fact-quite-so-successful success story of Roma integration in Český Krumlov and Czech political parties after 1989 and their historic identities, although frustratingly I miss the one the role of Social Democrat exiles who re-founded the Czech Social Demoratic party in 1989. Not only would the pre-history of debates about what social democracy means in post-communist CEE be very interesting to know, but clearly the Big Orange Machine currently Czech politics upside down by giving up on early elections might not exist if things had turned out differently in 1989/90.

It would be an interesting piece of academic alchemy if political science and historical methods could really be harnessed together, but it rarely seems to happen, either in the Czech context or generally. Jason Wittenburg’s book on Hungary is the only major work of this kind that really comes to mind. All too ofte, political scientists dabble well intentionedly in historical research and historians in contemporary political processes without quite coming up with anything new.

I pack my bag and switch on the telly to catch the latest political news, but there’s only a discussion of whether Elton John and David Furnish should be allowed to adopt a Ukrainian orphan. “Adoption by two high-quality homosexuals (dva kvalitní homosexuálové) is preferable to life in an Ukrainian institutions”, a spokeswomen for Czech Children’s fund enlightenedly tells viewers. Then we are on the sports news. Slavia Prague play well, but they are outclassed at every turn and eventually beaten by Genoa.

I walk outside with my suitcase to sit and read and soaking the sun and the atmosphere. Then I hitch a lift with the Goethe Institute’s minibus to the rather less lovely surroundings of Holešovice station.

>Political consequences of the economic crisis in Eastern Europe


And for those who can face more writing by me, there’s a short piece in Chatham House’s World Today magazine on the possible political consequences of the global economic crisis in Central and Eastern Europe. Journalists and economists were making all the running on this – and sometimes not very good running, I felt – so I thought I stick my oar.The piece is downloadable here until the end of May, longer if you are a CH member. As one of my colleagues has already pointed out, I underestimate the extent to which the crisis will push CEE elites towards support for further European integration even if they feel the need to make populist forays into bashing Sarkozy.

>Review essay: East European parties and the state


A review essay that I wrote for Czech Sociological Review last year, that burst Incredible Hulk like from what was originally conceived as small conventional book review is now available has appeared in the journal’s online archive. The essay reviews two similarly conceived books about the relationship between party competition and political abuse of the state bureaucracy in Central and Eastern Europe: Anna Gryzmala-Busse’s Rebuilding Leviathan and Conor O’Dwyer’s Runaway Statebuilding. The essay is downloadable here as are replies/rejoinders from the two authors, which can be found here and here. There is, however, not too much less blood on the carpet – certainly less than in my Lisbon hotel room. The perfect political science book hasn’t been written after all and when people start devoting critical essays to your work, it’s perhaps a sign that you have made it.