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The Europe of ElitesA Study into the Europeanness of Europe's Political and Economic Elites$

Heinrich Best, György Lengyel, and Luca Verzichelli

Print publication date: 2012

Print ISBN-13: 9780199602315

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2012

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199602315.001.0001

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Elites of Europe and the Europe of elites: a conclusion

Elites of Europe and the Europe of elites: a conclusion

(p.234) 11 Elites of Europe and the Europe of elites: a conclusion
The Europe of Elites

Heinrich Best

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter presents a synopsis of the main results of the ‘Europe of Elites’. These strongly support the elitist character of European integration while challenging the idea of a coherent ‘Eurelite’: cognitive, emotive, and conative dimensions of elites’ Europeanness vary between countries and few elite members are prepared to award the EU the concept of statehood. Where the integrity of the state was endangered, where Protestantism prevails, and where the state has an important role in acquiring and redistributing EU subventions, political elites are reluctant to endorse further EU integration. While a strong responsiveness between elite sectors attunes national elites concerning European matters, large elites–masses gaps are found, particularly in the ‘conative’ dimension of Europeanness regarding future steps towards European integration. The concluding observation is that the ‘Europe of Elites’ is a multifarious and polycephalic entity, shaped by differentials within and between elite sectors, elites and non-elites, and––foremost––between national settings.

Keywords:   Europeanness, federalism, intergovernmentalism, elite settings, institution building, Europeanization, functionalism, redistribution, Euroscepticism, international careers, labour markets, Protestantism, Catholicism, nationalism, agenda-setting, realpolitik

This volume enquires into the foundations of European integration by determining the Europeanness of its national political and economic elites. We departed from the expectation that the process of European integration is fostered by a normative and structural integration of its national elites, i.e. by their common commitment to a unified Europe, and an increasing density of their transnational social ties and communication links. We based this assumption on the theoretical propositions of Higley’s and Burton’s work on elite foundations of liberal democracy by transferring them to the process of European integration. The basic idea here is that ‘elites usually have considerable leeway to activate or muffle non-elite interests or sentiments, at least for a time, and non-elite populations are unable to achieve anything of importance in politics without elite leadership and organization’ (Higley and Burton 2006: 4–5). According to this argument, the prerequisite for efficient leadership is some level of coordination within leadership groups. In the case of European integration, this is to be reached by a consensual process of elite accommodation, which in turn requires a strong cognitive and emotive basis, as well as transnational networks and platforms of communication, in order to commit national elites to European institution building and policy making.

In our initial concept of ‘Eurelitism’, elites have to prove their ‘true’ credentials as Europeans to qualify for ‘joining the club’, i.e. for taking part in the process of European integration and policy making. However, on the preceding pages of this book, a more complex picture has emerged that strongly supports the view of an elitist character of the process of European integration on the one hand, while challenging the idea that European national elites have merged or are even in the process of merging into a coherent ‘Eurelite’ on the other. The process of European integration is much more colourful and (p.235) even contradictory than concepts of a straightforward normative and structural integration suggest. In particular, this process is deeply rooted in and conditional on the social and political settings in national contexts.

The theme of multidimensionality and variety is set by Cotta and Russo (Chapter 2), who start with the diagnosis that at the aggregate European level there is ‘a rather solid backing to the process of European integration’ which is particularly well founded in a ‘positive instrumental evaluation of the EU’––meaning that economic and political elites agree almost unanimously with the assessment that European integration is overall beneficial for the national interest of their countries. There are also majorities of both economic and political elites expressing feelings of attachment to Europe, trusting European institutions, and favouring the process of European integration. Pro-Europeanness is generally stronger among elites than among the general population, and there is a sizeable minority of citizens who reject the idea that European integration is beneficial for their countries (see Chapters 8 and 10). While these findings support the concept of a ‘Europe of elites’, i.e. of a European integration process based on and fostered by an elite consensus, a closer look reveals that the different dimensions of Europeanness are only moderately linked. As Cotta and Russo show, elites ‘display rather variable combinations of positions depending on whether they are asked to express their views on aspects that concern the nature of the European polity, its institutional configuration, or different sets of policy goals’. The cognitive, emotive, and conative dimensions of their Europeanness vary and are to a large degree independent of each other. A factor analysis of political elites’ attitudes towards the European Union shows a multifactorial pattern which indicates the conditional nature and––in some cases––even contradictory character of elites’ Europeanness. This becomes evident in elites’ views about European governance, where minoritarian federalist and majoritarian intergovernmentalist positions coexist with views trying to accommodate the wish for strong European institutions with a desire to maintain EU member states as main political actors. The latter position, which is shared by approximately a third of political and economic elites, internalizes the contradictory configuration of support for deeper European integration and the wish to preserve the national turf.

The complexity inherent in national elites’ preferences on the Europeanization of policy making and institution building is disentangled in the chapters by Real-Dato et al. and Gaxie and Hubé (Chapters 4 and 6). The former show that, with regard to the Europeanization of policy making, elites’ Europeanness has to be seen from a temporal perspective. In policy areas associated with a long-term perspective, elites tend to be pro-European. The same applies to what had been called ‘transnational’ policy issues, such as the environment, immigration, and crime. These findings are compatible with a ‘functionalist’ (p.236) perspective, whereby political elites tend to allocate the competences for certain policy areas at those levels of multilevel systems where the balance between possible gains (e.g. in terms of mobilizing electoral support), and the risks of failure (e.g. in terms of failing to satisfy electoral demands), is most favourable for them. This explains why, in general, political elites prefer to keep responsibility for redistributive policy areas, such as taxation, unemployment, and health care, at the national level. It also explains why economic elites, who have fewer reasons to consider the power of states as resources for empowerment, are in general more open to Europeanization than their political counterparts. They tend to make exceptions, however, in the case of policy areas that may threaten entrepreneurial freedom if fully coordinated at European level, such as unemployment and social security. Gaxie and Hubé confirm that, at the level of individual elites, Europeanness tends to be a mixture of pro-European and Eurosceptic views. In fact, staunch federalists and radical Eurosceptics are relatively rare specimens, and the vast majority of elites can be found among the weak advocates and weak opponents of European integration. In general, about a quarter of the elites in our samples appear to be predominantly critical of the process of European integration, while another quarter expresses only ‘lukewarm’ support, with small differences between economic and political elites. This leaves about half of the elites in the role of more or less committed builders of a ‘Europe of Elites’. The main dividing issues regarding the scope of European integration concern central powers and jurisdictions of statehood like foreign policy, taxation, social security, and defence. Very few elite members are prepared to transfer responsibility for all these policy areas to the European level and to furnish the European Union with the full set of the paraphernalia of statehood.

This observation connects with the findings of Hubé and Verzichelli (Chapter 3) that nation states are (still) the primary foci of political elites’ career planning: only about one in five of the respondents among the politicians envisage a political career at European level, although the vast majority have at least one of the assets for an international career, such as foreign language skills, the experience of living abroad, or a border-transcending network of relatives and friends, at their disposal. The share of economic elites envisaging a border-transcending career at the European level is significantly higher than that found within political elites, but even among CEOs and top managers of the greatest national companies, less than two in five consider such a move. In the sense of a Europeanization of careers, European political and economic elites have not merged into a ‘Eurelite’ and are still oriented towards national polities and labour markets.

The expectation of an integrated ‘Eurelite’ is also challenged by the massive differences among countries, and between both sectors of national elites, in all dimensions of Europeanness (see Chapters 7 and 10). This is particularly true (p.237) when we consider only answer categories indicating strong support or strong rejection of related items, which show that elites are worlds apart when it comes to assessing their Europeanness at country level. In the general population the spread between countries is smaller, indicating that national peculiarities find a stronger expression at elite level than at mass level (see Chapter 10).

The patterns and determinants of regional diversity concerning attitudes towards EU integration are explored in Chapter 7. These show that regional variation of this key indicator of Europeanness needs to be explained by a multitude of cultural, economic, institutional, and geographic variables, whereby low per capita income, the prevalence of Protestants in the population, the historical experience of separatism, and ethnic heterogeneity significantly decrease political elites’ leaning towards further EU integration. Remarkably, at the individual level the effect of Protestantism disappears. Here we see instead the negative effect of Catholic membership on the attitude of political elites towards further EU integration (see Chapter 10). These findings suggest that in those countries where the integrity of the state was and is endangered, where ‘national’ Protestant churches (as compared to supranational Catholic and Orthodox churches) prevail, and where the state has an important role in acquiring and redistributing EU subventions, political elites are reluctant to endorse further EU integration. These contextual factors work at country level, whereas purely geographical factors, like being part of Southern, Western, or Eastern Europe play a minor role. After controlling for the other contextual variables, only Southern European political elites show a significant pro-integrationist leaning. The endemic Euroscepticism in post-socialist Central and Eastern European countries, which can be clearly seen in the bivariate analyses, is reduced to statistical insignificance in the multivariate model.

In view of strong national peculiarities at the elite level, European elites consider the ideological expression of national distinctiveness, i.e. nationalism, and economic and social differences between EU member states as the greatest threats to a cohesive Europe. These two perceived threats are closely followed by the enlargement of the EU to include Turkey, i.e. another step towards an increase of national heterogeneity within the institutional frame of European integration (Chapter 5). We have here the paradoxical situation that, as the main producers of European heterogeneity (given that differences in Europeanness are generally smaller at non-elite level), European elites are also particularly concerned about the consequences of that heterogeneity.

One of the strongest contextual factors of European political and economic elites’ Europeanness is the level of Europeanness of the other elite group. In other words, the individual members of one group adjust their support for further European integration and attachment to Europe in response to the (p.238) perceived average national level of support for integration and attachment of the other elite group (Chapter 10). In this way, economic and political elites become reference points for each other. Our finding of a strong responsiveness between different sectors of national elites is a clear indication that national elites form elite systems that are closely attuned concerning European matters at the national level, which in turn consolidate overall differences in Europeanness between countries. Thus we can see a Europe of elites as a polyphonic orchestra, trying to generate a harmonious sound out of a cacophony of multitudinous national melodies.

The ways in which economic and political elites adjust their attitudes concerning Europe at the national level could not be examined by our study. Whether elites’ attitude-adjustment about Europeanness at the national level is the result of direct interaction via peer pressure and cue-taking, or the result of an exposure to similar experiences and influences in the institutional settings of national states, or a combination of both mechanisms, cannot yet be determined. We can be sure, however, that the same adjustment does not exist with regard to elites’ responsiveness to non-elites’ attitudes concerning Europe. Only in the case of political elites’ attitudes towards integration do we see an effect of the national averages of non-elite positions on individual elites’ attitudes. This general finding highlights the fact that national political and economic elites are more in tune with each other regarding Europeanness than with the respective populations.

This observation does not, however, imply that elite and non-elite levels of European politics operate independently of each other. As Müller, Jenny, and Ecker (Chapter 8) show, the ‘notorious elites–masses gap’ varies in systematic ways between policy areas that are potential candidates for Europeanization as well as between countries. All these policy areas belong to the ‘conative’ dimension of Europeanness and refer to the actual and future attribution of agency and sovereignty to national polities or to the level of European institutions respectively. With regard to ‘more help for disadvantaged regions’ and a ‘common foreign policy’, broad support was expressed by voters and political and economic elites for transfer to the European level. Any differences among these groups were generated more by the intensity of their support than by conflicting views of the direction that European integration should take. Müller et al. take it as a ‘good sign of the working of European democracies that the policies already in place in the EU do not show any significant divergence between the opinion of the voters and those of their political representatives’.

Also according to Müller and colleagues, things look different regarding steps towards ‘European integration that have not yet been taken’, such as unifying social security systems, a common tax system, and the establishment of a European army. Whereas elites are more pro-integrationist with regard to (p.239) a European army, the general population is more pro-integrationist with regard to unified tax and social security systems. These differences can be best explained by elites’ empowerment strategies and popular aspirations to favourable redistribution terms (Best 2011). Whereas pooling the power and influence of European states by pursuing a common European defence system may result in a collective increase in world influence and the pacification of an area of traditional conflict and strain between European states, it is welfare state and tax policies, and the associated redistribution of national wealth, that form the most important battle fields for electoral competition and serve as instruments for rallying mass support through material incentives. At the level of non-elites, there seems to be hope in many European polities that a common system of social security would mean an adjustment of state-sponsored benefits to the highest European level and the creation of a pan-European redistribution system that would involve transfers to the national needy from the rich of the neighbouring states. It is obvious that elites, particularly economic elites, are less enthusiastic about a version of a unified Europe devoted to social protectionism and top-down redistribution. Whereas such a process would mean elite disempowerment, the transfer of control over the military means disempowerment of the general population. Wars, even those that are justified, are unpopular among European populations. Giving up national control over the military would mean giving up electoral control over national defence policy and the politicians who are responsible for it.

Political parties play a pivotal role in the interaction between elites and non-elites. This also applies, although to a lesser degree, to economic elites, who can influence the make-up of party systems and the discourses initiated by parties through financial sponsorship and media support. Hooghe and Marks’ (2008) concept of ‘constraining dissensus’, which diagnoses a conflictual politicization of European issues, stresses the important role of party competition and agenda-setting by parties. Chapter 9 by Conti confirms that parties are intermediaries in the process of European integration, at once shaping and being shaped by public opinion. Conti’s analyses of party platforms show that the EU is mainly represented in aspects of institutional functioning and policy making, while symbolic elements of identities are less salient. Only in the new member states is the topos of ‘European civilization’ and the need to defend it against external threats more important. This discourse coexists somewhat uneasily with a tendency to resist deeper integration, which in the new member states also involves mainstream parties, particularly with respect to policy delegation. In these countries, Europe is presented as a back-up and safety provision for a national revival, while internationalism, even when it takes the form of European integration, is somewhat discredited by the previous enforced submission to the supranational order of the Soviet system. In general, the positions of parties are guided by their ideological stance, (p.240) whereby radical parties tend to be Eurosceptic or outright Europhobic and parties of the centre-left and centre-right are more pro-European and pro-integrationist. The other, highly important factor is government incumbency, which infuses an element of European ‘realpolitik’ into party discourses. Conti concludes, in accordance with other findings in this book, that the ‘overlap between the positions of party central office and those of the MPs is…considerable to the point that one could argue that parties do not seem to follow popular preferences on the EU issues; rather party elites seem to build their own preferences in relative isolation from the masses’.

Conti’s results link up with many others in this book, which establish the ‘Europe of elites’ as a subject of analysis in its own right and only loosely coupled with the ‘Europe of the masses’. Elites and general populations expect different advantages and see different drawbacks associated with the process of European integration. The decisive factor distinguishing between the positions of elites and non-elites towards a unified Europe is the empowerment or loss of control that collective actors attribute to a transfer of national responsibilities and authority to the European level. Here we see a wide elite–masses differential. The main differential identified in our study exists, however, within elites and distinguishes between national contexts and configurations of elites’ Europeanness. The assumption that European integration is founded on a broad nation-transcending elite consensus and focusing emotions, cognitions, and conations of elites to the common goal of European unity could not be confirmed. What we see is a patchwork of attitudes linking and distancing national elites in very specific ways to and from the process of European integration. We also see that the direction and salience of elites’ Europeanness is widely unconnected to their transnational social ties and communication links. Only embeddedness in the institutional networks of the European Union had some minor effect on political elites’ Europeanness (Chapter 10). The one item that stands out as common ground for elite consensus is approval of the statement that one’s country has benefited from European integration. Here, instead of full normative integration, we see varying configurations of a ‘Europe à la carte’ (Chapter 2) where different aspects of Europeanness are combined in country-specific patterns. This leads to a situation where very few elite members agree or disagree with all aspects of Europeanness, and outright Europhobic or Europhilic positions are exceptional. Differences between political and economic elites also exist, although both elite groups are closely linked by mutual responsiveness in all three dimensions of Europeanness (emotive, cognitive, and conative). In sum, the ‘Europe of Elites’ is a multifarious and polycephalic entity, formed by manifold national influences and shaped by differentials within and between elite sectors, elites and non-elites, and––foremost––between national settings. (p.241) This is no solid ground for a federal European Union, but European heterogeneity has generated the flexibility and versatility necessary for compromising and balancing interests underlying its meandering course through the many crises and challenges of recent European history towards deeper integration. So far, it seems that European diversity was not a weakness but a strength. However, to face a massive and actual threat to the very bases of European wealth or security the multifarious and polycephalic structure of the Europe of elites may prove to be too cumbersome and impotent. It might, therefore, be replaced by a more hierarchical structure or even dissolve.