A debate has emerged between S. Hix and S. Bartolini on the plausibility and desirability of the politicization of the EU. By this it is usually meant a more important role for mass, competitive, and partisan politics both on the input- (expression of preferences) and on the output- (collectively binding measures and resource allocation) side of the European decision-making system. In this article, we argue that this debate does not sufficiently take into consideration the consociational nature of the EU. Comparing the EU to other consociational polities such as Belgium and Switzerland, we show that the politicization of the EU is not plausible along a bipolar logic, but that other forms of politicization are both plausible and desirable.
We argue that S. Hix’s recipe for politicization is based on some incorrect assumptions and predictions. It is not obvious that the EU is evolving towards more Left-Right polarization. Even if this were the case, the nature of the EU implies that cooperation and compromises are indispensable, therefore Hix’s suggestions will not suffice to clarify political choice and enhance accountability. Hix is not correct in believing that politicization along the Left-Right cleavage will alleviate euroskepticism. He tends to associate the latter with this dimension, which is partly wrong. Moreover, euroskepticism also has a social base (“losers of modernization”) and does not only derive from the deficit of accountability in the EU.
At the same time, we think that the consociational nature of the EU also reduces the risks feared by S. Bartolini with regard to the consequences of politicization on governability. The politicization of constitutive issues can even be regarded as necessary, in order to integrate anti-system political entrepreneurs and euroskeptic segments of public opinion. Also Bartolini is only partially right in stressing the destabilizing potential of the politicization of opposition on these issues: it is true that consociational mechanisms are less effective – at least in the short term – in dealing with this kind of conflict, but it seems to us less risky to rely on them than on non-politicization.
As a remedy to the accountability deficit of the EU, consociational-type politicization is nevertheless not a panacea. Therefore we suggest the coupling of a system of politicized “negotiation democracy” with mechanisms of direct participation. With a number of institutional safeguards, such a coupling would help to cope with the limits of consociational systems, would remain compatible with the compound nature of the EU, and would provide value-added in terms of public legitimization of the European integration.