Comparative Political Studies
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the European Union:
Evidence From Council
Sara Hagemann1, Sara B. Hobolt1,
and Christopher Wratil1
Are governments responsive to public preferences when legislating in
international organizations? This article demonstrates that governments
respond to domestic public opinion even when acting at the international
level. Specifically, we examine conflict in the European Union’s primary
legislative body, the Council of the European Union (EU). We argue that
domestic electoral incentives compel governments to react to public
opinion. Analyzing a unique data set on all legislative decisions adopted in the
Council since 1999, we show that governments are more likely to oppose
legislative proposals that extend the level and scope of EU authority when
their domestic electorates are skeptical about the EU. We also find that
governments are more responsive when the issue of European integration is
salient in domestic party politics. Our findings demonstrate that governments
can use the international stage to signal their responsiveness to public
concerns and that such signals resonate in the domestic political debate.
responsiveness, legislative behavior, Council, public opinion, European Union
1London School of Economics and Political Science, UK
Sara B. Hobolt, London School of Economics and Political Science, European Institute,
Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, UK.
621077CPSXXX10.1177/0010414015621077Comparative Political StudiesHagemann et al.
2 Comparative Political Studies
Government responsiveness to public opinion is central to democratic repre-
sentation. It implies that elected representatives are listening to and acting
upon the wishes and views of the represented (see, for example, Mansbridge,
2003; Soroka & Wlezien, 2010). Various studies have shown that policy
agendas, government spending, and legislative voting follow the changing
policy preferences of citizens (Lax & Philips, 2012; Page & Shapiro, 1983,
1992; Stimson, MacKuen, & Erikson, 1995; Wlezien, 1995). The fear of
electoral sanctioning is an important incentive for governments to act respon-
sively. Not surprisingly, studies have therefore found that in systems of low
clarity of responsibility and limited information, where it is difficult for vot-
ers to identify policy shirking, elected representatives are also less responsive
to public preferences (see Besley & Burgess, 2002; Carey, 2008; Snyder &
Strömberg, 2008; Wlezien & Soroka, 2012). On the one hand, we may expect
governments to be less concerned about responding to public preferences
when legislating in international organizations (IOs) where clarity of respon-
sibility is blurred by multilevel structures and public scrutiny is generally less
pronounced.1 On the other hand, increased transparency and scrutiny of deci-
sion-making in some IOs may give governments greater incentives to use this
arena to signal that they are aligned with the public’s views and preferences.
Yet, little evidence exists with regard to whether governments are in fact
responsive to domestic public opinion pressures when acting in IOs. Although
public opinion is generally seen as an important factor explaining govern-
ment behavior in the domestic context, the empirical literature on the role of
public opinion in IOs is still sparse (see Stasavage, 2004). Instead, studies of
government behavior in IOs have mainly focused on other drivers, such as
geopolitics, military and economic resources, and special interest preferences
(see, for example, Bailer, Mattila, & Schneider, 2014; Bailey, Strezhnev, &
Voeten, 2015; Dreher & Sturm, 2012). The contribution of this study is to
focus on the role of public opinion in shaping government behavior in the
European Union (EU) in order to understand if and when governments use
the international arena to signal to their domestic electorates. We argue that
domestic electoral incentives can compel governments to signal that they are
responsive to public opinion even when acting internationally.
Our empirical investigation focuses on decision-making in the EU. The
EU is arguably the world’s most advanced IO, presiding over a level of eco-
nomic and political integration unmatched in global politics. We examine
government behavior in its primary decision-making body, the Council of the
European Union (henceforward, the Council), where national ministers nego-
tiate and adopt legislative proposals. Legislative bargaining in the Council
used to take place behind closed doors; however, since 1999, an increasing
amount of information on policy decisions and government positions has
Hagemann et al. 3
become available (Naurin & Wallace, 2008). In this article, we analyze a
unique data set covering all legislative acts since 1999 and investigate to
what extent government opposition in the Council is a response to popular
opposition to European integration. Government opposition in the Council is
still a rare event, but one that carries considerable significance (Mattila, 2009;
Novak, 2013). Our argument is that when domestic electorates are negatively
disposed toward European integration, governments can strategically oppose
EU acts that are concerned with further transfers of authority to the EU to
demonstrate that their position is aligned with their public’s preferences.
Hence, in contrast to the extant wisdom that governments are shielded from
public opinion when legislating internationally, we argue that popular
Euroskepticism incentivizes them to voice opposition in the Council. While
this is not “policy responsiveness” in the classic sense of changing the overall
policy direction of the Council, we conceptualize it as “signal responsive-
ness” that serves to communicate governments’ positions to their domestic
Our findings demonstrate that governments’ opposition to legislative pro-
posals is indeed shaped by public opinion on European integration wherever
these proposals extend the level and scope of European integration. We also
find that governments are more likely to signal their positions in the Council
when the issue gains importance in domestic party competition and that these
signals resonate in the national public sphere. Our findings thus contribute
not only to our understanding of policy-making in the EU, but may also have
broader significance as IOs increasingly face pressures to deepen cooperation
and increase transparency and accountability to domestic audiences.
Moreover, our study enhances our understanding of democratic responsive-
ness by highlighting that governments use the international stage to signal to
voters at home that they care about their views.
Government Responsiveness in IOs
The relationship between public preferences and government policy is at the
heart of theories of democratic representation. There is a rich literature on
government responsiveness: if, when, and how government policies respond
to changes in public opinion (see, for example, Erikson, MacKuen, &
Stimson, 2002; Hobolt & Klemmensen, 2008; Soroka & Wlezien, 2010;
Wlezien, 1995).2 Despite the scholarly focus on how public opinion shapes
government positions and policies when they act domestically,3 far less
attention has been paid to how public opinion influences government behav-
ior in IOs. Overwhelmingly, the literature on government positions and leg-
islative behavior in IOs, such as the EU, the World Trade Organization, and
4 Comparative Political Studies
the United Nations, has focused on military and economic considerations,
and special interests as drivers of government behavior (see, for example,
Bailey et al., 2015; Dreher & Sturm, 2012; Hug & Lukács, 2013). This is
also true of the literature on government behavior in the Council more
Numerous studies have in recent years examined decision-making in the
Council, not least due to improved public access to information. Yet, none of
these have provided a rigorous study of how public opinion may shape gov-
ernment behavior. Instead, the literature has centered on economic interests
and government ideology as drivers of behavior. A recent example is Bailer
et al.’s (2014) study of voting behavior in the Council, who demonstrate that
government opposition can largely be attributed to economic explanations,
notably domestic specialized interests. Others have found that a North-South
divide exists between the member states in their voting patterns (Mattila,
2009; Thomson, Stokman, Achen, & König, 2006) or that the left-right ideol-
ogy of governments matters to their behavior in the Council (Hagemann,
2008; Hagemann & Høyland, 2008; Mattila, 2009). The general assumption
in this work is that as governments are largely insulated from electoral pres-
sures when they legislate in the Council, constituency demands do not play a
significant role. As Bailer et al. (2014, p. 441) note,
[T]the electorate is usually not well informed about the Council deliberations
as these negotiations are conducted mostly away from the public scrutiny . . . .
Therefore, negative votes and abstentions in the Council will be a signal to
which mainly domestic interest groups pay some attention.
Public opinion is not entirely absent from the literature on EU policy-
making, however. Some studies have examined “systemic responsiveness”
by analyzing whether the amount of legislation passed reflects public
demands for further integration, showing a relationship between EU support
and the amount of legislation (see Arnold, Franklin, & Wlezien, 2013; De
Vries & Arnold, 2011; Toshkov, 2011). Although this work is valuable for
studying responsiveness at the system level, it provides limited insight into
when and why we would expect individual politicians to act responsively in
the EU. Moreover, it is based on the strong assumption that more legislative
acts necessarily imply more integration.
In contrast to extant work on systemic responsiveness, we examine the
micro-foundations of responsiveness by analyzing government behavior in
the Council. If there is any relationship between public opinion and govern-
ment behavior in IOs, we would expect to find it in the EU, as arguably the
world’s most advanced IO with high levels of political and economic
Hagemann et al. 5
integration and increasing salience in domestic public spheres (Hooghe &
Marks, 2009). Hence, we cannot easily generalize from the EU to other IOs.
Yet, as a “most likely case,” the EU is an important starting point for the
exploration of democratic responsiveness in the international arena.
The Council is the EU’s primary legislative chamber4 and we focus on
government opposition to legislative acts. While the majority of acts adopted
by the Council are supported by all member states, opposition in the Council
has increased during the past 10 to 15 years, with more legislation now
adopted with either a single or a number of governments explicitly recording
their disagreement (Naurin & Wallace, 2008). Today, “vote intentions” are
publicly available ahead of Council meetings, and minutes and final legisla-
tive records from the meetings include information about votes and policy
positions by the member states. Council votes are also reported more widely
by national media (see below). In contrast to the prevailing wisdom, this
study develops and tests the argument that public opinion can play a role in
shaping governments’ behavior in the Council.
Responsive Opposition in the Council
How would responsiveness to public opinion manifest itself in governments’
voting behavior in the Council? We argue that governments can use opposi-
tion votes in the Council as public signals of their position on EU integration.
This signal responsiveness is different from substantive responsiveness in
that governments cannot directly change the policy substance with their
opposition (as virtually all acts put to a vote eventually pass), but they can use
it as a communication tool to credibly signal their position on transfers of
authority (closer European integration) to a wider audience. However, gov-
ernments’ motivations to signal their position are similar to when they change
policies in line with public opinion during the legislative term: In both cases,
it is a form of “anticipatory representation” as they focus on what they think
voters will reward in the next election rather than what they promised during
the campaign of the previous election (Mansbridge, 2003; see also Erikson
et al., 2002; Stimson et al., 1995). Crucially, however, the EU makes it more
difficult for a single government to shift actual policy in line with domestic
preferences. Yet, by voting in line with public preferences they are still able
to send the signal that they are not out of step with the public mood.
Recent studies have shown that citizens care about government respon-
siveness (see Bowler, in press; Rosset, Giger, & Bernauer, in press), and the
issue of European integration has become increasingly salient to voters. Since
the early 1990s, Europe has witnessed a shift away from a “permissive
6 Comparative Political Studies
consensus” in favor of elite-led European integration toward more vocal and
skeptical public attitudes toward the integration project, so-called
Euroskepticism (see, for example, De Vries, 2007; De Vries & Hobolt, 2012;
Hooghe & Marks, 2009). The electoral consequences of Euroskepticism have
been acutely felt by Europe’s mainstream parties as they suffered loss of sup-
port due to the rise of Euroskeptic parties, mainly on the far right and the far
left, both in national and European Parliament elections (see De Vries, 2007;
Hobolt & Spoon, 2012). Hence, given the increasing salience of voters’ con-
cerns about European integration in electoral contests, political elites have
been looking for ways of adjusting their position on the issue.
We argue that Council voting serves as a signaling tool that governments
may adopt to communicate their positions on a given proposal, and on
European integration more generally, to a domestic audience. Given the
strong consensus culture in the Council, opposition sends a clear and gener-
ally unwelcome message to negotiation partners that may be costly in terms
of reputation and related future negotiation success (see Naurin & Wallace,
2008; Novak, 2013; U.K. House of Commons, 2013). Opposition can also
have immediate consequences as it may lead to dismissal of the opposing
government’s preferences when drafting the final policy text. Hence, as there
are few benefits (the policy will be passed by the majority in any case) and
several costs, it is not surprising that opposition is still relatively rare,
accounting for less than 2% of votes during the 1999 to 2011 period we inves-
tigate here. This means, however, that as a public signaling tool, opposition
votes can be seen as more credible as they involve “observable costly effort”
(see Lupia & McCubbins, 1998).
However, to serve as a public signal of the government’s position on integra-
tion, an opposition vote must be interpretable as a stance against European inte-
gration. Most of the legislative proposals in the Council, however, do not relate
to transfers of authority to the EU level. Some policy areas, such as agriculture,
deal primarily with rather technical amendments or issues in the remit of already
established EU competences, whereas other policy areas are concerned with
extending the scope of authority by establishing EU legislation or programs in
previously unaffected areas as well as its level by delegating new decisional
powers to supranational bodies or agencies (Börzel, 2005; Schmitter, 1970). Our
expectation is therefore that opposition that is aimed at appeasing public con-
cerns about European integration will primarily relate to votes in policy areas
concerned with extending the level or scope of EU authority. This leads to our
first hypothesis concerning government responsiveness in the Council:
Hypothesis 1 (H1): Governments are more likely to oppose legislative
proposals that affect the authority of the EU when domestic public opinion
Hagemann et al. 7
is negatively disposed toward the EU than when public opinion is posi-
tively disposed toward the EU.
The extent to which governments wish to use opposition votes as a signal
to their publics is also shaped by domestic political competition. We expect
that governments’ responsiveness is higher when the issue of European inte-
gration is salient in the domestic context. As signal responsiveness aims at
communicating positions (and shifts in positions) to the public, it becomes
largely obsolete in situations when conflicts about integration are not politi-
cized in the domestic political arena. Political elites play a crucial role in
mobilizing a new issue in the domestic public sphere, including in the media,
and thus making it relevant to voters’ choices (see Carmines & Stimson, 1986,
1989; Hooghe & Marks, 2009). The abstract nature of European integration
and multilevel governance issues makes the actions of political elites all the
more important as such issues typically lack inherent news value (Soroka,
2002). Instead, it is political elites’ communication activities on these issues
that render them newsworthy in the first place (Adam, 2007; Boomgaarden
et al., 2013). In turn, increased levels of (media) information on EU integra-
tion render the issue more important for electoral competition as they facilitate
“EU issue voting,” that is, they increase the impact of EU attitudes on vote
choice (De Vries, 2007; De Vries, Edwards, & Tillman, 2011; Tillman, 2004).
Research has shown that in party systems where there is more partisan conflict
and media debate on European integration dimensions, EU issue voting is
more likely (De Vries et al., 2011; Hobolt, Spoon, & Tilley, 2009). When
political parties politicize the issue of European integration domestically, there
are also greater incentives for governing parties to demonstrate that they adjust
their position on European integration in line with public opinion. Hence, we
expect that wherever political party elites increase the salience of integration,
governments will be particularly prone to signal responsiveness.
Hypothesis 2 (H2): Governments are more responsive to public opinion
when the European integration issue gains salience in domestic party
The next sections discuss how we test these hypotheses empirically.
Data and Sample Selection
To test our propositions we draw on a unique data set of governments’ votes
in the Council between January 1999 and October 2011.5 We define opposi-
tion as governments’ “No” or “Abstain” votes as abstentions always mean a
8 Comparative Political Studies
deviation from the majority consensus and effectively count as a negative
position when mobilizing majorities to meet the required qualified majority
threshold. Our dependent variable is therefore binary with 1 indicating oppo-
sition of governments to a legislative act.
As our main independent variable to test H1, we measure public opinion
on EU integration with the Eurobarometer survey question on EU member-
ship, which asks respondents whether their countries’ membership in the EU
is “a good thing,” “a bad thing,” or “neither good nor bad.” This question has
been widely used to measure dynamic preferences for EU integration. We
operationalize public opinion by assigning −1 to all respondents who think
EU membership is a bad thing, 1 to it is a good thing, and 0 to all who are
undecided. Our measure of opinion is the survey-weighted mean of all valid
responses by country, and runs from about 0 (when supporters and opponents
of integration are neck and neck) to about 0.8 (when there is overwhelming
support for EU membership).6 In all models, we use a 6-month lag of opinion
from the voting date to represent the causal ordering between opinion and
government behavior in which governments react to public opinion.7
To test our second hypothesis (H2), we construct a measure of dynamic
party salience of integration from the Comparative Manifesto Project’s
(CMP) coding of party manifestos (Lehmann, Matthieß, Merz, Regel, &
Werner, 2015). We capture changes in party emphasis by first calculating the
average of the logged percentage of quasi-sentences parliamentary parties
devote to European integration and linearly interpolate this measure between
elections over time. Our measure of change in salience is the emphasis at the
date of the Council vote minus the emphasis 2 years prior to this date.8
As signal responsiveness is about “anticipatory representation” rather than
a government fulfilling its electoral mandate, we have to rule out the possibil-
ity that the relationship between opinion and opposition votes is entirely
driven by changes in government composition—that is, that when parties
with a more Euroskeptic profile enter office, they also oppose EU legislation
more often. We therefore control for the seat-weighted positions on EU inte-
gration as well as left-right of all government parties that were represented in
the cabinet on the very day of the Council vote.9 We measure both concepts
with the CMP coding from the preceding elections and operationalize parties’
position on EU integration as the difference in the percentages of positive and
negative quasi-sentences on the EU as well as their left-right position cap-
tured by the CMP’s summative right-left (RILE) measure. We employ a logit
transformation on all CMP measures (Lowe, Benoit, Mikhaylov, & Laver,
2011). Furthermore, we control for several factors that have been shown to
influence voting in the Council in previous studies. In particular, we control
for economic explanations of governments’ voting behavior (see Bailer et al.,
Hagemann et al. 9
2014) by including measures of annual unemployment, inflation rates, and
countries’ per capita net balance from the EU budget. Finally, we include
dummy variables for whether the legislative act was filed under the co-deci-
sion procedure, whether the country voting held the presidency of the Council
as well as whether the voting took place before or after Eastern enlargement.
These differences in institutional and political circumstances could influence
the level of opposition.10
Importantly, we only expect to find signal responsiveness on acts that have
implications for the scope and level of EU authority. If acts establish EU
activities in new areas, set up new supranational agencies, or enforce the
harmonization of rules, opposing such acts can be interpreted by the public as
a general stance against “more integration” or more “authority” of the supra-
national institutions. Our expectation is that such legislative acts are strongly
clustered in particular policy areas. Specifically, policy domains like agricul-
ture and fisheries or internal market have been areas of (exclusive) commu-
nity competence for decades and supranational authority in these areas is
well-established (see Börzel, 2005; Hix, 2005; Hix & Høyland, 2011). In
contrast, in areas where EU competences are not as well-established such as
civil liberties, justice and home affairs, or foreign policy, the boundaries of
authority continue to shift. To rigorously determine which policy areas are
characterized by changes within the boundaries of existing competencies as
opposed to areas in which legislative activity pushes these boundaries, we set
up a text scaling model based on the well-known Wordscores approach
(Laver, Benoit, & Garry, 2003).11 For this purpose, we collected text sum-
maries of the legislative acts in our data set from the European Parliament’s
Legislative Observatory website. These summaries of the European
Commission’s legislative proposal describe the background, content as well
as implications of the relevant act voted on in the Council. In total, we are
able to obtain this textual information for 1,793 out of 2,314 acts in our
extended data set.12
The Wordscores approach takes a starting point in a set of manually cho-
sen reference texts that represent the extremes of the substantive dimension
of interest. The relative frequency of a particular word in each of the refer-
ence texts then provides naïve Bayes probabilities for whether a virgin text is
from one or the other reference category. These probabilities are multiplied
with chosen values for the reference texts to “score” each virgin text on the
dimension of interest. The procedure is applied to each word in a text and the
average word score of a text provides a document score. We create two long
reference texts from our sample with negative scores representing acts oper-
ating on the basis of established competences and positive numbers repre-
senting texts that extend EU authority. Table 1 displays average rescaled
10 Comparative Political Studies
scores of acts per policy area and shows that acts extending EU authority are
clearly overrepresented in areas such as Employment, education, culture and
social affairs, as well as Budget, foreign and security policy, Transport and
telecommunication, and Civil liberties, justice, and home affairs. Importantly,
the analysis shows that three policy areas are evidently much more concerned
with established EU competences rather than authority extension, namely
Agriculture and fisheries, Economic and financial affairs, and Internal mar-
ket and consumer affairs. This classification broadly corresponds with the
expert judgments provided by Börzel (2005), Hix (2005), and Hix and
Høyland (2011) on EU authority across policy areas (see web appendix). We
therefore exclude these areas from our analysis below.
Analysis and Results
To analyze these data we use mixed effects logistic regression models with
fixed effects for countries and a random effect for each legislative act voted on
in the Council, based on the assumption that our large sample of acts can be
thought of as a random draw from an imagined population of Council acts.13
The main results are reported in Table 2. First, we only include public
opinion and the control variables in Model 1. The results show that public
opinion has a significant effect on governments’ opposition in the Council in
the policy areas included. The probability of an opposition vote decreases as
the fraction of the population that supports EU membership of their country
Table 1. Wordscores Results by Policy Area.
Extension of authority vs.
Agriculture and fisheries −.65
Civil liberties, justice, and home affairs .15
Constitutional affairs and administration .14
Development and international trade .12
Economic and financial affairs −.11
Employment, education, culture, and social affairs .94
Environment and energy .22
Foreign and security policy .46
Internal market and consumer affairs −.03
Transport and telecommunications .34
N of acts 1,793
Hagemann et al. 11
increases. Model 2 adds the governing parties’ seat-weighted position on left-
right and pro-anti integration to ascertain whether part of the opinion effect is
due to changes in the government composition. The inclusion of these terms
leaves the results virtually unchanged, which demonstrates that responsive-
ness of governments in the Council is first and foremost a result of anticipa-
tory dynamics as government parties’ positions at the last elections only
explain a marginal part of the relationship between opinion and voting in the
Council. Hence, in contrast to the existing literature on decision-making in
the Council that claims that public opinion is of little significance, we find
that if we focus on acts in policy areas that extend the scope and degree of EU
authority, government opposition is clearly a reflection of domestic
Euroskepticism. This supports our argument that governments use Council
voting to signal responsiveness, adjusting their position during the legislative
term in anticipation of electoral sanctions.
Model 3 investigates our Hypothesis 2 that party salience of EU integra-
tion moderates the opinion effect on opposition. For this purpose, we include
an interaction term between public opinion and the increase in party salience
of integration during the last 2 years. The results show that when parties have
Table 2. Mixed Effects Logistic Regression of Opposition Votes.
Model 1 (SE) Model 2 (SE) Model 3 (SE)
Public opinion −2.611 (1.082)** −2.527 (1.091)** −2.818 (1.102)**
Inflation rate 0.060 (0.067) 0.075 (0.067) 0.062 (0.067)
Unemployment rate 0.097 (0.038)** 0.096 (0.038)** 0.105 (0.039)***
Net balance EU budget −0.003 (0.001)** −0.002 (0.001)* −0.003 (0.001)**
Co-decision 0.788 (0.293)*** 0.786 (0.293)*** 0.786 (0.293)***
Post-enlargement 0.369 (0.316) 0.300 (0.319) 0.171 (0.320)
Rotating presidency −1.034 (0.539)* −1.068 (0.540)** −1.380 (0.549)**
−0.190 (0.149) −0.366 (0.170)**
−0.376 (0.221)* −0.440 (0.227)*
Party salience 4.416 (1.267)***
Party salience × Public
Constant −6.996 (0.966)*** −6.808 (0.997)*** −6.852 (1.002)***
2.255 (0.215)*** 2.257 (0.215)*** 2.253 (0.214)***
Fixed effects (countries) Yes Yes Yes
N of observations 17,176 17,176 17,176
*p < .1. **p < .05. ***p < .01.
12 Comparative Political Studies
increased the salience of European integration in their manifestos, govern-
ments are more responsive to different levels of opinion than in situations
with decreased party salience of integration. The moderation term is highly
significant and provides evidence for our conjecture that signaling activities
of the government are conditioned by domestic party competition.
The results for the control variables are also in line with expectations. We
find that governments oppose more often if unemployment is high and if the
act was filed under co-decision (when preference realization is impeded by
another veto player, the European Parliament). In contrast, the agreement of
governments can be “bought” with attributions from the EU budget (see
Bailer et al., 2014). Also, unsurprisingly national delegations holding the
presidency are less likely to oppose acts they have negotiated. In Model 3, we
also find evidence that right-wing governments opposed less often during the
period under investigation and that governments that present themselves as
Euroskeptic in elections oppose more often.
Figure 1 demonstrates the substantive magnitude of these results by plotting
the conditional marginal effect of a unit change in opinion (in terms of changes
in predicted probabilities) depending on whether party salience of EU integra-
tion has increased or decreased. These marginal effects range from essentially
0 up to −1.4 percentage points for a unit change in opinion. Assuming that party
Figure 1. Party salience and public opinion.
Note. Change in salience is plotted from the 5th to 95th percentile; 95% confidence intervals
as dashed lines.
Hagemann et al. 13
salience of integration is increasing, typical movements in opinion within a
country (e.g., one or two standard deviations) translate into changes of the pre-
dicted probability of opposition votes of about ±0.1% to 0.3% percentage
points. Although this may appear small at first sight, it must be compared with
the overall low frequency of opposition votes that is just 1.33% in our sample.
In this context, the leverage of public opinion is indeed very substantial.
We have now established that government opposition in the Council is more
likely when the domestic electorate is more skeptical about the EU, espe-
cially when the issue is also gaining salience among political parties. The
next step is to look at the nature of this opposition and whether the govern-
ment’s signal resonates in the domestic public sphere.
Starting with the nature of the public signal, we seek to investigate the
kind of issues on which governments signal their opposition. For this pur-
pose, we use a topic model that allows us to identify the type of acts on which
public opinion matters to government opposition. We apply a Latent Dirichlet
Allocation (LDA) model (Blei, Ng, & Jordan, 2003; Quinn, Monroe, Colaresi,
Crespin, & Radev, 2010; Grimmer, 2010) to the legislative summaries of the
1,793 acts where these summaries were available. LDA is a hierarchical
Bayesian model that builds on the idea that each document consists of a mix-
ture of topics that can be inferred from the co-occurrence of words. The pro-
portions dedicated to each of k topics are assumed to be drawn from a
common Dirichlet prior. The word generating process within each document
is then modeled by first drawing the topic and then, conditional on the topic,
the respective word from a multinomial distribution (see Grimmer & Stewart,
2013). Testing different numbers of topics and starting values, we arrive at a
model with k = 45 topics that creates a good substantive delineation of topics
and is indicative of key results we obtain across a variety of models.14
Table 3 shows the results from the LDA model with 45 topics and each act
allocated to its most likely topic. It should be noted that these findings are
meant to be exploratory, providing greater insight into when and why govern-
ments choose to oppose, rather than a strict confirmatory test. The final col-
umn in the table indicates the effect of public opinion on government
opposition for legislative acts in that category. It displays the difference in the
percentages of opposition votes given by countries with opinion below ver-
sus above the country mean. A high positive value shows that a Euroskeptic
electorate makes government opposition in the Council more frequent; a
negative value indicates the opposite (this is only significant in the instance
of legislation on Financial institutions ).
Table 3. Topic Model of Council Acts.
Description Keywords Obs. (%)
1 Budgetary surveillance of
Economics, budgetary, surveillance,
stability, imbalances, deficit, Euro
0.99 0.24 +1.3
2 Passenger rights and EU funding
Transport, passenger, damage, disaster,
0.88 5.30 +3.0
3 Regulation on food products Food, regulation, label, consumers,
2.91 4.58 −1.1
4 Communications and research Program, communications, information 4.12 2.22 +0.8
5 Crime and justice Criminal, offense, judiciary, crime, law 3.63 0.35 +0.0
6 Maritime Ship, maritime, law, regulation 1.87 1.32 −0.0
7 Instruments and programs to
financially support non-EU
Instrument, financial, assistance, support,
1.81 1.00 +1.3
8 Agriculture Agriculture, product, market, local,
organic, trade, forest
2.25 4.15 −1.1
9 Companies and financial industry Companies, payment, financial, transfer,
2.09 2.25 +0.9
10 Energy and environment Energy, efficiency, emission, gas,
greenhouse, renewable, fuel
1.43 0.96 −0.4
11 Environment and transport Emission, vehicle, limit, air, road, engine,
reduction, pollution, noise
2.80 2.80 +3.2***
12 Environment Substance, environment, waste, pollution,
2.86 2.17 +0.3
13 Common market in food
Market, aid, price, regulation, year, sugar,
4.56 5.46 −1.1
Description Keywords Obs. (%)
14 Health, risk management,
Health, protect, threat, emergency,
disease, risk, culture
1.04 1.45 +0.1
15 EU financial assistance Assistance, guarantee, loan, financial,
fund, European Investment Bank
1.48 0 0
16 Employment and social policy Employment, social, education, labor,
1.76 1.04 −0.9
17 Transportation and public works
Public, contract, air, carrier, airport,
1.92 1.16 +0.0
18 Accession of new member
states and asylum matters
Accession, asylum, application 2.25 1.06 +0.9
19 Regulation on external trade
Regulation, treaties, trade 3.85 0.74 −0.8
20 Consumer protection and legal
Consumer, protection, rights, courts, law,
1.48 3.07 −0.2
21 Taxation and internal market VAT, rate, tax, goods, fraud 2.09 0.24 −0.0
22 Common agricultural policy and
Agriculture, rural, payment, fund, CAP,
1.37 1.35 −1.4
23 Internal market in energy Market, network, gas, transmissions,
0.82 0.29 −0.6
24 EU budget Budget, million, payment, expenditure,
commitment, amount, financing, resources
1.54 4.07 +0.2
25 Animal welfare and disease Animals, control, health, disease,
2.97 3.69 +1.7
Table 3. (continued)
Description Keywords Obs. (%)
26 Customs union Customs union, duties, import, tax, rate,
product, tariff, excise
1.48 0.63 −1.2
27 Establishment of agencies and
networks on border control,
security and migration
Agency, network, establishment, security,
2.69 0.81 +1.4***
28 Common Agricultural Policy Farmer, milk, payment, wine, product,
quota, market, crop
1.21 6.38 −2.9
29 Medicine, chemicals, and
Medicine, substance, safety, nuclear, risk,
1.76 2.64 +1.9
30 Single Market Directives, amendments, requirements,
2.86 0.90 +0.0
31 Implementation Implementation, procedure, instruments,
2.91 0.07 −0.1
32 Codification Codification, act, directive, incorporation,
5.77 0.15 −0.0
33 Fisheries Fisheries, vessel, stock, conservation, sea,
4.40 1.44 −0.5
34 Single currency Euro, counterfeit, currency, adopt,
2.09 0.37 −0.2
35 Research and technology Research, technology, project,
1.37 3.02 +0.1
Table 3. (continued)
Description Keywords Obs. (%)
36 Financial contributions to
member state expenditure and
to EU funds
Financial, fund, support, assistance,
2.03 2.98 +2.6*
37 Import and export of goods Export, import, product, market,
regulation, rules, standards
2.31 2.01 −1.5
38 Financial institutions Credit, rate, risk, capital, financial,
1.10 1.60 −3.5***
39 Communications Communications, mobile, satellite,
1.15 3.18 +2.1
40 EU financing in innovation and
Fund, innovation, investment, financing,
1.87 1.54 −1.1
41 Financial supervision Financial, supervision, authority, bank,
0.66 0 0
42 Statistical surveys and data
Data, statistics, regulation, quality 3.35 1.16 +1.1**
43 Transport safety and
Safety, railway, rail, network,
1.04 4.72 +0.6
44 Schengen and border control Schengen, visa, border, travel, SIS 3.08 1.34 +0.5
45 Social security and employment Social security, citizens, rights, profession 2.09 4.43 +1.6
Note. Column “Obs (%)” shows the fraction of observations allocated to the topic as a percentage of all observations; column “Opposition votes
(%)” shows the fraction of opposition votes as a percentage of the observations in the topic; column “Difference by opinion” shows difference in
the proportions of opposition votes cast with opinion below versus above the country mean. VAT = value added tax; CAP = Common Agricultural
Policy; ESA = European Supervisory Authority; SIS = Schengen Information System.
*p < .1. **p < .05. ***p < .01.
Table 3. (continued)
18 Comparative Political Studies
The findings are very much in line with our expectations that signal respon-
siveness is found when legislation is concerned with extending the level and/
or scope of European integration, rather than in areas of established EU com-
petence. Table 3 shows that public opinion has the greatest influence on gov-
ernment opposition on acts concerned with further integration in the field of
environment, border cooperation and migration, data sharing and harmoniza-
tion of statistical surveys, as well as in the area of EU funding for member
states. In contrast, government opposition in the areas of agriculture, fisheries,
and the internal market is not related to public opinion (see the last column,
“Difference by opinion”). Hence, while we find relatively high levels of oppo-
sition on acts about agriculture and budget matters, quite possibly related to
special economic interests (see Bailer et al., 2014), “signal responsiveness” is
only apparent when national governments can use their opposition as a signal
that they are standing up for national interests by opposing shifts toward fur-
ther delegation of powers to the EU. The topic model also implies that govern-
ments use opposition as a signal to domestic audiences mainly in areas that are
likely to be of greater interest to the general electorate (e.g., border control and
environment) rather than specialized interests (e.g., agriculture and fisheries).
This leads us to the question of whether such “signals” are visible in the
domestic public spheres. Our argument concerning signal responsiveness rests
on the assumption that governments have a reasonable expectation that opposi-
tion in the Council may come to the attention of domestic electorates. If deci-
sions made in the Council are taken entirely “away from the public scrutiny” as
Bailer et al. (2014, p. 441) argue, then it would be less plausible that opposition
in the Council is driven by governments’ incentive to improve their standing
with domestic electorates. Hence, to substantiate our argument, we investigate
media coverage and subsequent public debate in a number of EU member
states to show that Council politics is indeed visible to domestic electorates.
For this purpose, we use data provided by Reh, Héritier, Bressanelli, and
Koop (2013), who collected information on the number of news stories in
Italian-, German-, French-, and English-speaking print media that dealt with
EU legislative acts adopted under the EU’s co-decision procedure from mid-
1999 to mid-2009 (i.e., for the fifth and sixth European Parliaments). These
data cover newspapers from seven different EU countries (Austria, Belgium,
France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, and the United Kingdom). To test whether
aggregate opposition in the Council is related to higher levels of media cover-
age, we regress the logged average number of newspaper stories regarding an
act on the total number15 of governmental opposition votes submitted by the
seven countries covered in Reh et al.’s data using ordinary least squares
(OLS). As the last section has shown that opposition votes are more common
on certain topics, we include fixed effects for the 45 topics identified in the
Hagemann et al. 19
Figure 2. Newspaper stories and opposition votes.
Note. 95% confidence intervals as dashed lines.
LDA model. We find a highly significant relationship between the number of
opposition votes and media coverage. Figure 2 demonstrates the substantive
consequences: With no opposition vote, an average of 0.4 newspaper articles
cover the act; this number rises to 1 article with two opposition votes, and 1.4
articles with three governments opposing. Hence, there are observable effects
of government responsiveness: Opposition is related to higher media cover-
age of EU legislation, even when comparing between acts within the same 45
different topic categories.16
To provide a more in-depth look into the public attention to signal respon-
siveness, we have examined the media coverage of cases where a government
opposed legislation in the Council at a time when the domestic population was
particularly critical (with a public opinion score below the country mean) and
which falls under the topics identified in Table 3. Our investigation reveals a
number of cases where popular national news outlets report on Council agree-
ments and on their government’s opposition on the matter. One example is a
media case relating to a vote on Environment and transport (Topic 11 in Table 3).
In September 2011, Spain opposed a majority in the Council when it voted
against an EU directive to substantially increase road tolls for heavy vehicles on
European motorways.17 Spain—together with the Italian government—argued
that the new directive would place a disproportionate burden on the EU’s
20 Comparative Political Studies
peripheral countries as it would result in a subsequent rise in the costs of export
and import of goods. The Spanish media reported extensively on the topic and
explicitly mentioned the Spanish government’s opposition in the Council.18 The
government’s opposition was later also mentioned when the national media
reported on discussions to extend increased toll taxes to all vehicles crossing
borders between EU member states.19
This example illustrates how government opposition in the Council can
be picked up by a broader public audience beyond the political insiders and
narrow organized interest groups with a particular incentive to monitor EU
legislative activities. Of course, many votes in the various Council configu-
rations go largely unnoticed by the general public. Yet, national media pay
attention to the Council agenda and now seek information on their national
governments’ positions on individual policies of particular national or
regional interest.20 Overall, this evidence suggests that opposition in the
Council may be as much a political signal to domestic audiences as a policy
stance vis-à-vis negotiation partners at the European level.
The literature on responsiveness has mostly focused on how governments
react to public opinion in the domestic context, whereas the literature on gov-
ernment behavior in IOs pays little attention to the role of national public
opinion. The latter generally assumes that governments act in isolation from
domestic electoral pressures when they cooperate at the international level.
However, this article has shown that governments do use the international
stage to signal their responsiveness to domestic public opinion and that when
they do so, this resonates in the domestic public debate. Focusing on the EU’s
primary legislative body, the Council, this article demonstrates that govern-
ment opposition to legislative proposals is shaped by public opinion on
European integration. When the domestic electorate is negatively disposed
toward the EU, governments are more likely to oppose proposals that aim to
extend the powers of the EU further. By focusing on legislation that transfers
authority to a supranational organization—the delegation of power to the
EU—we are able to demonstrate the effect of public opinion, which has gen-
erally been overlooked in analyses that do not make distinctions between
policy areas or the nature and types of legislation.
It is important to note that the focus of this study has not been the traditional
form of policy responsiveness, where governments change policy in response
to changing public opinion. Instead, we show that governments use the IOs to
signal that they are listening to domestic public opinion. We refer to this form
of government responsiveness as “signal responsiveness” and suggest that it is
Hagemann et al. 21
caused by governments’ incentives to convey their policy actions at the EU
level to domestic audiences. This distinction is important because unlike policy
responsiveness, signal responsiveness has no direct short-term consequences
for policy output. Hence, while the presence of signal responsiveness indicates
that citizens’ views are heard, it does not guarantee that they are represented.
We also show that government responsiveness is conditioned by domestic
party competition. When political parties in the domestic arena compete on
the issue of European integration, governments are more likely to signal their
opposition in the Council in response to public opinion. Moreover, such
actions are seen to shape the public debate: Our analysis of media coverage
shows that when governments oppose in the Council, there is also greater
coverage in the national media. Although this part of the analysis is limited to
a subset of EU member states, the findings are compelling, and further
research should provide a more comprehensive analysis of how the domestic
public debate and public opinion react to government behavior in the Council.
This study provides an important starting point for understanding the link
between citizens and their governments in the EU by going beyond the received
wisdom that EU negotiations are conducted behind closed doors. Our findings
point to an electoral connection between government ministers and national
public opinion in European affairs when it comes to decisions on the scope and
extent of supranational competences. This may well be relevant to other inter-
national contexts too. Our expectation was that if we are to find evidence of
government responsiveness to public opinion in any IO, it would be most evi-
dent in the EU Council. The fact that we find such compelling evidence that
governments use their behavior in the Council to signal to domestic electorates
opens the door to future research into the connection between governments and
citizens in other international bodies. As incentives increase for international
cooperation in many spheres of political life, and IOs gain competences to
effectively manage such trans-border cooperation, domestic electorates are
likely to form more explicit opinions and preferences over such international
engagements. This is accompanied by growing pressures for accountable and
transparent decision-making at the international level. Taken together, govern-
ments may therefore increasingly see an opportunity to signal their responsive-
ness to domestic constituencies when acting in the international arena.
The authors would like to thank Stefanie Bailer, Thomas Bräuninger, Catherine de
Vries, Elias Dinas, Peter Esaiasson, Mikael Gilljam, Armen Hakhverdian, Dominik
Hangartner, Mareike Kleine, Elin Naurin, Roula Nezi, Giulia Pastorella, Kaat Smets,
Stuart Soroka, James Tilley, Christopher Wlezien, Fabio Wolkenstein, the CPS edi-
tors, and three anonymous reviewers for very insightful comments on previous
22 Comparative Political Studies
versions of this article and Jack Blumenau for help with the collection of legislative
summaries. They are also grateful for the excellent research assistance by Sarah
Ciaglia, Julian Hoerner, Johanna Kainz, and Tim Rogers.
The order of authors was determined alphabetically.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The authors disclosed receipt of the following financial support for the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article: The authors gratefully acknowledge
funding from The Leverhulme Trust (RF-2013-345) and the UK Economic and Social
Research Council (W88918G).
1. For discussions of transparency in international organizations, see, for example,
Keohane (2003), Risse (2000), Stasavage (2004).
2. The relationship between public opinion and government policy is, however,
complex. Studies have stressed governments’ ability to manipulate opinion
(e.g., Jacobs & Shapiro, 2000), raised questions on who comprises the relevant
“public” (e.g., Gilens, 2012), and highlighted the complex relationship between
responsiveness and congruence (e.g., Lax & Philips, 2012).
3. Some studies have also examined the impact of public opinion on politicians’
foreign policy positions; see, for example, Milner and Tingley (2011) and Jacobs
and Page (2005).
4. Legally speaking, the Council is one entity, but in practice, it is divided into
10 configurations (Competitiveness, Economic and Financial Affairs, etc.), and
each Council has to adopt legislation according to a set of rules depending on the
legal basis of the policy proposal in question.
5. We use this time frame for the estimation of our voting models that is restricted
by the European Commission’s decision to discontinue the question on EU mem-
bership in its Eurobarometer surveys from 2011 onward. Our extended data set
comprises all votes up to December 31, 2013. We use this extended data set
for both quantitative text models we use in the article (Wordscores and Latent
Dirichlet Allocation [LDA]).
6. We use linear interpolation to cover time points between surveys (see also Soroka
& Wlezien, 2010).
7. In the web appendix, we demonstrate that we obtain the same results with a
1-year lag of public opinion.
Hagemann et al. 23
8. In the web appendix, we provide a graphical example of this measure over time
9. Clearly, we expect that more Euroskeptic governments will more often oppose
votes in the Council. With regard to ideology, we expect center-right govern-
ments to oppose EU decisions less often as the center-right has not only formed
a majority in the Council but also in the agenda-setting Commission during the
period under investigation (cf. Hagemann & Høyland, 2008).
10. More details on all variables, their sources, and operationalizations are provided
in the web appendix.
11. Further information on the Wordscores model is provided in the web appendix.
12. Where summaries were not available, this was mainly the case for acts related to
specific adjustments of existing policies (e.g., extending certain derogations of
particular member states) and where the European Parliament was not involved
13. We implement fixed effects for countries with dummy variables and hence
report a constant. We have some missing data related to party positions from the
Comparative Manifesto Project. While we use listwise deletion here, the web
appendix demonstrates that our results are robust to using multiple imputation
for these positions. We also present a series of further robustness checks in the
appendix, including different random and fixed effects specifications, alternative
operationalizations of opposition votes as well as party salience, different lag
lengths of opinion, sensitivity analyses with regard to excluding/including policy
areas from the sample, and Jackknife resampling at the country level.
14. More details on the LDA model can be found in the web appendix.
15. If there was more than one vote occasion, we sum opposition votes across occasions.
16. Unfortunately, the available media data do not allow us to conduct a test of the
relationship between government opposition and media attention in the entire
EU; however, this analysis is indicative that government opposition in the
Council resonates in national media.
17. Council and European Parliament Directive 2008/0147/COD.
18. For example, La Vanguardia 14/09/2011: “Los camiones pagaran los peajas mas
19. For example, RTVE 16/09/2011: “Cobrar peaje autovias para turismos, un mod-
elo polemico aplicado solo en Portugal.”
20. See the Council’s press service: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/. See
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Sara Hagemann is an assistant professor at the London School of Economics and
Political Science. She has published extensively on transparency and accountability in
political systems and EU policy-making. Sara is an ESRC Senior Fellow in “The UK
in a Changing Europe” program.
Sara B. Hobolt is the Sutherland Chair in European Institutions and a professor at the
London School of Economics and Political Science. She has published extensively on
public opinion and political behavior. Her most recent book is Blaming Europe?
Responsibility Without Accountability in the EU (OUP 2014, with James Tilley).
Christopher Wratil is a PhD student at the London School of Economics and
Political Science. His research focuses on representation and public opinion, in par-
ticular in the context of European integration.