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Public Responsibility Attribution in the European Union

Project leaders: Prof. Dr. Bernhard Zangl and Prof. Dr. Berthold Rittberger
Researchers: Tim Heinkelmann-Wild, M.A. and Lisa Kriegmair, M.A.

For democratic polities to command legitimacy, it is essential that the political actors responsible for policy-making can be held publicly accountable. Holding policy-makers accountable presupposes that responsibility for policies can be attributed to particular and identifiable political actors. While even in democratic states the attribution of responsibility for any given policy is hardly ever straightforward, we know relatively little on how the public attributes responsibility for the policies adopted by the European Union (EU), whose policies play an integral part in the day-to-day life of EU citizens and those affected by them. In some cases – such as the failure of the EU to devise an effective border control regime, which has led to the deaths of thousands of refugees in the Mediterranean – the public attributes responsibility predominantly to EU institutions; in other cases – such as the failed redistribution of refugees among EU members – the public attributes responsibility mainly to EU member states. And in still other cases, such as the so-called welfare-migration facilitated by the EU’s freedom of movement principle, public responsibility attributions remain more or less untargeted. Especially when the effectiveness of policies is in question, political responsibility and accountability become pressing issues: To whom does the European public attribute political responsibility? When is responsibility predominantly attributed to actors at the member state level, when are attributions primarily targeted at actors at the EU level, and when are attributions untargeted? By answering these questions, the project aims at improving our understanding of public responsibility attributions (PRAs) for policies enacted by the EU. To this end, we will analyze PRAs by means of media content analysis of the coverage of three different sets of EU policies in the European quality press: environmental policies, financial policies, as well as migration policies. To explain variation in PRAs across cases we suggest – as a theoretical point of departure – that the structure of EU policy-making as well as the structure of EU policy implementation shape how the public attributes responsibility for EU policies.

For more information and publications see project website.


Varieties of Indirect Governance (Prof. Dr. Bernhard Zangl with Ken Abbott, Philipp Genschel, and Duncan Snidal)

Governors – domestic, international and private – frequently lack key capacities needed to achieve their policy goals. In such cases, governors must work with or through third parties, rendering governance indirect. Four general modes of indirect governance have been observed and discussed in the literature, although not in unified fashion. These modes are defined, first, by whether intermediaries with sufficient authority are available (cooptation, orchestration) or whether the governor must endow actors with authority (delegation, trusteeship); and, second, by whether the governor can exert hard control over intermediaries (delegation, cooptation) or is limited to soft influences (trusteeship, orchestration). We introduce these governance modes in terms of their analytic similarities and differences, consider the governance problems for which each is best suited, examine their workings and implications, and investigate their stability over time. To illustrate their importance and operation, we draw on a wide range of examples ranging from international organizations, peace-keeping, central bank autonomy to the management of dependent states.


When and how do International Organizations Adapt to Power Transitions? (Prof. Dr. Bernhard Zangl)

The rise of emerging powers such as China, India and Brazil and the ensuing decline of established powers such as the United States, the United Kingdom and France is considered to be prone to international conflict. Power transition theories (PTTs) expect emerging powers to ask for the adaptation of the international order and the underlying international institutions to the new (power) realities, while established powers prefer to keep untouched the time-tested international order and the underlying international institutions. PT theorists thus generally agree that emerging powers aim at gaining the very same institutional privileges that established powers want to preserve for themselves; they disagree, however, whether and when the resulting conflicts can be dealt with cooperatively. Pessimist PT theorists expect non-cooperation and institutional stalemate (or worse), while optimist PT theorists expect cooperation and institutional adaptation. Empirically, we see both at the same time: institutional stalemate in some institutions and institutional adaptation in others. While agreement could be reached to adapt voting rights in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to emerging powers’ demands, attempts to adapt permanent seats and voting rights in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to altered power realities resulted in failure. Thus, against what most PT theorists would hold, power transitions as such cannot explain whether emerging and established powers are able to agree on institutional adaptation. The ambition of this project is to refine power transition theories in this respect. Drawing on different variants of rational institutionalism in IR, we develop an institutionalist power transition theory (IPTT) which specifies the conditions and mechanisms of international institutions’ adaptation to power transitions among their member states.