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Report: Workshop "Throughput Legitimacy"

In July this year, scholars from across Europe met to discuss ‘throughput‘ legitimacy and how it might help the EU overcome the so-called ‘democratic deficit’. The conference was organised by visiting Prof Vivien Schmidt (Boston University) and Dr Matt Wood (University of Sheffield), and aimed at developing both the theoretical precision of ‘throughput‘ legitimacy, and evaluating a range of EU institutions.

News from Nov 21, 2017

‘Throughput‘ legitimacy aims at moving beyond standard notions of democratic legitimacy that say European institutions can only be legitimate if they achieve policy outcomes (‘output’ legitimacy) or are based on electoral representation (‘input’ legitimacy). It focuses analytically on how decision-making processes are sufficiently accountable, transparent, open, and inclusive.

Papers at the conference focusing on theoretical issues questioned how ‘throughput‘ legitimacy adds to existing work on input and output legitimacy, and sought to critically assess this. Owen Parker argued that the advanced democratic theories promoting ‘throughput‘ legitimacy – like ‘deliberative‘ democracy – have been undermined by the EU’s institutional environment, including the Commission, which watered down proposals in the 1990s to introduce deliberative democratic innovations at the European level. Jens Steffek presented a deeper critique, focusing on how ‘throughput‘ legitimacy could be used to legitimise technocratic institutions, and stifle political demands.

These critiques helped to inform the empirical papers focusing on the EU institutions themselves. The empirical focus fell on interest groups’ access to the European Parliament’s committee system (Alex Katsaitis), levels of transparency in the Council of the European Union (Maarten Hillebrandt), the European Central Bank’s accountability arrangements (Vivien Schmidt), openness and inclusiveness in Europe’s decentralised agencies (Ixchel Perez Duran and Matt Wood), and the inclusiveness of the ‘umbrella’ groups representing different interest groups across the Union (Sandra Kroeger) .

These papers made clear that EU institutions are remarkably accountable. A vast system of committees (‘comitology’ in EU-speak) checks and double-checks the Commission’s different agencies, departments, and projects run strictly according to standards of good governance, with tight controls on spending and requirements for constantly reporting budgets. The EU also provides funding for interest groups to scrutinise the Commission’s activities and represent usually marginalised communities, for example through the ‘umbrella’ interest groups.

However, if we look at how open and inclusive EU bodies are, there are a lot more problems. EU ‘umbrella’ groups for interest groups around the continent tend to be populated by a small clique of well-resourced and active organisations that navigate the complex accountability process. When the Parliament calls for evidence from ‘civil society’, these same groups tend to focus.

A similar ‘insular’ game tends to evolve where scientific evidence is concerned – similar universities, think tanks and corporations tend to present evidence, and get invited again to present. To some extent, this ends up looking a bit like a vicious circle where the same people tend to get represented again. Despite making efforts in engaging civil society – often more so than national governments – the Parliament and Commission end up looking distantly and cloistered.

To conclude the conference there was a round table where scholars from the Research College ‘Transformative Power of Europe’, including Prof Dr Thomas Risse and Prof Dr Tanja Börzel, pitched in their own views on ‘throughput‘ legitimacy. It was clear from the round table that the concept had significant potential, but was also subject to critique. There still were questions about how distinctive it is from input and output legitimacy. Questions were also raised on the sociological dimension of legitimacy, and how the views of different ‘audiences’ for legitimacy could be accounted for.

Subsequently, the conference organisers have submitted papers from the two-day-event to Public Administration journal, and are currently under review.

We also recommend the blog by Matthew Wood which was published by the LSE on ‘throughput’ democracy which he wrote in light of the event: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/brexit/2017/08/02/europes-legitimacy-crisis-isnt-just-about-identity-its-about-institutions/

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