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Most Common When Least Important: Deliberation in the European Union Council of Ministers

  • Daniel Naurin


This article contributes to the empirical turn in deliberative democratic theory, by studying the presence of arguing (discussion on the merits) and bargaining in the working groups of the Council of the European Union. It uses a survey of representatives of member states to analyse to what extent, under what circumstances, and by whom, arguing is used. The results indicate that arguing is indeed common in the Council working groups, but also that there is substantial variation. Most arguing is found in intergovernmental policy areas and by the most powerful and well-connected actors. The findings point to the conclusion that higher stakes and political pressure make actors less willing and able to engage in arguing.



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1 Bohman, James and Rehg, William, eds, Deliberative Democracy: Essays on Reason and Politics. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1997), p. xii.

2 Risse, Thomas, ‘ “Let’s Argue!” Communicative Action in World Politics’, International Organization, 54 (2000), 139.

3 Eriksen, Erik O. and Fossum, John E., eds, Democracy in the European Union: Integration through Deliberation? (London: Routledge, 2000).

4 Dryzek, John S.. Deliberative Democracy and Beyond: Liberals, Critics, Contestations (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).

5 See, for example, for empirical studies of deliberation in the European Union: Pollack, Mark A. and Shaffer, Gregory, ‘Risk Regulation, GMOs, and the Limits of Deliberation’, in Daniel Naurin and Helen Wallace, eds, Unveiling the Council of the EU: Games Governments Play in Brussels (Basingstoke, Hants.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 144164; Naurin, Daniel, Deliberation Behind Closed Doors: Transparency and Lobbying in the European Union (Colchester: ECPR Press, 2007); Niemann, Arne, ‘Between Communicative Action and Strategic Action: The Article 113 Committee and the Negotiations on the WTO Basic Telecommunications Services Agreement’, Journal of European Public Policy, 11(2004), 379407; Jacobsson, Kerstin and Vifell, Åsa, ‘Deliberative Transnationalism? Analysing the Role of Committee Interaction in Soft Co-Ordination’, in Ingo Linsenmann, Christoph O. Meyer and Wolfgang T. Wessels, eds, Economic Government of the EU (Basingstoke, Hants.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 163186; Agné, Hans, Democracy Reconsidered: The Prospects of Its Theory and Practice During Internationalisation (doctoral dissertation, Stockholm Studies in Politics, 2004); Pollack, Mark A., ‘Control Mechanism or Deliberative Democracy? Two Images of Comitology’, Comparative Political Studies, 36 (2003), 125155; Joerges, Christian and Neyer, Jurgen, ‘Transforming Strategic Interaction into Deliberative Problem-Solving: European Comitology in the Foodstuffs Sector’, Journal of European Public Policy, 4 (1997), 609625; and for empirical studies of elite deliberation in other contexts, see Steiner, Jürg, Bächtiger, André, Spörndli, Markus and Steenbergen, Marco R., Deliberative Politics in Action: Analyzing Parliamentary Discourse (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Öberg, Per-Ola, ‘Does Administrative Corporatism Promote Trust and Deliberation?’ Journal of Theoretical Politics, 12 (2000), 113124, and the special issues of the Swiss Political Science Review, 13 (2007), and Acta Politica, 40 (2005); and, for an overview of the field, Thompson, Dennis F., ‘Deliberative Democratic Theory and Empirical Political Science’, Annual Review of Political Science, 11 (2008), 497520.

6 Risse, , ‘ “Let’s Argue!” ’, p. 10.

7 See, for example, Joerges, and Neyer, , ‘Transforming Strategic Interaction into Deliberative Problem-Solving’; Niemann, Arne, ‘Deliberation and Bargaining in the Article 113 Committee and the 1996/97 IGC Representatives Group’, in Naurin and Wallace, eds, Unveiling the Council of the EU, pp. 121143, and Niemann, ‘Between Communicative Action and Strategic Action’; Jacobsson and Vifell, ‘Deliberative Transnationalism?’

8 Pollack, ‘Control Mechanism or Deliberative Democracy?’ Pollack and Shaffer, ‘Risk Regulation, GMOs, and the Limits of Deliberation’.

9 That is not to say that case studies may not also provide insights with some general applicability if they are selected strategically, for example, as least likely cases.

10 Chambers, Simone, ‘Contract or Conversation? Theoretical Lessons from the Canadian Constitutional Crisis’, Politics & Society, 26 (1998), 143172, pp. 159f.

11 Kanra, Bora, ‘Deliberating Across Difference: The Role of Social Learning in the Theory and Practise of Deliberative Democracy’ (paper prepared for the ECPR Joint Sessions in Helsinki, 2007), p. 2.

12 Cf. Taber, Charles S. and Lodge, Milton, ‘Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs’, American Journal of Political Science, 50 (2006), 755769, who demonstrate that higher stakes tend to lead to more biased processing of information.

13 Fearon, James D., ‘Bargaining, Enforcement, and International Cooperation’, International Organization, 52 (1998), 269305.

14 See, for example, Dryzek, John S., Discursive Democracy: Politics, Policy, and Political Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Steiner et al., Deliberative Politics in Action; Mendelberg, Tali and Karpowitz, Christopher, ‘How People Deliberate About Justice’, in Shawn W. Rosenberg, ed., Deliberation, Participation and Democracy: Can the People Govern? (Basingstoke, Hants.: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), pp. 101129.

15 Steiner, et al. , Deliberative Politics in Action, p. 82.

16 Elster, Jon, ‘Deliberation and Constitution Making’, in Jon Elster, ed., Deliberative Democracy, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 97122.

17 For a critical test of the theory of publicity’s ‘civilizing’ effect, see Naurin, Daniel, ‘Backstage Behavior? Lobbyists in Public and Private Settings in Sweden and the European Union’, Comparative Politics, 39 (2007), 209228, and Naurin, Deliberation Behind Closed Doors.

18 Cf. Risse, ‘ “Let’s Argue!” ’, pp. 18f.

19 Mansbridge, Jane, ‘Using Power/Fighting Power: The Polity’, in Seyla Benhabib, ed., Democracy and Difference: Contesting the Boundaries of the Political (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), pp. 4666.

20 Grünenfelder, Rita and Bächtiger, André, ‘Gendered Deliberation? How Men and Women Deliberate in Legislatures’ (paper prepared for the ECPR Joint Sessions in Helsinki, 2007).

21 Mendelberg, and Karpowitz, , ‘How People Deliberate About Justice’.

22 For some recent contributions to this debate see, for example, Panke, Diana, ‘More Arguing Than Bargaining? The Institutional Designs of the European Convention and Intergovernmental Conferences Compared’, Journal of European Integration, 28 (2006), 357379; Deitelhoff, Nicole, and Muller, Harald, ‘Theoretical Paradise – Empirically Lost? Arguing with Habermas’, Review of International Studies, 31 (2005), 167179; Holzinger, Katharina, ‘Bargaining through Arguing: An Empirical Analysis Based on Speech Act Theory’, Political Communication, 21 (2004), 195222; Ulbert, Cornelia and Risse, Thomas, ‘Deliberately Changing the Discourse: What Does Make Arguing Effective?’ Journal of Theoretical Politics, 12 (2000), 113124.

23 Zurn, Michael, ‘Democratic Governance Beyond the Nation-State: The EU and Other International Institutions’, European Journal of International Relations, 6 (2000), 183221.

24 Barry, Brian, Political Argument (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965), p. 87.

25 Barry, , Political Argument, p. 86.

26 Barry, , Political Argument, p. 86.

27 Gutmann, Amy and Thompson, Dennis F., Democracy and Disagreement (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996).

28 Schimmelfennig, Frank, ‘The Community Trap: Liberal Norms, Rhetorical Action, and the Eastern Enlargement of the European Union’, International Organization, 55 (2001), 4780, p. 63.

29 Chambers, Simone, ‘Behind Closed Doors: Publicity, Secrecy, and the Quality of Deliberation’, Journal of Political Philosophy, 12 (2004), 389410.

30 Walton, Richard E. and McKersie, Robert B., A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiations; An Analysis of a Social Interaction System (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1965), chap. 4.

31 ‘Integrative’ and ‘distributive bargaining’ is the terminology used by Walton and McKersie. Cf. Schelling, who speaks of the ‘efficiency’ and the ‘distributional’ ‘aspects of bargaining’ ( Schelling, Thomas C., The Strategy of Conflict (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 21.

32 Heisenberg, Dorothee, ‘The Institution of “Consensus” in the European Union: Formal Versus Informal Decision-Making in the Council’, European Journal of Political Research, 44 (2005), 6590.

33 Hayes-Renshaw, Fiona, Van Aken, Wim and Wallace, Helen, ‘When and Why the EU Council of Ministers Votes Explicitly’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 44 (2006), 161194.

34 Steiner, et al. , Deliberative Politics in Action, pp. 59f.

35 Öberg, , ‘Does Administrative Corporatism Promote Trust and Deliberation?’ p. 469.

36 Joerges, and Neyer, , ‘Transforming Strategic Interaction into Deliberative Problem-Solving’, p. 618.

37 Walton, and McKersie, , A Behavioral Theory of Labor Negotiation, pp. 84ff.

38 Fisher, Roger, Ury, William L. and Patton, Bruce, Getting to Yes: Negotiating an Agreement without Giving In, 2nd edn (London: Arrow Business Books, 1997), chap 3.

39 Mackie, Gerry, ‘Does Democratic Deliberation Change Minds?’ Journal of Theoretical Politics, 12 (2000), 113124; cf. Holzinger, , ‘Bargaining through Arguing’, p. 201.

40 For example, Ulbert and Risse argue that negotiations in front of an audience may hinder a frank exchange of views, because actors have to stick to their ‘fixed preferences’ ( Ulbert, and Risse, , ‘Deliberately Changing the Discourse’, p. 358). In reality, what publicity may bring about is fixed positions (Naurin, Deliberation Behind Closed Doors).

41 Checkel, Jeffrey T., ‘Taking Deliberation Seriously’, Arena Working Papers, Oslo, 2001.

42 Skinner, Quentin, ‘ “Social Meaning” and the Explanation of Social Action’, in James Tully, ed., Meaning & Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), pp. 7996, at p. 83.

43 The survey is part of a broader project on cooperation and communication patterns in the working groups of the Council of the EU, which also includes a first survey in 2003 and a third survey in 2009. Daniel Naurin and Rutger Lindahl were responsible for the data collection.

44 The higher level working groups were Coreper II and Coreper I (the ambassadors and the vice-ambassadors of the member states’ permanent representations in Brussels), the Economic Policy Committee, the Special Committee on Agriculture, the Political and Security Committee and the Article 36 Committee (the latter dealing with judicial co-operation in the field of criminal matters, police co-operation, organized crime and terrorism). In cases where we were unable to interview a Coreper II or Coreper I ambassador, we substituted them with their assistants (in EU-jargon these are called the Antici- and Mertens-delegates respectively). The lower level working groups were the Politico-Military Working Party, the Working Party on Agricultural Questions, the Working Party on the Environment, the Working Party on Tax Questions and the Working Party on Competition and Growth.

45 Elster, Jon, ‘Strategic Uses of Arguments’, in Kenneth J. Arrow et al., eds, Barriers to Conflict Resolution (New York: Norton, 1995), pp. 236257, at p. 244.

46 Heisenberg, , ‘The Institution of “Consensus” in the European Union’.

47 This question concerns both whether the respondents at all communicated their position informally and whether they in that case gave reasons. The figure should therefore not be directly compared to communications at the meeting, where the percentage base only includes respondents who did state their position at the meeting.

48 Taking into account also that women are underrepresented within the intergovernmental working groups compared to the supranational groups reduces the difference further. Taking only supranational working groups into account, men are still arguing more than women at the meetings (a difference of 8 percentage points), while women are arguing slightly more (3 percentage points) than men before meetings.

49 Moravcsik, Andrew, The Choice for Europe: Social Purpose and State Power from Messina to Maastricht (Ithaca, N.J.: Cornell University Press, 1998).

* Department of Political Science, Gothenburg University (email: ). The author would like to thank Rutger Lindahl for invaluable partnership, Albert Weale and participants at the ECPR Workshop on Empirical approaches to deliberative democracy, Helsinki, 2007, and at Arena, Oslo, for comments on previous drafts of the article.

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Most Common When Least Important: Deliberation in the European Union Council of Ministers

  • Daniel Naurin


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