Well, one would guess it should be pretty easy to identify what is North and South, especially when it comes to EU member countries…not so for political scientists. In recent years, a debate has been ongoing in a series of studies of the EU integration literature whether the conflict dimensions in the EU Council of Ministers are rather determined by a North-South conflict dimension, the Left-Right orientation of EU governments or maybe even a cultural dimension?
The Council of Ministers as the most important EU body which represents the interests of EU member states is said to be structured along a North-South dimension. Critics maintain that the partisan orientation of a government can explain better whether a country supports some pieces of legislation or not. A part of this research question is on the one hand the problem that different sorts of data are used to investigate the conflict dimensions ( e.g. negotiation positions at the beginning of the Council negotiations, the communication patterns or the voting behavior at the end of the negotiations). On the other hand the data are often investigated at a too high level of aggregation and should be studied at the level of policy area.
Together with two colleagues, Gerald Schneider and Mikko Mattila, I currently try to overcome this latter problem by investigating the explanatory factors for the final votes in the Council in various policy sectors. Although the EU governments have the chance to vote with qualified majority in most of the cases, they do so very rarely. The consensus norm is very dominant in the Council since governments obviously gather that it is more useful in the long run to negotiate compromises with particular exceptions and rules for various countries than having to negotiate with insulted governments in the next round. The shadow of the future works quite successfully there. In the case EU governments decide to vote against the majority or abstain they must have a compelling reason to do so. We expect that it is a king of signaling game towards important domestic stakeholders so that this behavior can be explained with structural and economic variables. To show this, we break down the votes according to policy sector and demonstrate that for example the strength of employment in the agriculture sector is a successful predictor for no votes in the Agriculture Council. It is a more promising predictor than the factor whether a government is more or less social-democrat or conservative. This finding corroborates anecdotes about the German government defending the interests of the car industry no matter whether the government is Christian democrat or Social democrat…so German chancellors will always be some sort of “Auto-Kanzler”?
Our research is still going on so that this is a report about work in progress. The final paper will be presented at the ECPR EU Conference in Porto, 23-26 June 2010, it will be downloadable as from next week in its virtual paper room.