Perceptions of Power: Voter Attribution of Responsibility within the European Union

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Politics and International Relations


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Description Our findings clearly suggest that citizens' blame attribution can only be understood by considering both the individual and the political context that they operate in. On the individual level, people rely on a mixture of in-group biases and factual information when attributing blame to political representatives. It is well-known that people in national elections have a tendency to absolve their preferred party or candidate of any blame, due to partisanship biases. We show a similar mechanism operates in the EU. Citizens who favour the EU are more likely to think that EU institutions are responsible when things are going well, and vice versa. We also demonstrate that information is a crucial conditioning variable of the extent to which citizens' allocation of power is simply a reflection of pre-existing attitudes. Some people are more informed than others, and that matters for allocating responsibility. These findings are published in the following journals:

• Tilley and Hobolt (2011) 'Is the government to blame? An experimental test of how partisanship shapes perceptions of performance and responsibility', Journal of Politics 73(2): 316-330.

• Hobolt, Tilley and Wittrock (2012), 'Listening to the government: How information shapes responsibility attributions', Political Behavior, forthcoming.

At the contextual level both of these biasing and information effects are also evident. On the one hand, people are influenced by the information they receive from the media and this may reinforce existing biases. On the other hand, citizens also employ information to bring their attribution evaluations into line with actual divisions of governmental responsibility and they rely more on information from credible sources. This has implications for the debate on democracy in the EU. We suggest that the complex institutions of the EU make it hard for people to assign responsibility correctly, and thus to hold governments to account. Equally, in contrast to the predictions of the classic model of electoral accountability, we find that voters' blame attributions only have a limited impact on their vote choice in European Parliament elections. They do, however, influence citizens' trust in European institutions, and thus help to shape the legitimacy (and lack thereof) of the European Union. These effects are discussed in the following articles:

• Hobolt, Sara (2012) 'Citizens satisfaction with democracy in the European Union', Journal of Common Market Studies, 50 (1): 88-105..

• Banducci, Susan, Sara Hobolt, and James Tilley (N.d.) 'Clarity of responsibility: How government cohesion conditions performance voting'. European Journal of Political Research, forthcoming

• Hobolt and Tilley (2014), 'Who's in Charge? Voter Attribution of Responsibility in the European Union, Comparative Political Studies, forthcoming September 2014

• Wilson and Hobolt 'Allocating Responsibility in Multilevel Government Systems: Voter and Expert Attributions in the European Union'. Working paper.

Finally, the book Blaming Europe: Attribution of Responsibility in the European Union (Oxford University Press, 2013) presents the key findings from the project and also considers the implications for electoral democracy in the European Union.
Exploitation Route We anticipate that the data generated by the survey will continue to be used widely by for research and teaching purposes, thus informing research and teaching on European Union politics, public opinion and electoral democracy in multi-level systems.
Sectors Government, Democracy and Justice

Description The main purpose of this project was to collect and disseminate data on how voters attribute responsibility in the EU to gain a better understanding of how citizens make sense of political outcomes in a complex multi-level system of governance. We believe that such evidence has the potential to have a societal impact as it is valuable for debates on the quality of democracy in the EU, not only among academics, but also among policy-makers in national and European institutions. It also provides an important benchmark for understanding blame attribution in the current financial and economic crisis in Europe. However, given the nature of the project it is difficult at this stage to demonstrate a measurable societal impact. Firstly, while the project may have had an impact on the quality of the debate on institutional reform and electoral democracy in the EU, it will necessarily be difficult to identify a demonstrable impact. Secondly, the societal impact is unlikely to be achieved within a 12 month period, since institutional reforms of national and European institutions generally take much longer to decide and implement. Nonetheless, we will continue to actively disseminate our findings beyond the narrow scientific domain.
First Year Of Impact 2009
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Societal

Title European Parliament Election Study 2009, Voter Study 
Description European Election Study 2009: Post-election survey in 27 EU member states. Module on attribution of responsibility to the European Union 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2011 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The European Election Studies (EES) are about electoral participation and voting behaviour in European Parliament elections, and include topics such as the evolution of a political community and public sphere in the European Union, citizens' perceptions of and preferences about the EU political regime, and the evaluation of its political performance. They offer wide opportunities for comparative and longitudinal analyses across the EU member states.