Underrepresentation in institutions persists years after accession – parallels between Central and Eastern Europe and Eastern Germany

February 4, 2021
Lars Vogel

Almost seventeen years after the Eastern enlargement of 2004 key office holders in EU institutions are seldom appointed from Central- and Eastern Europe (CEE) – much less as one would expect given the share of this region in terms of both member states and population of the EU. This result resembles the situation in Germany, where more than thirty years after re-unification, Eastern Germans are less represented in societal elite positions too. This blog draws attention to the magnitude and potential consequences on this persistent “descriptive underrepresentation” (H. Pitkin) following two different accession processes.

CEE is underrepresented among key office holders in EU institutions

In January 2021, the NGO “European Democracy Consulting” published an analysis of the regional background of 89 key office holders in 72 institutions, bodies and agencies of the European Union. These institutions include, for instance, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Council or the European Court of Justice but also advisory bodies and subordinated agencies like the Committee of the Regions, the European Investment Bank or the European Food Safety Authority. The key office holders’ countries of origin were classified into five regions: Western, Northern, Southern, Central-, and Eastern Europe with the two latter including all countries that joined the EU in 2004 (except Malta and Cyprus).

The results show that only 9.2 percent of all first-time appointments for key offices since 2004 went to citizens from the CEE region.[1] However, the eleven CEE countries constitute 39.3 of all pre-Brexit EU member states and their share of citizen equals 19.9 of the entire population of the EU. Accordingly, these figures indicate a remarkable “descriptive underrepresentation” (concept by H. Pitkin) of both the member states and the citizens of Central- and Eastern Europe in the institutions of the European Union. This holds true despite the fact that the share of appointments from CEE increased to 14.1 percent, if only first-time appointments since 2016 are considered. However, this gain is almost exclusively due to appointments in subordinate agencies.

In contrast, Western Europe has received 39.7 percent of all newcomer appointments since 2016, Southern Europe 34.6 percent and Northern Europe 11.5 percent. Given their share of the entire EU population, Southern (25.3) and especially Northern Europe (4.2) are overrepresented. The member states (28.6) and citizens of Western Europe (50.6) are still well represented, if re-appointments of incumbents are considered. Moreover, the descriptive representation of almost all other non-founding member states improved quickly after their EU accessions prior to 2004. This is even more remarkable, since the 2004 enlargement was, in contrast to previous enlargements, followed by an increase of newly established positions and appointments.

Eastern Germans are underrepresented in Germany’s elite positions

Such a persistent descriptive underrepresentation of some regions and their inhabitants at the European level appears as well at the national level in Germany. More than thirty years after the reunification of 1990, the share of Eastern Germans in top-leadership positions in Germany is much lower than their share in the population. A comprehensive study (Vogel & Zajak 2020) estimated the share of Eastern Germans in the top-leadership as 9.8 percent compared to their share of 19.4 percent among the population. However, this amount varies tremendously by the societal sector. While in political institutions and organizations, Eastern Germans are not underrepresented, their share reaches a lower two-digit number among the key office holders in civil society, the security sector, labor unions and public administration. In the remaining sectors of society (economy, judiciary, military, policy, religion, media, culture) their share is below ten percent.

The challenge of descriptive underrepresentation for democratic institutions

Descriptive underrepresentation has the potential to undermine the legitimacy and the efficiency of democratic institutions, as well as their potential for interest and symbolic representation. Equal access that is determined merely by competition based on merit and competence is a legitimizing value of democratic institutions. If citizens have lower chances to gain access to the leadership positions of these institutions due to their regional origin, this norm becomes violated. Moreover, institutional efficiency is restricted, should considerable parts of the population be unable to deliver their potentially innovative problem definitions and solutions. Research further suggests that the representation of group interests is often improved, if members of these groups are included in institutional decision making.

Beyond interest representation, the disproportional presence of some group members may serve as a symbol for unequal influence and participation of these groups. Regarding this symbolic representation, recent results for Eastern Germany show Eastern Germans’ awareness of their underrepresentation. Moreover, this perception of underrepresentation seems to increase the general impression of collective deprivation (Vogel & Zajak 2020) . This perception of Eastern Germans treated as second-class citizens fuels feelings of alienation and distance to the democratic institutions in Germany. Accordingly, distance to representative democracy and its actors is more widespread in Eastern Germany compared to Western Germany.

The establishment and maintenance of political institutions in the process of national unification or supranational integration requires the integration of its elites. Normative elite integration encompasses the support for the formal and informal rules constituting the institutional framework. This is supported by structural elite integration, i.e. the coherence of social background and the mutual involvement in networks of communication and bargaining. Elite integration is impeded, if the access to common institutions is restricted. It is more likely that the disadvantaged region or nation remain the political focus of contenders’ ambitions for elite positions.

Neither does descriptive underrepresentation necessarily enfold each of the negative consequences nor are results valid for the national level transferable to the EU level without adaptations. Nevertheless, the descriptive underrepresentation of CEE countries in the EU institutions should be considered a potential factor increasing the alienation from the EU among parts of both citizenry and elites in this region. This perspective adds further to the Leipzig-JMCoE research focus on peripheral regions. Peripheries can be defined, among others, by their impeded access to the main political institutions. Lower chances for inhabitants of these regions to enter leadership positions in main political institutions can thus be considered a central attribute of the periphery.

[1] Re-appointments of incumbents were not counted as appointment but considered subsequently as “cumulated mandate duration”.