by Robert Thomson, Frans Stokman, Christopher Achen, and Thomas Konig (eds). New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 372 pp. Paperback. $39.99/£21.99. ISBN: 052167994X. Hardback. $110.00/£60.00. ISBN: 0521861896. eBook format. $32.00. ISBN: 0511243286.

Reviewed by Běla Plechanovová, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences, Charles University Prague. Email: plechanovova [at]


Decision-making processes in the European Union has attracted attention of political scientists for years. The topic became appealing largely due to several parallel processes of the last two decades: enlargement by a growing number of new member states, widening of the scope of EU policies, introduction of majority voting in the main decision-making body, the Council of Ministers, and strengthening of the European Parliament as a legislative body. The EU had obviously gone through a transformation, but there was little consensus about the nature of the beast which emerged from it. Various methodologies were introduced into the area of study, but without a clear common ground. This book brings in a new approach to the topic in several respects. In principal it puts aside the question of what the European Union is – even very clear assumptions about the actors and their behavior are in the background of the project – and concentrates on how the EU operates on a daily basis in the area of producing new rules for its member states and their citizens. The starting position of the authors is that the European integration process is not directed exclusively by the “great bargains” which have changed the institutional setting of the EC/EU, but also by small, everyday incremental decisions which give shape to the rules influencing the lives of all EU citizens.

The aim of the research project is to analyze the legislative process in the European Union by testing formal deductive models which were constructed by different political scientists engaged in the study of political institutions and legislative decision-making, but partly outside the context of EU politics, on a single data set of EU legislative proposals (66 legal acts, 162 issues; 1999 to 2001) picked up on the basis of an extensive interview survey of experts (appoximately 150 interviews) who had insider information about preferences of the actors. The preferences of the actors (member states, Commission, European Parliament) on each issue were ordered on a uni-dimensional scale of identical scope (1 to 100) to permit later testing of the models and comparison. The models, based on diverse notions of the nature of decision-making in political entities, were adjusted by the authors to conform to the conditions in the EU. A rational choice institutionalism theoretical framework provides the unifying background to the project, as in the opinion of the authors it makes available the most precise devices for enlightening specific decision-making outcomes. Nevertheless, the individual models [*234] offer diverse explanations of “the processes through which actors’ policy preferences are transformed into collectively binding outcomes embodied in EU legislation” (pp.50-51). The basic question is whether any of these models can offer a reasonable tool for predicting the outcomes of legislative decision-making in the EU.

The book deserves major praise for the methodological clarity which disciplined a team of fifteen political scientists to follow closely a single research design (Thomson, Stockman: Chapter 2). The assignment for each of them was to present the model/s, to discuss the assumptions behind it and to explain how it can be applied to the decision-making process of the EU. A case-study then follows: the model is introduced by the means of its application to a selected legislative act; a detailed description of the controversial issues and the circumstances of its adoption. In the next section the model is subjected to empirical test and the results are interpreted. Altogether, eleven models are presented and tested on a basically identical data set in seven chapters of the book. All researchers developed their models before they saw the empirical data to allow transparency of testing and comparability among results of the empirical tests. Two concluding chapters are devoted to final assessment of the results and comparison of the models in terms of their ability to predict actual decisions in the EU legislative process (Achen, Chapter 10) and to evaluation of the contribution of the whole project for the area of EU research (Schneider, Steunenberg, Widgrén: Chapter 11).

The models presented in the book fall into three main groups, according to the basic assumptions about the nature of the decision making process. The first group includes procedural models (e.g., Shepsle 1989; Tsebelis 1994; Crombez 1997), emphasising decision-making rules and formal procedures that constrain the actors. Formal legislative rules as given by the founding treaties are used as the basis for these models: they define players, their competencies and the sequence of steps taken by individual players. A second group consists of bargaining models (e.g., Coleman 1990; Bueno de Mesquita 1994; Stokman and Van den Bos 1992). These assume that the institutional setting provides just the playground where players negotiate about possible outcomes of the game. The rules are important as they determine who the actor is and how much weight s/he has in the negotiation. Still, it is the bargaining which is more important for the outcome of the process, not the formal rules. The third group of models combines elements of the preceding two (Putnam 1988; Schneider and Cederman 1994; Hug and König 2002). Negotiation may take place in the first stage of the decision-making process, but formal rules are decisive for the outcome.

What may seem as disappointment is a relatively poor performance of the models in their predictive power. The distance of their results from the so-called baseline, atheoretical models – represented by the mean and unweighted median voter positions – is relatively small which means that none of the models describes the decision making process of the European Union really [*235] well. “Our models differ from reality far more than they differ from each other” (p.295). The authors consider their project to be just a beginning of a process of model adjustment and refinement of methodology which should in due time bring a major improvement of our knowledge about decision-making in the EU. They have made the first significant step which definitely resulted in an advancement of standards of scientific inquiry in this area of European research.

But next to this achievement, the results of the project are still important: they brought significant contributions to several issues of EU research, namely to the discussion about the changing role of the European Parliament in the legislative process. The EP as a co-legislator under co-decision procedure comes up as an influential actor (Steunenberg, Selck, Chapter 3). The results also confirm that the nature of decision-making in the EU is highly consensual and inclusive. Positions of all actors are contained in the solution as much as possible, and consensus is sought even in situations when the decision-making rule would allow majority voting. Still, the final outcome is considerably influenced by the weight of the actors as reflected by their voting power. This brings attention also to the political relevance of these findings, as the voting power of the actors is given by the decision-making rule. The highly controversial discussion about these issues in the repeated rounds of institutional reform of the EU, last time during the Convention of 2002-2003 and the subsequent Intergovernmental Conference 2003-2004, reflect the significance of this core aspect of institutional setting of the EU.

As to the methodology of the research, more concrete and detailed comments can be found in Bueno de Mesquita (2004), in a special issue of EUROPEAN UNION POLITICS devoted to this particular project. Using the advantage of knowing the results of the project ex post, one may comment on its assumptions – eg. was the supposition to select for the empirical research only legislative acts which were considered to be controversial and politically important by the actors correct? Compromise and exchange models emerged from the comparison as the winners, and they both presume that the actors during the decision-making process take into consideration their mutual interdependence in the repeated games they have to play. A high level of consensus and the inclusive nature of repeated games may lead the actors to behavior which encompasses a much broader spectrum of issues under consideration at certain periods. Other proposals, seemingly uncontroversial and politically unimportant, can also be a part of the forethought of the actors, who are motivated to follow the positions of partners on the whole spectrum of issues decided upon.

The reader may miss in the book the access to the data set of positions of all actors to all issues. Since the presented models are quite complex and the arguments supporting them often very technical, an overview of all the empirical data would add significantly to the comprehensibility of the analysis. [*236]

The book represents a new approach to the study of political processes within institutional setting of the EU, and most probably also outside this area. It proves that applying and testing diverse models simultaneously against identical empirical data leads to a higher level of sophistication of scientific knowledge in this field. It is not easy, it is not cheap, but in the long run it surely will pay off.

Bueno de Mesquita, B. 1994. “Political Forecasting: An Expected Utility Model.” In Bueno de Mesquita, B. and Stokman, F. N. (eds.) EUROPEAN COMMUNITY DECISION MAKING: MODELS, APPLICATIONS AND COMPARISONS. New Haven: Yale University Press, pp.71-104.

Bueno de Mesquita, B. 2004. “Decision-Making Models, Rigor and New Puzzles.” 5 EUROPEAN UNION POLITICS 125–138.

Coleman, J. S. 1990. FOUNDATIONS OF SOCIAL THEORY. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Crombez, C. 1997. “The Co-decision Procedure in the European Union.” 22 LEGISLATIVE STUDIES QUARTERLY 97-119.

Hug, S. and König, T. 2002. “In View of Ratification: Governmental Preferences and Domestic Constraints at the Amsterdam Intergovernmental Conference.” 56 INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION 447-476.

Putnam, R. D. 1988. “Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games.” 42 INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION 427-460.

Shepsle, K.A. 1989. “Studying Institutions: Some Lessons From The Rational Choice Approach.” 1 JOURNAL OF THEORETICAL POLITICS 131-147.

Schneider, G., and Cederman, L. E. 1994. “The Change of Tide in Political Cooperation: A Limited Information Model of European Integration.” 48 INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION 633-662.

Stokman, F. N. and Van den Bos, J. M. M. 1992. “A Two-Stage Model of Policymaking with an Empirical Test in the U.S. Energy-Policy Domain.” In Moore G. and Allen Whitt, J. (eds). THE POLITICAL CONSEQUENCES OF SOCIAL NETWORKS. Greenwich, Connecticut: JAI Press, pp. 219-53

Tsebelis, G. 1994. “The Power of the European Parliament as a Conditional Agenda Setter.” 88 AMERICAN POLITICAL SCIENCE REVIEW 128-142.

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Běla Plechanovová.