My current research project entitled ‘Anchoring the Consumer: Accountability and Legitimacy in Competition Law’ is generously funded by the European Union with a competitive and prestigious Marie Curie Career Integration Grant. This four-year project looks into the citizens’ democratic engagement with the making of competition rules, in other words rules against cartels, monopolies and anticompetitive mergers, in the European Union.
After the 2008 financial and economic crisis citizens across the globe voiced demands for a more democratic economic policymaking process. Inspired by these demands, this research project aims to address a fundamental research question: European competition law claims to protect consumer welfare but what role do consumers or citizens in general play in the making of competition rules? At present European competition policy is made by national and European level bureaucrats and experts in unofficial ‘policy networks’ that are not accessible to citizens and that use technical discourses that are not citizen friendly.
In the first instance, involving citizens in the making of competition rules might sound like a strange idea given the technical nature of competition rules. One might think that the design of competition rules should best be left to experts who have technical knowledge of the area. Against the conventional wisdom, this research project argues that since competition policy claims to make a significant impact on citizens’ experiences in the market and their welfare, it is only logical to expect citizen involvement in the making of competition rules. Additionally, taking inspiration from the deliberative democracy models, the project further argues that citizens provide the only direct information source with regard to policies’ effects on their experiences and welfare. Thus, their involvement in policymaking is necessary not only to improve the democratic nature of the policymaking process but also to make effective policies that resonate with citizen experiences and public interest.
In the absence of any direct mechanism for citizen involvement in the making of competition rules, this project looks into the roles played by institutions representing citizen interests, including consumer organisations, the European Parliament and the EU Courts. The project is essentially interdisciplinary. It uses different law and political science models of democracy to understand the ideal conditions of citizen engagement in policymaking. The project also uses novel interdisciplinary research methods, including discursive content analysis of all European Parliament debates, civil society initiatives and the EU Courts’ competition related decisions with a view to understanding what these institutions perceive as the primary objectives of competition rules and what kind of competition policy ideally they would like to see implemented. This is followed by the process tracing of policy measures (including legislations and the European Commission guidelines) to demonstrate to what extent these perceptions have actually been followed in policymaking.
So far the project has reached to sceptical conclusions with regard to democratic engagement with competition policymaking. In contrast to the European Commission’s insistence on an efficiency-based ‘consumer welfare’ standard, the European Parliament, consumer organisations and the EU Courts would like to see a multi-faceted European competition policy that pursues multiple policy objectives, including social objectives such as employment and environmental protection. Also, in the light of the key argument of the project, citizens’ disengagement with competition policy jeopardises the policy’s effectiveness, since this means that EU competition policymaking does not enjoy input on tangible citizen experiences in the market. The project also reveals the increasing prominence of the technical expert discourse in competition policymaking, which appears as one of the key reasons for the weakness of citizen engagement in competition policymaking. Having identified the key reasons and consequences of citizens’ democratic disengagement, the project will now look for strategies to make competition policymaking more open to citizen participation.