Distance of Legitimacy within the EU

One oft repeated criticism of the European Union and its institutions is that they are too far away from the people. That unlike the national governments and parliaments, which are within reach of the electorate, the EU leaders are 4-5 steps away, too far, making them essentially “unelected bureaucrats” and not “politicians answerable to the people”.

While still having plenty of problems (like the low turnout rate at the Europarliament elections), the EU has improved a lot since the Lisbon reforms when it comes to democratic legitimacy. That’s why I often find that the “too removed from the people” argument is often based either on outdated perceptions vis-a-vis the way the Union functions, or on a lack awareness on just how complex some national democratic setups are when it comes to some of the EU members. Many Member States, especially big ones in the western side of the continent have comparably complex constitutional setups.

With this in mind, I felt a comparison of the EU side by side with its Member States (plus the 3 bigger EFTA members) is necessary, in order to show that the EU’s institutions are no more distant from the Electorate than the institutions of its member countries, the democratic legitimacy of which are far less often questioned.

Note. A government appointed by an indirectly elected Head of State, but answerable to a directly elected Parliament will be considered as being ‘indirectly elected‘ since it is the vote of confidence, rather than the nomination per se which gives it a democratic legitimacy. Otherwise one will be forced to consider Governments appointed by hereditary Monarchs as being ‘undemocratic‘.


Countries ordered by GDP.

Made in Inkscape.


What if: the EU had presidential elections like the USA?


Context: For those unfamiliar with the EP Groups, here is a quick rundown:
EPP – Center-Right, Pro-EU
SD – Center-Left, Pro-EU
ALDE – Liberal (in the European sense), Pro-EU
Greens-EFA – Greens and Regionalists
ECR – Conservatives, Soft Eurosceptic
GUE-NGL – Left to Far-Left, Soft Eurosceptic
EFD² (or EFDD) – Populist Right, Hard Eurosceptic
ENF – Far-Right, Hard Eurosceptic
NI – Others (outside groups)

The EU/USA analogy

There are two phenomena which converged towards the writing of this blogpost. First of, the recent US elections have put into question, yet again, the voting system used in electing the US president, where wining a majority of the votes can still leave one defeated.

Second, the recent Brexit referendum has stimulated discussions about patching up the real or perceived democratic deficits of the European Union, and one popular solution to this problem is the call for a directly elected European President. Given that the United States of America is often used as inspiration for Federalist proposals, I ran with this thought experiment.

What are Electoral Colleges

The US presidential elections are won by the candidate who wins the most “electors” on a winner-take-all-state system. That is to say, if candidate A wins the most votes in Texas, let’s say 56%, candidate A gets 100% of Texas’s 38 electors, not just 56%. The only two states that do not use “winner-take-all” are Maine and Nebraska (we’ll come back to these). There are 538 electors in total, 3 for DC and a number equal to the sum of its representatives (who vary according to population) and its senators (2 per state) for all the actual states.

Finding Electoral Colleges for the EU

The first problem with translating this system into the EU is finding the number of electors per each state. The “representatives” the EU system would be the MEPs (the ‘Members of the European Parliament’), but finding the number of “senators” is a bit trickier. The EU’s de facto Upper House of the Legislative is the Council of Ministers, which doesn’t have a fixed make-up. While it’s made up of a minister from each EU country, the minister in question varies depending on the subject of the legislation that needs to be voted on (i.e. if it’s legislation concerning internal affairs, the Council of Ministers is made up of each EU state’s “Minister of Interior/Home Secretary” – or equivalent). So a simple solution would be to add 1 elector to the number of MEPs.

QMV – a possible solution

One possibile alternative might be to take into account the Qualified Majority Voting (‘QMV ‘ for short) system of the Council of Ministers, and extract our “upper house electors” from there. Since the Lisbon Treaty, a passing vote requires a “majority of countries” (55% or 72% of them) representing a “majority of the population” (at least 65%) so there are no numbers to work with to get electors. Fortunately, up until 31 March 2017, countries can request a vote under the Nice Treaty’s system of QMV where each state had a fixed number of “voting weights”. So for example, the big 4 have 29 “weights” each, Spain and Poland 27, Romania 14, the Netherlands 13, and so on, all the way down to Malta’s 3, to a grand total of 345 “voting weights”.

So a possible solution for finding each state’s number of “electors” is to add up its number of MEPs with its number of “voting weights” from the Council of Ministers.

The easy way out

While the two examples above could make things interesting, truth is that just using the number of MEPs gives us about the same proportion of votes. See table further down.

The Belgian exception

Remember how Maine and Nebraska use a “per congregational district” system instead of a “per state system”? Given that Belgium is very polarized between its 2 main linguistic communities, I decided to apply a similar “per voting circumscription” system, and devolve the winner-take-all part to the 3 linguistic-communities/voting district.

I thought about doing the same for the French Overseas Territories voting circumscription, but given Frence’s centralist nature, I went with an “all in” approach.

Who won which state?

Now we get to the second part of the problem: applying our system to the 2014 European elections.

When people vote First-Past-The-Post versus Proportional Representation, voting patterns change, but since the European Elections are the only pan-European elections we have, I ran with the numbers of the 2014 EP elections. I took the the winner to be the europarty/coalition (basically EP Group) that got the most MEPs. When 2 or more groups had the same number of MEPs (as in the case of Cyprus), I took votes cast. Here is the result (as mentioned above, I used the numberof MEPs without any additions):

no. % no. % no. %
EPP 506 45.9 356 45.7 342 45.5
SD 228 20.7 165 21.2 160 21.3
ALDE 111 10.1 73 9.4 68 9.1
GUE-NGL 33 3.0 22 2.8 21 2.8
ECR 20 1.8 14 1.8 13 1.7
EFD² 102 9.2 74 9.5 73 9.7
ENF 103 9.3 75 9.6 74 9.9

Made in Inkscape. Inspired by the Fivethirtyeight’s Electoral College cartogram

A functional view of the European Union

One of the big problems of the EU seems to be that it’s difficult to understand how it works and who does what. The prevailing image is one of “Councils” and “Commissions”, each headed by a President of some sort. It doesn’t help that on top of that you have non-EU institutions that sound like they are part of the EU (the Council of Europe – a non-EU entity – versus the European Council and the Council of the European Union – both EU entities). Often infographics that try to explain the EU do little to help.

As such, the infographic below tries to approach the institutional framework of the EU a bit differently, by portraying institutions through theirs national analogies, and using a more varied vocabulary to explain the function of each “president” (for example, the “President of the European Parliament” can be thought of as the “Speaker of Parliament”). In essence, what each institution does is more important than what it’s called, and even if the analogies are imperfect (since, for example, the Commission has legislative attributes as well), they help better differentiate the institutions.


Made in Inkscape.

Federalist sentiment in the European Union

The imminent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union has raised some important questions regarding the future of the EU. Given that the member state which, for a long time, has been seen as the most obtrusive is on its way to triggering Article 50, a lot of people have expressed hope that the federalist direction of EU reforms can now progress in a more unimpeded fashion. Others have rightly warned that Euroskeptic sentiment was not confined to the UK and other states might be less than happy to hand over more sovereignty to the European level.

In trying to find an answer to the question “Who’ll be the next Great Britain at the table”, the EU’s Standard Eurobarometer collection offers some strong hints. Unfortunately, only 4 such Eurobarometers contain questions relating to willingness to move towards a “federation of nation-states”, as the question was discontinued after spring 2014.


Some interesting patterns can however be noticed:

  • The Nordic countries are the most anti-federalist, even more so than the UK, with ‘No’ always at least double the size of ‘Yes’
  • Ireland, surprisingly, never had ‘Yes’ outnumber ‘No’, albeit the difference was small
  • Most member states hover around the center, with a slightly positive dent in the score
  • The public opinion of Hungary and Poland is more federalist than their current governments’ reputation would lead to believe

On the other hand, one should be careful in drawing conclusions, as:

  • Scandinavian Euroskepticism might be different to British Euroskepticism
  • The question is somewhat ambiguous, as some might see a contradiction between “a federation” and “nation-states”
  • There are only 4 Eurobarometers, so the picture might be incomplete or outdated

Nonetheless, it is obvious that the “smooth sailing towards Federalism” envisaged by some is nowhere near the horizon, and we might soon see a Nordic Group giving headaches in the EU Council, when discussion the EU’s Future.

Infographic made in QGIS, Inkscape and Veusz. Data via the 78-81 Eurobarometers

Anti-burkini decrees

Surely, one of the most bizarre controversies this summer was (and still is) the whole anti-burkini debate going on in France. Regardless of the debate itself, one annoying feature of the way it is reported in the press is the lack of cartographic representations of the extent of the municipal bans. The following image tries to rectify this, and given that France’s top administrative court has just overturned the municipal decree of Villeneuve-Loubet, I doubt there will be any new additions to the list of municipalities:

Burkini Arret Municipal

Made in QGIS and Inkscape. Basemap source: OSM and Wiki Commons.

Romania: Education by ethnicity, religion and country of birth

The Romanian Census of 2011 has produced a lot of information regarding the country’s inhabitants. One such interesting statistic that I stumbled across is the level of education of the population (aged 10 or above) broken down by ethnic affiliation and by religious denomination, as well as that of foreign residents.

Romania Education Ethnicity 2

Looking at ethnic breakdowns, one of the first things that is noticeable is that the numbers for Roma shift heavily towards the lower end of the spectrum. They are 10 times more likely to be illiterate (defined as “people who do not know how to write, but may or may not know how to read”), but also have higher than the national average “primary only” and “secondary only” education; while at the other end of the spectrum they are 18 times less likely to have a Bachelor’s degree.

While this “education deficit” of the Roma population is general knowledge, one interesting find in the data is that the Turkish minority has an almost similar skew towards the lower end of the spectrum (second highest rate of illiteracy, with more than 1 in 10 being illiterate, almost 8 times the national average), although the number of Turks with higher education is significantly higher (9.2%) than the Roma with such a degree (0.7%).

Interestingly enough, the other Muslim minority of Dobruja, the Tatars, are very different from the Turks. The overall numbers are close to the national average, with a slight skew towards the positive (a bit more higher-educated people, a bit lower numbers of people who cannot write).

On the other end of the spectrum (low illiteracy, very high levels of higher education) one finds the Jews (over half being college educated), the Armenians, and to a lesser degree the Greeks, the Italians and the heterogeneous “Other” group. What probably distinguishes these ethnic groups is probably their historic status as “mercantile minorities”, usually found in urban areas (cities usually have higher levels of education compared to the countryside).

While Serbs and Bulgarians tend to have a profile similar to ethnic Romanians, Ukrainians, Croats, Czechs and Slovaks tend to have higher rates than the national average in the ‘Secondary Education’ cathegory, while having lower rates at the extremes (college and no/primary education). This might be connected to them inhabiting mostly rural, mountainous areas.

Romania Education Religion 2

When it comes to religious breakdown, the highest numbers of people with primary education or less are Muslims (due to the low rates among Turks and Muslim Roma) and Pentecostals (a denomination which also has many Roma converts). But while Muslims have average levels of college education, college graduates of the Pentecostal persuasion are just a third of the national rate, with small rates of high-school graduates as well. Many evangelical denominations also display lower than average higher education graduation rates, such as the 7th Day Adventists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Plymouth Brethren but interestingly enough, not the Baptists or the Romanian Evangelicals.

The traditional Hungarian denominations (Roman-Catholics, Reformed, Unitarians and Evangelical Lutherans) on the other hand tend to display lower college rates but higher levels of secondary schooling, especially vocational training.

On the other end of the spectrum we find Jews and Armenians once again, together with Atheists and those who declared No Religion (the Romanian census treats the two options as distinct). This fits in the general trend of the worldwide irreligiosity being correlated with higher levels of education.

One last interesting quirk is the higher than average post-high-school education among the Greek-Catholics. Reasons for this might be either their tradition of being an important part of the Transylvanian-Romanian intellectual elite, or a more pronounced tendency of the intellectuals to revert back to the Greek-Catholic identity after the church was legalized again post-1989 (the Greek-Catholic Church was outlawed and its assets given to the Orthodox Church by the Communist authorities in 1948).

Romania Education Foreigners 2
Foreigners in Romania

The last visualization features roughly the same stats (minus rates of illiteracy and Bachelor’s only education) for people residing in Romania for more than 12 months at the time of the census.

The biggest surprise in the data is that all of the foreigners have rates of higher education above the Romanian average, with the notable exception of Tunisians, which are one percentage point below, which also displays a very rate of high-school-only educational level. Western Europeans, Middle Easterners, Ukrainians and first and foremost Americans all display levels of higher education at least twice as high as Romanian citizens.

This is probably due to the restricted levels of immigration, which have seen mostly „western expats” moving here due to work-related reasons, or the traditional „arab (medical) student” choosing to remain in the country after graduation.

Data: Romanian census of 2011
Made in LibreOffice Calc and Inkscape

Eastern EU’s role in the Refugee Crisis

The idea that the West is to blame for the current wave of refugees is widespread in the Eastern part of the EU, with the US invasion of Iraq and Germany’s alleged decision to invite Syrians into Europe seen as key events of the unfolding crisis.

Czech president Miloš Zeman said last year that “the immigration wave is rooted in the crazy idea to invade Iraq […] [T]hen there was the crazy idea to make order in Libya, then the same in the case of Syria.”[…] “The responsibility for the wave of refugees lies precisely on those whose silly actions provoked this wave”

A similar thought was uttered by Slovak prime-minister Robert Fico around the same time when he said: “I only have one question: Who bombed Libya? Who created problems in North Africa? Slovakia? No.”.

It is a classic expression of the “victims of history” motif, so dear in these parts, but on closer scrutiny, it holds little water.


Eastern EU states have actually been willing actors in the destabilization of Iraq with Poland actively participating alongside the United States in the Iraq invasion, while most other countries supporting the invasion and later participating in the occupation. The Eastern flank of the EU acted in Syria too, both diplomatically – by recognizing the Syrian Opposition as legitimate – and militarily, by providing military aid to anti-ISIL factions. Romania and Bulgaria also participated in the UN-sanctioned anti-Ghaddafi campaign of 2011, which ultimately lead to a politically fractured Libya unable to stop trans-Mediterranean migrant smuggling, and the entrenchment of ISIL in some areas of Central and Eastern Libya.

While I do not oppose the interventions themselves (with the exception of the original Iraq invasion), I do have great issue with the demonstrably false narrative that the Eastern EU states are victims of Western geopolitical action, and not willing participants themselves. It is profoundly incorrect to benefit from close collaboration with US adventures abroad (the cooperation during the Iraq War was very beneficial in obtaining the American good will necessary for NATO membership), yet shun the responsibilities when the chickens come home to roost.

Mega Image Archipelago


Mega Image is a series of convenience stores owned by the Dutch Delhaize Group. Bucharest + its suburbs, Ploiești, Brașov and Constanța are the only 4 urban areas that boast with 3 or more Mega Image stores, with a few more spread here and there around Bucharest, making their distribution highly localized, with their density within the capital being huge. It has become a running joke with Romania’s main satire-news site, 3% of their articles poking fun at the retail chain’s tendency to open one store next another, similar to the Lewis Black’s old “Starbuck’s next to a Starbuck’s” stand up.


The distribution of the stores outside the capital seems to follow the holiday habits of the native Bucharester. Outside the capital, they are found in Constanța, on the seaside, and on the Prahova Valley-Brașov area, in the mountains, both popular weekend getaway destinataions for folks in the capital. For most of the rest of us, Mega Image is just an obscure thing, people from the capital joke about, a Bucharest meme that hardly makes sense outside the capital.

My map is meant to represent the isolated patches of civilized land, where one is never too far from the presence of a Mega Image.

Made with QGIS and Inkscape. Inspired by this map.

UK’s trade with the EU

As the debate around the UK’s membership in the EU grows, an argument often used by the pro-Brexit side is that the EU will pursue a very pro-trade policy post-Brexit given that the EU exports more to the the UK than vice-versa, an thus, it’s in the rEU’s interest to give the UK a very generous trade agreement.

The counter-argument to this is that while the EU does indeed export more, its exports of goods to the UK represent only 15% of all exports, while the UK’s exports to the Union comprise 48% of its exports, a much bigger share, thus making the UK much more vulnerable in the case of a Brexit, given that it would be in rEU’s self interest to play hard-ball with the UK, in order to discourage its own disintegration.

The following 2 charts aim to visualize the above. The first chart compares trade in goods (for 2014) and services (for 2013) and the second one compares only the trade in goods, with the additional perspective of the intra-rEU trade between states.

Chart 1. Exports of goods and services of the rEU and UK


Chart 2. Exports of goods of the rEU and UK


Data from Eurostat. Made in Inkscape.

Fenomenul “strada Gheorghe Doja”


În localitatea Sebiș, din județul Arad, vizavi de primăria cea modernă, în miezul unui sens giratoriu unde asfaltul a fost de mult înlocuit cu pișcoți, se înalță o statuie cu o tânără domniță, simbolizând, probabil, un măreț ideal. Pe soclul statuii, trei de-o parte, trei de alta, se văd șase medalioane cu chipurile unor personaje de vază ale istoriei românești: Mihai Viteazul, Constantin Brâncoveanul, Avram Iancu, Horea, Decebal și… Dózsa György.

Secuiul Gheorghe Doja e un element interesant al istoriei românești, căci, la fel ca sărbătoarea de „1 Mai muncitoresc”, este lăsată moștenire de comuniști, da nu deranjează pe nimeni. A apărut în manuale în perioada lui Dej, că era bun și pe latura ideologică (era contra „moșierilor”), și pe cea pragmatică (dădea bine la minoritatea maghiară, curtată pe-atunci de comuniști). Când a venit perioada naționalistă a lui Ceaușescu, s-a trecut peste detaliul etniei, și s-a marșat doar pe partea ideologică, iar după ’89 a rămas din inerție. La urma urmei, noi știm că atunci când țărănimea se răscula în Ardeal o făcea contra „grofilor maghiari”, precum au făcut Horea, Cloșca și Crișan sau Avram Iancu, așa că și Gheorghe Doja, lider de răscoală, tot din același film trebuia să fie…

Doja Vertical
Hărți realizate în QGIS și Inkscape.
Date: OpenStreetMap și Autoritatea Electorală Permanentă