Motivation: The Roles National Parties Might Play in Bicameral EU Decision-Making

Both the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament (EP) are staffed with politicians who belong to national parties. Thus, in theory, national parties could fulfill two important roles in the political system of the European Union (EU): First, national parties might form a democratic linkage between the public and EU legislators. Second, they could form a connection between the Council and the EP, which is of special interest for the analysis of decision-making in the EU, since together the two institutions constitute a bicameral legislative structure.

It is beyond controversy that national parties are key actors in the legislative process of democratic nation states. Schattschneider’s dictum is still valid: “[M]odern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of parties” (Schattschneider 1942, 1). Within nation states, political parties act as “transmission belts” (Lindberg et al. 2008) between citizens and legislators. They aggregate public demands into competing policy programs, recruit individuals for political leadership, ensure cohesive decision-making in order to realize their programs, and repeatedly take part in elections to win support for further action. In this manner, they “link the represented with their representatives” (Hix and Lord 1997, 7). However, can national parties fulfill the same role in the EU and thus help to overcome the often-cited “democratic deficit” (cf. Follesdal and Hix 2006)? The

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017 M. Muhlbock, Voting Unity of National Parties in Bicameral EU Decision-Making, DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-39465-7_1

potential for an effective linkage mechanism between the represented and their representatives in the EU does exist. A dense “chain of delegation” (Strom 2000) from the public to national parties and from national parties to the Council and the EP could promote a democratic EU. However, national parties can only be “transmission belts” from the European citizens to “Brussels” if their impact on EU decision-making is more than symbolic. It is therefore crucial that national parties are able to influence and coordinate the voting behavior of their representatives at the EU level.

In addition to linking people with the two legislative institutions, national parties could fulfill a second linkage function in the EU: they might link the legislative institutions with each other. The political system of the EU can be described as a bicameral system with the Council and the EP as the chambers (Tsebelis and Money 1997, 58). Thus, to understand the legislative process, it is important to know about the interplay of the two institutions. As national political parties are represented in both the Council and EP (Warntjen et al. 2008), they might shape the interaction between these institutions. Strong linkages between ministers and Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) of the same national party could lead to decision-making alongside the same ideological and national lines in both institutions (Colomer 2002). Therefore, knowing about the influence of national parties on their representatives in the Council and the EP and about the interactions among national parties across institutional borders will help to determine what structures the relationship of the two legislative institutions and, as a result, the legislative system of the EU in general.

The findings presented in this book will thus have implications for our understanding of the legislative process in the EU and the role national parties play therein. If national parties are in fact found to link citizens with EU legislators and the Council with the EP, this means we will have to attach more importance to party politics in future studies of EU decision-making. However, if the influence of national parties is found to be weak, this also warrants further investigation: if national parties are not able to fulfill their function of linking the represented with their representatives, this might constitute a major problem for the democratic quality of the EU.

So far, it is not clear whether national parties are able to fulfill their “linkage” functions in the legislative process of the EU. The study of national parties in bicameral EU decision-making is a particularly attractive topic precisely because there is not much research in this area yet. There are some studies concerning the role of national parties in the EP (e.g. Hix 2002; Lindberg 2008; Raunio 2000, 2002a, b; Thiem 2009), but only a few similar analyses for the Council (e.g. Hagemann and Hoyland 2008). Furthermore, there is little literature that covers inter-institutional decision-making in the EU in detail; in other words, interactions between different institutions at the level of individual actors within these institutions are almost always neglected—a gap that this study tries to fill.

To refer to the EU as a bicameral legislature is nothing new (e.g. Tsebelis and Money 1997). Yet, it is still unusual (cf. Kreppel 2013). Despite clear evidence that the outcome of EU legislation is dependent on the interplay of the two institutions, scholars have tended to examine each chamber in isolation. Apart from descriptions of the different legislative procedures (Corbett et al. 2005, 196-258; Maurer 1999) or accounts on the development of the EP from a consultative assembly of part-time members into a “full-fledged co-legislator” (Corbett et al. 2005, 3-5; Kohler 2014; Konig 2008), most studies consider at least one of the two institutions as a unified actor (e.g. Crombez 1997; Konig et al. 2007; Scherpereel and Perez 2015; Tsebelis and Garrett 2000) and do not go into detail of the legislative practice. However, there are some scholars who have conducted in-depth analyses of bicameral decision-making. Examples of such scholars are Farrell and Heritier (2004) and Rasmussen (2007) studying “early agreements” between the Council and EP under Codecision, Hagemann and Hoyland (2010) with their analysis of how dissent in the Council affects passage of amendments in the EP, and Costello (2011) on the effect of different legislative procedures on coalition formation in the EP.

Notwithstanding these accounts, existing literature still provides only a piecemeal picture. One important step in order to complete the picture— as is argued by several researchers (e.g. Lindberg et al. 2008)—would be to study the role of parties in the inter-institutional relations between the Council and the EP. This question has so far only been tackled indirectly, for example, by analyzing the party affiliation of rapporteurs (Costello and Thomson 2011; Hausemer 2006; Hoyland 2006; Yordanova 2011) or by studying the effect of ideological congruency between institutions on decision-making speed (Kluver and Sagarzazu 2013). It still remains to be confirmed whether national parties shape the voting behavior of their representatives in the Council and in the EP.

According to the literature, the voting behavior of ministers is mainly constrained by the need to compromise with other member states in the so-called “culture of consensus” (Heisenberg 2005), while MEPs are strongly influenced by their transnational European party groups (EPGs) (Hix et al. 2007; Ringe 2010). In comparison, the role of national parties is somewhat less clear. So far, research provides mixed evidence concerning party political behavior among European decision-makers (for an overview, see Lindberg et al. 2008). There is some evidence—but rather diffuse—for partisan behavior in the Council (Hagemann and Hoyland 2008). Yet, it remains undecided whether ideology structures the voting behavior of ministers at the EU level. Compared to the few accounts for the Council, there is much more evidence on partisan behavior in the EP (e.g. Hix 2008; Hix and Lord 1997). However, whether this is due to the influence of national parties or caused by an evolving transnational party structure is ambiguous. Thus, there is a research gap not only on bicameralism but also on the role of national parties in the European decision-making process. It is the goal of this project to help close this gap.

Contrary to existing studies, the present project will not analyze the role of national parties separately for the Council and the EP, but will take the voting behavior of a party’s representatives in one institution as a benchmark for the voting behavior of the party members in the other institution. To compare the voting behavior of ministers and MEPs of the same national party, the project includes the compilation of a unique dataset that merges Council and EP votes. So far, the voting unity of national parties across EU institutions has never been studied. It is completely open under which circumstances national parties act cohesively across institutional borders and if they are able to ensure the voting unity of their ministers and MEPs. Hence, this study provides the first assessment of whether national parties are “speaking with one voice” at the EU level.

Why is it important that legislators of the same national party vote with each other? Voting unity is important from a normative viewpoint for scholars of democratic theory. Parties “serve as information conduits to citizens” (Carey 2007). Voters can distinguish between different parties running in elections only when these parties have clearly defined labels. However, if the voting behavior of a party’s legislators is not cohesive, this blurs the party label and thus undermines the electoral connection that parties form between citizens and legislators within European democracies. Moreover, if representatives of the same national party do not vote alike, either some of them have defected from the party line or there was no party line. Hence, if there is no voting unity among party representatives, this indicates that there is a hole in the chain of delegation from citizens to parties to representatives, thereby posing a potential problem for party-based democracy.

Additionally, coming from a less normative, but rather a descriptive or explanatory framework, voting unity is of interest for researchers of legislative politics as an indicator for the extent to which parties structure the decisionmaking process by organizing cohorts of legislators (Carey 2007). Finally, for party scholars, voting unity relates to the two main goals of national parties: votes and policy (see Muller and Strom 1999). As mentioned above, cohesive action is necessary to form a clear party label. If a party does not display a unified position, voters cannot know what they are voting for and what they will get after the election. Thus, voters choose an option where they know beforehand what to expect. As a result, parties with clear labels win more votes. However, electoral success is not a sufficient condition for influence over policy output. Even the party with the most representatives within a legislature will not be able shape policy if it is not able to coordinate the behavior of its representatives in order to form a strong voting bloc. If voting unity among a party’s members is absent, the party will not be able to exert influence within the legislature, and this will, in turn, further diminish the party’s success in the next election (Carey 2007).

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