The “Institutional Constraints” That Shape the Voting Behavior of Ministers and MEPs

In order to gain a deeper understanding of the decision-making processes within Council and EP, we reassessed existing research on different constraints influencing voting behavior within these institutions based on the qualitative and quantitative data sources.

In the EP, the transnational groups are the most important actors for shaping the voting behavior of MEPs. This was confirmed in the qualitative interviews conducted with MEPs and is also reflected in the quantitative voting data, showing high levels of voting cohesion within transnational groups. These high levels of voting cohesion despite great group-internal ideological diversities have long puzzled EP scholars. As the right to select (and deselect) MEPs remains solely with national parties, transnational group leaders do not possess “hard” tools to enforce the compliance of their group members. Furthermore, even soft control tools like rewarding loyal MEPs with interesting positions within the EP can hardly be used by the transnational groups, as the allocation of offices is regulated to a great extent by NPDs (Thiem 2007). However, the interview data indicates that voting cohesion is not so much about control and compliance as previously assumed (Hix 2002). MEPs claim that they do not feel threatened at all by their transnational groups. Although the position of an official “whip” who issues voting lists and monitors voting behavior of members in RCVs exists within both the PES and the EPP, MEPs do not seem to fear any punishment for divergent voting behavior. As long as they announce and justify their intention in advance, they are officially allowed to oppose the group line (Interviews 4, 5 and 7). Moreover, MEPs report that taking an independent stance has actually sharpened their personal profile vis-a-vis their colleagues and thus helped to enhance their standing within the EP and within the group (Interview 7). However, MEPs also stated that they could not do this all the time. Decision-making in the EP is organized around the transnational groups and thus MEPs act through their groups. If they have a particular position concerning an issue, they try to convince their fellow group members. If this fails, they either decide that the issue is so salient for them that they choose to voice their position and defect from the common group line in the plenary vote, or they decide not to break ranks and accept their defeat out of respect for the strength of their group through cohesion (Interviews 4 and 11). Yet, most of the time, MEPs do not have a position independent from the one of their group. They are busy working in their own committees, preparing their own reports, and do not have the time to acquaint themselves with every piece of legislation in the EP. As the public is also unaware of the details of most proposals, MEPs get to know about an issue and about pros and cons through the policy experts within their group. They use these experts as proxies for their own position and trust their judgment (Ringe 2010, 45). Thus, the positions of non-expert MEPs are formed by their group to a great extent, a fact that stimulates group cohesion. Therefore, MEPs only take on the cost (not in terms of punishment, but in terms of time resources to inform themselves about an issue) for defection from the group line if a proposal is of great salience for them.

For the Council, the analysis of the empirical data confirmed previous findings that decision-making in the Council is shaped by a so-called “culture of consensus” (Heisenberg 2005). This means that even under qualified majority, actors strive to find a compromise to which everyone can agree. In turn, the “norm of consensus” also forces ministers to act in a constructive manner and be prepared to compromise. Ministers that refuse to accept a compromise proposal even if they have been granted significant concessions risk making themselves unpopular among their colleagues. Moreover, at the time of voting, it is usually clear whether a proposal will gain the sufficient number of votes to pass. Thus, ministers can voice their opposition, but in praxis, they will not be able to change the outcome of the vote. This means that while a minister risks being labeled as a dissenter when voting against the compromise too often, the actual gain of voting “No” (or “Abstain”, which is virtually the same) is low. As a consequence, the “culture of consensus” leads ministers to vote in favor of a proposal even if they were initially against but accepted that they were outvoted. Of all proposals in the dataset, only 18.9 % were contested and the general probability of a country voting against a proposal is very low (compare, e.g. Hayes-Renshaw et al. 2006; Hosli 2007; Plechanovova 2011, for similar results). Ministers use the option to officially record their dissent very carefully and only for the most salient issues.

 
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