Theorizing the Role of National Parties in Bicameral EU Decision-Making

The Influence of National Parties

Studying national parties in bicameral EU decision-making was motivated by the roles that they might play: first, in linking citizens and EU politicians, and second, in linking the two legislative institutions. This section specifies the implications of the present study for the first of these two roles, while the next section deals with the implications concerning the second role.

The main implication of the study is that national parties have little influence on the voting behavior of ministers and MEPs. Thus, the impact of parties on the final step of the decision-making process is low. This, in turn, has implications for the assessment of democratic accountability within the political system of the EU. In the EU, democratic oversight occurs indirectly via national parties (Follesdal and Hix 2006). However, if national parties do not hold their members accountable, the link from citizens to ministers and MEPs through parties breaks down. The strong role of institutional constraints thus presents an obstacle for accountability. The “culture of consensus” shields ministers from being held accountable for their decisions in the Council, as they can always claim that they were outvoted even if they never voiced any form of opposition or even supported the legislation (compare Kohler-Koch and Rittberger 2008, 16).

Due to the “culture of consensus”, there is a “prevalence of ‘peer’ accountability over accountability ‘at home’”. (Papadopoulos 2010). Likewise, the strong impact of transnational EPGs is problematic in respect to the actual form of the electoral system for EP elections. As long as MEPs are elected on national party lists, people do not vote for individual MEPs but for national parties (Follesdal and Hix 2006). Furthermore, in most cases, voting decisions do not depend on European issues, but on national issues (LeDuc 2007, 142-143; Reif and Schmitt 1980). Hence, the outcome of elections is nationally determined. This is problematic in itself (Hurrelmann and DeBardeleben 2009) but would be less problematic if national parties would play an influential role in the EP. However, it is the transnational groups that determine the outcome of EP policy-making. To reestablish the missing link between citizens and EU legislators, people would have to be able to hold the transnational groups accountable. Therefore, the following proposition arises from the findings of this study: as long as transnational groups and not national parties are the main players in the EP, it would enhance democratic accountability if people could vote for the transnational groups and not for national parties in EP elections.2

While the results clearly indicate little influence of national parties in comparison to institutional constraints, the question of whether there is less influence on ministers or on MEPs remains unsolved. At first sight, ministers are much closer to the party leadership than MEPs. MEPs who have to spend most of their time in Brussels or Strasbourg are commonly located on the periphery of the party. After some years in Brussels, MEPs are accused of being likely to “go native”—to value European interests more than their parties’ positions (Scully 2005). In comparison, the positions of the ministers are by definition close to their party position, as they themselves are usually part of the party leadership. Their actions will be perceived as the party’s actions. In national day-to-day politics, the position of a party is normally determined by the minister. Rarely do ministers publicly state an intention that provokes an outcry within their party and it is highly unlikely that ministers take a decision that is completely at odds with their party. As it will be the party who has to take the responsibility on election days, the party leadership will make sure that actions at the governmental level do not go against the party line. However, national parties might not be punished for the actions of ministers in the Council if the public does not know about them. Hence, it is possible that ministers pursue their own (and not their party’s) goals in Brussels and that the party leadership at home might not even care.

Do national parties really have no influence at all? Not necessarily. The findings indicate that they have little influence on voting behavior within the Council and EP. Yet this does not necessarily mean that they have no say in EU decisions. It is possible that national parties simply acknowledge the institutional constraints and rely on more informal strategies to influence policy-making. Instead of reducing influence, it might actually help to influence future Council negotiations if a minister proves to be cooperative in the end of a lost battle. Likewise, influence of national delegations within their EPGs could be higher because MEPs act as loyal group members. Therefore, national parties might accept that their MEPs vote with the group rather than with the minister.

However, although national parties might use different channels to influence EU decision-making so that the voting unity of their representatives is probably not that important for them, according to normative considerations, it probably should be. Voting unity is necessary for displaying a clear position. If parties send ambiguous messages and fail to provide a clear line concerning EU legislation, voters have a hard time making a decision on election days. As a consequence, not only is the link between parties and their representatives weakened, but also the link between citizens and parties.

 
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