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Home arrow Political science arrow Constitutional preferences and parliamentary reform: explaining national parliaments adaptation to European integration


Globally, and within many regions of the world, international organizations have become important arenas of policy-making. Today, states give up sovereignty to an unprecedented degree in the hope of enhancing peace, economic growth, and the capacity to solve pressing common problems. Yet, even if international policy-making holds promise, its mirror image harbours threats. As much as the shared exercise of international policy competences has grown in importance, the autonomous exercise of national competences has declined. This alone might not be problematic, if it were not for the observation that citizens and their democratic representatives have far more rights and influence over the national policy process than over the international one. The international domain typically is one of executives and resourceful organizations, while the national domain is at least in part one of representative institutions and individuals. The threat of the internationalization of policy-making, therefore, is the hollowing out of national democracy.

These arguments have played an important role in the European Union (EU), the world's most powerful regional organization (Hooghe and Marks 2015). Academics explain the willingness of the member states to transfer extensive competences to the EU and its institutions in recognition of the region's high levels of interdependence and shared political ideals of a united Europe (e.g. Moravcsik 1998; Parsons 2003; Schimmelfennig 2003). Yet, they have not hesitated to highlight the Union's democratic shortcomings alongside its potential benefits—above all, the tendency of political elites to deepen integration ever more without due regard for democratic institutions and procedures at the European level as well as within the member states. Some twenty years ago, in the aftermath of the Maastricht Treaty (the Treaty on European Union), few observers disputed that European integration had led to 'a net empowerment of the executive branch of the states' (Weileretal. 1995: 7).

Indeed, far from being outdated today, these critiques are as relevant as ever. While, over the recent years, national governments have taken significant steps to strengthen the EU's power over national fiscal policy, parliamentarians and citizens of the member states, though increasingly reluctant, appear to lack the will or the means to prevent the withering away of their democratic authority to the European level. Thus, what the European crisis and its institutional consequences have led to, it seems, is 'more of the same': deeper integration and deeper democratic deficits. Today, more than twenty years after Maastricht, the charge arises that the EU undermines national democratic institutions and practices.

Yet the picture is more complicated than that. European integration has not happened to member states without them having a hand in the matter. Furthermore, it is mistaken to believe that governments, eager to expand their authority, have successfully sidestepped their parliaments in their efforts to enhance the EU's competences. On the contrary, the parliaments of the member states have repeatedly and voluntarily ratified European treaties, often with overwhelming majorities. Evidently, parliamentary parties in government and opposition continue to support the idea of an integrated Europe and so do most citizens, albeit more cautiously than the political elite (Hooghe and Marks 2008). Even during the Eurozone crisis, parties and parliamentarians have ratified all major reforms, coming to the conclusion that ultimately further integration is preferable to inaction or exit. To date, Britain is the only country that has ever decided to leave the EU. While this decision resulted from a popular vote, many observers believe that a parliamentary majority would have supported the country's EU membership.

What is more, it is empirically inaccurate to say that European integration has progressed without regard for the rights and competences of representative institutions. In fact, the EU has developed a multi-level parliamentary system in which both the European Parliament (EP) and national parliaments have obtained rights and capacities to participate in EU policy-making (Crum and Fossum 2009). This system has evolved as a result of the efforts of parties and parliamentarians who have proven willing and able to push for the institutionalization of parliamentary rights in the European and domestic political arenas. Thus, the EP, once merely a consultative assembly, has become a powerful legislator on an equal footing with the Council of Ministers in most policy areas (Rittberger 2005). In turn, policy-makers in many of the member states have responded to integration by strengthening parliamentary oversight institutions, in an effort to create conditions helping parliamentarians to hold governments accountable for their conduct in the EU policy process (Norton 1996a; Raunio and Hix 2000; Maurer 2001; Raunio 2005; Winzen 2012; Karlas 2012). The member states have also incorporated parliamentary participation and information rights in the EU treaties, giving national parliaments a direct role in EU policy-making (Cooper 2006; Christiansen etal. 2014).

A closer look reveals that the institutional design of the parliamentary system of the EU today has two remarkable characteristics: 'democratic asymmetry' and a vertical division of labour (Crum and Fossum 2009; Rittberger and Winzen 2015b). We can speak of democratic asymmetry in the sense that the domestic rights of parliaments in EU politics have developed unevenly (Raunio 2005; Winzen 2012; Karlas 2012). Thus, whereas, for instance, scholars of Danish politics assert that it 'is not certain that the parliament has lost influence' (Damgaard and Jensen 2005: 394), scholarly assessments in many other countries, particularly in Southern Europe, continue to be more sanguine until today. There, efforts to reinforce parliamentary competences in EU policy-making have been less pronounced than in Denmark as well as in other member states such as Austria, Britain, Finland, and Germany. In other words, the parliamentary dimension of the EU's democratic deficit is more pronounced in some member states than in others.

The EU's parliamentary system also features a vertical division of labour. The literature highlights a discrepancy between the reforms parliamentary policy-makers have undertaken domestically and at the European level. Whereas domestically some parliaments have achieved a lot, and almost all of them have obtained some improvements in their institutional authority, parliamentary rights at the European level have continued to be weakly developed. Despite some initial enthusiasm, the European role of national parliaments adds little to the focus of parliamentarians and parties on domestic oversight. Surveying the literature, Raunio (2009: 322), thus, comes to the conclusion that a relevant role of national parliaments directly at the European level has so far remained an 'unfulfilled promise'. The European level of the EU's parliamentary system has primarily remained the arena of the EP.

The aim of this study is to explain why we observe democratic asymmetries and the vertical division of labour in the EU's parliamentary system. In other words, the focus is not on how European integration undermines the authority of national democratic institutions. It is on parliamentary responses. As a starting point, the book draws on the findings that national parliaments have adapted unevenly to integration, and that their European-level rights have remained weak. The goal is to explain these two characteristics of the role of national parliaments in the EU. In the following chapter, more detailed evidence is provided to support this starting point. For now, however, the two characteristics of parliamentary adaptation—cross-country variation and a weak European-level role—give rise to this study's two research questions.

  • • What explains domestic parliamentary adaptation to European integration?
  • • Why have parliaments reacted to integration with domestic reforms, whereas their direct role at the European level has remained weak?

This is certainly not the first study of these two issues. While the second question has received little attention overall, many contributions have asked why we observe more extensive parliamentary adaptation efforts to integration in some member states compared to others (e.g. Bergman 1997, 2000; Pahre 1997; Martin 2000; Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Saalfeld 2005; Raunio 2005; Karlas 2012; Winzen 2013; Winzen et al. 2015). What distinguishes this from other studies, first and foremost, is its perspective on a basic puzzling issue that any study of parliamentary rights and competences, in and beyond EU affairs, has to address. In a nutshell: opposition parties want institutional rights for 'the parliament' but lack the majority to create them; governing parties have no use for parliamentary rights and have the votes to prevent their emergence. The next chapter returns to this puzzle in more detail. At this stage, note the main 'problem': it is an empirical fact that many national parliaments have created significant EU-related oversight competences. Why did this happen, albeit only in some countries? Did opposition parties get their way? Did governing parties act in an unexpected manner?

The existing literature has primarily focused on contextual explanations such as the level of Euroscepticism prevailing in a country, or the kind of parliamentary rights and capacities that already exist in domestic policymaking (Bergman 2000; Benz 2004; Raunio 2005; Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Karlas 2012). These are plausible explanatory factors and, indeed, the argument put forward in the following affords a prominent place to existing institutions. Nevertheless, these studies do not tell us what exactly makes governing parties create oversight institutions, or what gives the ability to do so to the opposition. On the contrary, most of the literature is, in fact, comparatively agnostic as to the processes that unfold in parliament, acknowledging that the above explanatory factors are compatible with different mechanisms. Regarding the impact of institutions, for instance, Benz (2004) and Dimitrakopoulos (2001) would agree that there is a tendency for strong EU-related oversight institutions to emerge in countries where parliamentary rights and capacities are already well established in domestic affairs. The reasons they offer are, however, quite different. Benz (2004: 881) suggests that 'no actor accepts a loss of power without resistance', whereas Dimitrakopoulos (2001: 19) stresses the impact of 'deeply rooted and historically defined conceptions of "appropriate" institutional change.' These and related studies discussed in more detail in Chapter 3 may well be empirically right, but what they are lacking is an argument about the incentives and constraints of parliamentary actors and the way these translate into institutional reform choices in EU affairs.

One such argument is advanced by scholars emphasizing the strategic exigencies arising under minority and coalition government (e.g. Bergman 1997: 381; Martin 2000: 154; Saalfeld 2005). If, as is the case under minority government, the partisan composition of the legislative majority coalition and the executive office coalition diverge, creating parliamentary rights and capacities of executive oversight could be a compromise between parties in office and their supporters in parliament. What is more, where coalition partners disagree on policy or on the desirability of European integration, and thus find it difficult to trust each other's ministers, they could reinforce the means of their parliamentary groups to join in mutual monitoring and, thus, make coalition governance work (Martin and Depauw 2011; Zubek 2015). Yet, there are problems with this line of thinking. Minority governments are not only too rare to account for many instances of parliamentary adaptation, they have also conventionally been understood as a consequence rather than a source of institutions facilitating legislative influence on government behaviour (Strom 1990). More importantly still, EU-related oversight institutions are not even a solution for the main problems arising for parties involved in minority and coalition government. What predominantly concerns them, as Martin and Vanberg (2011) maintain, is government policy on issues with profound electoral implications. The day-to-day policies of the EU, which oversight institutions might help parties influence, however, have so far had at most marginal electoral consequences (de Vries 2007), and are, indeed, hardly known to most of the electorate (Anderson 1998; van Ingelgom 2014).

This work takes a different perspective on institutional changes in member state parliaments. Far from being driven by the exigencies of minority and coalition government, parliamentary reforms in response to European integration ultimately reflect the nature and configuration of the constitutional preferences of national parties and parliamentarians. Parties in the member countries of the EU do not merely think of institutional choices as means to ends such as winning votes or policies. On the contrary, they have deeply rooted and long-lasting views about the right constitutional design for the EU and their countries (Jachtenfuchs et al. 1998; Marcussen et al. 1999; Rittberger 2005; Schmidt 2006; Parsons 2002). Constitutional preferences are also the reason why existing domestic institutions matter—not because parliamentarians seek compensatory reforms that restore their influence as parliamentary authority shifts to the European level, but because existing parliamentary rights and capacities are themselves the result of constitutional struggles of the past, and of constitutional preferences that have since become consensual among national policy-makers (cf. Marcussen etal. 1999; Schmidt 2006). Existing institutions, consequently, indicate the kind of institutional choices policy-makers consider appropriate in and beyond EU affairs. Institutions and the constitutional preferences parties hold shape the parliamentary reforms they seek to put into place in response to the challenges of European integration.

European political parties, and other relevant political elites, differ in many ways in the kind of institutional design that they seek for the EU's political system (e.g. Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998; Marcussen etal. 1999; Parsons 2002). Jachtenfuchs and colleagues (1998), for instance, observe that parties do not only divide into federalists and intergovernmentalists but also embrace notions of network governance and purely economic cooperation. Whether parties tend towards the federalist or intergovernmental camp or other constitutional models is not coincidental. As Chapter 3 elaborates, their constitutional preferences are rooted in partisan ideology and the institutions and historical context of their countries. Yet, notwithstanding the diversity of partisan constitutional preferences within and between countries, the central divide regarding the question of whether and what kind of role national parliaments should have in EU policy-making still lies between parties tending towards federal and intergovernmental visions of the EU, respectively (Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998; Hooghe etal. 2002; Rittberger 2005; Winzen etal. 2015). Federalists take comfort in the substantial empowerment of the EP in each treaty reform since the Single European Act. For them, strengthening national parliaments is not only unnecessary but even a threat to their primary goal, extending the competences of the EP. For intergovernmentally oriented parties, on the other hand, the right way to strengthen parliaments in the European polity is to given national parliaments the rights and capacities needed to exercise oversight of national governments that represent the member states in EU policy-making. The empowerment of the EP, in the light of intergovernmentalists' constitutional views, is at best unhelpful and, at worst, a threat to the authority of national governments and parliaments.

However, parliamentary reform outcomes also depend on the configuration of constitutional preferences within and between the member states. There is no denying that parliaments are partisan political arenas rather than institutional actors. Hence, even if parties and parliamentarians have constitutional preferences, one may still wonder who in parliament gets their way. The ad hoc response, of course, is that the governing parties create the parliamentary rights they deem appropriate for the domestic organization of EU affairs— they might not act out of policy or electoral interests but they impose their will on the parliamentary minority nonetheless. However, this ad hoc response, while plausible, does not fully appreciate the state of research on party positions and behaviour in EU affairs. Even though parties within a given member state differ to some extent in their constitutional preferences, the shared national and institutional context creates a situation where the most profound disagreements lie between groups of parties from different countries, rather than within them (Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998; Wessels 2005). Within countries, parties do not so much differ strongly from each other but rather accommodate considerable internal diversity in constitutional preferences among their parliamentarians and members (e.g. Hooghe and Marks 2008; Gabel and Scheve 2007b; Wessels 2005). Party leaders can and do tolerate this diversity because it is of limited electoral significance but they avoid taking controversial positions that could ignite conflict between and within parties and, thus, turn latent internal diversity into electorally damaging open conflict. Instead, they are interested in building inclusive parliamentary coalitions regarding institutional questions such as whether to give powers to national parliaments. The choices that these coalitions take regarding parliamentary adaptation to integration depend on whether the parliament's party composition leans towards intergovernmental or federal constitutional preferences.

The constitutional preferences of parliamentary parties alongside the consensual ideas of appropriate reform choices reflected in existing national institutions explain cross-national variation in parliamentary adaptation to integration. Where parliamentary parties tend towards intergovernmental views of the EU, and where parliamentary rights and capacities in domestic policy-making are well established, we observe the emergence of far-reaching EU-related oversight institutions. Where federalists dominate and parliaments lack significant domestic competences, adaptation to EU policy-making will be weak or lacking.

The second ambition of this investigation is to extend an explanation based on constitutional preferences to the question of why the European-level role of national parliaments has remained weak. The few existing studies of this question provide one important piece of the puzzle (Rittberger 2005: 177-96; Herranz-Surralles 2014; Cooper 2014). They show that the views that different member state parliaments as well as the EP have regarding the rights and capacities national parliaments should have in EU affairs diverge. The proximate cause for the lack of a strong direct European role of national parliaments is this disagreement. Representatives from different countries and the EP have found only minimal common ground, resulting in a design of, for instance, inter-parliamentary conferences that remain voluntary and do not commit the participating parliaments to any decisions or policies. Yet, what is behind the disagreement? What factors underlie the institutional preferences that make inter-parliamentary agreement difficult? Advancing an explanation based on existing institutions and constitutional preferences at the level of individual parliamentarians, I suggest that representatives with intergovernmental views of the EU regard a direct European role of national parliaments with suspicion as it is incompatible with a parliamentary focus on domestic oversight of governments, which in turn represent their member states in EU policy-making. Furthermore, strong parliamentary prerogatives in domestic policy-making and strong EU-related oversight institutions indicate that parliamentarians prefer a focus of their rights and capacities on domestic oversight. Reforms that envisage parliaments as autonomous European-level actors alongside national governments are incompatible with what parliamentarians in these member states consider appropriate for the EU and their countries. The only reforms of their direct European role that intergovern- mentalist parliamentarians in countries with significant existing parliamentary rights and capacities will entertain are those that are compatible with, and do not distract from, a focus on domestic oversight. Federalists neither are unequivocal supporters of a direct role of national parliaments (Cooper 2014; Herranz-Surralles 2014). On the contrary, parliamentarians with federal constitutional preferences seek to empower the EP, and they oppose reforms that could be perceived as a threat to its European-level dominance, including many suggestions for inter-parliamentary cooperation.

Third and finally, this study applies the arguments put forward to explain variation in parliamentary oversight institutions and the weakness of their direct European role to new challenges arising from the recent, crisis-driven reforms of the EU's Economic and Monetary Union (EMU). In the form of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) a new European-level decision-making body has emerged outside of the Union's treaty framework and regular legislative procedures. In the context of the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance (TSCG), national parliaments and the EP are encouraged to set up a joint inter-parliamentary conference to monitor EU-level economic and budgetary policies, the so-called 'Article-13 conference' (according to the TSCG article calling for this conference). Interestingly, there is variation in whether member state parliaments create information and participation rights in ESM decision-making, and in whether they want a broad or a narrow mandate of the Article-13 conference. In line with the arguments made so far, I suggest that existing budgetary and EU-related oversight institutions shape parliamentary reactions to these new challenges and opportunities parliamentary parties face in the reformed EMU. Parties deem the creation of new rights in ESM decision-making necessary in particular where 'their' parliaments also have far-reaching prerogatives in domestic policy-making. They oppose extensive inter-parliamentary cooperation, where they see the focus of the national parliament in domestic oversight, as indicated in particular by strong preexisting EU-related oversight institutions at home.

Throughout the chapters, these arguments are supported on the basis of analyses of original, comparative data on the creation and reform of EU-related oversight institutions in the parliaments of the member states, as well as of secondary data at the level of individual parliamentarians. The results thus obtained make clear that an explanation based on constitutional preferences and institutions holds most promise as a perspective on why and how parliaments react to European integration. Scholars that have previously drawn attention to the impact of institutions existing in the member states, and of the domestically consensual constitutional preferences that these institutions reflect, may then consider their views supported (Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Raunio 2005; Wessels 2005). There is, however, hardly any evidence for the contention that party political necessities, notably those arising under minority and coalition government, have much to do with parliamentary reforms in EU affairs, except, potentially, in rare and case-specific situations in which we actually observe cabinets in Europe characterized by salient conflicts over the desirability of integration. More broadly speaking, this work also supports contributions that have studied the empowerment of the EP (Rittberger 2005), and the EU's political system more generally (Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998; Marcussen etal. 1999; Parsons 2002; Schmidt 2006), on the basis of variation in national institutions and the constitutional preferences of parties and policy-makers.

Ultimately, the results of this study's analyses encourage us to think about the potentials and pitfalls of building parliamentary rights and capacities in the EU on the basis of constitutional preferences. On the one hand, the argument made here is an encouragement to attribute the political responsibility for the Union's domestic parliamentary deficits, where they exist, not to structural constraints of the integration process itself, and not to docile voters, but, indeed, to the political elites of the member states. In some countries, parliaments have created considerable rights and capacities that facilitate governmental accountability and where they have not, it is above all because party elites have decided against domestic reforms. Against the background of the institutions that they are familiar with from 'home', and in line with their constitutional preferences for the EU polity, they consider national parliamentary rights of secondary importance, not least, in contrast to the empowerment of the EP. The process of European integration has many sources—to hold it responsible for the deficient role of parliaments in some member states is just as good as to hold no one responsible. Party and parliamentary elites of the member states might not be able to control how the EU develops, but they do have the power to protect the rights of national parliaments to the extent possible or, indeed, to decide not to do so. Whether we consider their choices as right or wrong may depend on our normative theories of European integration. The fact that policy-makers make choices based on their normative theories of what institutions are appropriate for the EU and their countries, however, means that they can be called to account for their views and actions.

On the other hand, the potential problem of parliamentary adaptation based on constitutional preferences might be that 'reality bites'. Constitutional preferences shape the behaviour of parties and parliamentarians most if other pressing issues, such as winning elections, are not strongly at stake in the choices they face—that is, in the constitutional politics of the EU in which decisions such as on national parliamentary rights are taken. Once parliaments have, thus, obtained EU-related rights and competences, problems may arise in subsequent day-to-day policy-making. Party political conflicts and incentives may get in the way of the effective use of the available institutional prerogatives (see, e.g., Pollak and Slominski 2003; Auel 2007). Governing parties might consider it constitutionally important to strengthen the institutional competences of national parliaments in EU affairs, while, at the same time, finding little benefit in putting them to use to exert oversight over their own government subsequently. The result might, consequently, be that we would observe limited consequences of parliamentary oversight institutions in terms of the EU-level policies that a country pursues, or in terms of intra-parliamentary contestation and transparency. The impact of parliamentary adaptation to integration could remain confined to a narrow group of political elites that appreciate seeing their constitutional preferences realized, while the public more generally might take little notice.

The potentials and pitfalls of parliamentary adaptation to integration are, therefore, mixed: agency and accountability, on the one hand, and low impact, on the other. The point, of course, is not to take the potential pitfalls for granted but rather to investigate them empirically, as selected recent studies are beginning to do (e.g. Auel and Christiansen 2015). In the same manner that studying parliamentary adaptation systematically reveals more variation and nuance than the claim that the EU disempowers national parliaments, we should develop more fine-grained and contingent claims about the day-to-day practice of parliamentary involvement in EU affairs.

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