Constitutional Preferences and National Parliamentary Reform


There is something puzzling about parliamentary oversight competences in EU affairs and domestic policy-making alike. The majority parties that would have the voting power to create these competences do not urgently need them, while the opposition parties that need institutional rights lack the votes to get them. In a separation-of-powers system such as the United States, it is easier to see why a parliament, acting collectively, would want to avert external challenges—such as those from regional integration—to its authority. In European political systems, party rule prevails, which means that conflict lines typically cross-cut institutional boundaries. The creation of oversight institutions, at first sight, appears to be surprising. Why does it happen and why to varying degrees across countries?

The most widespread response in the literature is that parliaments have reacted to the development of EU authority, and that their reform efforts have varied due to differences in existing domestic institutions and Euroscepticism (Raunio and Hix 2000; Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Raunio 2005; Karlas 2012; Winzen 2013). It is certainly plausible that, for instance, a parliament that has extensive oversight rights in national policy-making would reproduce these rights in the context of EU affairs. At the same time, however, studies that adopt this focus on EU authority and contextual domestic factors do not so much resolve the puzzle of oversight institutions but circumvent it. Their explanations are compatible with various ideas of what may happen in parliament, and what the government and opposition parties want and are able to get. This is not a criticism as such. On the contrary, there are good reasons to believe that we would not be talking about national parliamentary rights in EU affairs without the evolution of EU authority. And variation in parliamentary adaptation may well have to do with existing institutions and public opinion. Yet, what institutional reforms mean to the parties in parliament remains ambiguous. There is a need for arguments and expectations that focus more directly on the wants and needs of parliamentary parties.

Selected studies have instead argued that EU-related oversight institutions sometimes serve the interests of majority parties (e.g. Bergman 1997; Martin 2000; Saalfeld 2005). This could be the case, first, under conditions of minority government, when the composition of the legislative coalition differs from executive office-holders, and, second, under conditions of a coalition government, parties might adjust legislative institutions to involve parliamentarians in their efforts to monitor each other's cabinet members. The issue with these studies is that they understand EU-related parliamentary reforms as solutions to problems that they do not really address. When parties want to rein in minority governments or solve problems of joint coalition policy-making, creating a European Affairs committee is unlikely to be first on their agenda. What they need are domestic institutional reforms first and foremost. What happens in EU affairs has long been recognized to be, if not irrelevant, of secondary importance to domestic party political contestation over policy and votes.

To make sense of parliamentary adaptation to the EU, it is necessary to move away more fundamentally from the view that parties evaluate institutional choices merely in light of the policy and electoral consequences that might follow. On the contrary, parties have deeply held constitutional preferences that are rooted in their partisan identities and in domestic institutions (Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998; Marcussen etal. 1999; Rittberger 2005; Schmidt 2006; Parsons 2002). Policy-makers throughout Europe also share a commitment to democratic norms of organizing the exercise of political authority (Rittberger and Schimmelfennig 2006; Schimmelfennig 2010). Parties in the member state parliaments evaluate the institutional development of the EU against the background of their constitutional preferences and normative commitments, and seek changes if they conclude that discrepancies exist— certainly in situations in which discrepancies between proposals to enhance EU authority and constitutional preferences are obvious while tangible electoral and policy implications of alternative institutional choices are weak. To understand whether parties deem reforms to strengthen national parliaments in EU affairs necessary, one has to focus on the nature and configuration of parties' constitutional preferences within and across the member states.

Developing earlier arguments (Winzen etal. 2015), this chapter contends that parties differ in the importance they attribute to national parliamentary rights in EU affairs depending on whether they tend towards intergovernmental or federal constitutional preferences of the EU (Jachtenfuchs et al. 1998; Rittberger 2005). Parties inclined towards intergovernmental conceptions of the ideal political organization of the EU polity, or to related models such as of limited economic cooperation, see the strengthening of national parliamentary authority as the right way to embed EU policy-making in democratic procedures. Parties favouring federal models of the European polity regard the creation and empowerment of an EP as the right choice and see no need for the domestic creation of EU-specific parliamentary competences. Different configurations of party preferences within the member states result in different institutional choices and, thus, in variation in parliamentary adaptation to European integration.

An argument that stresses the constitutional preferences of national policymakers also has an important place for parliamentary institutions existing in the member states. However, in a framework highlighting constitutional preferences, institutions do not matter because they encourage parties in parliaments with far-reaching rights and powers to seek compensation for the authority lost to the EU (Benz 2004). On the contrary, existing institutions themselves are the result of past constitutional struggles. They stand for constitutional preferences that, while once contested, have since become consensual among most domestic policy-makers and, therefore, indicate the kind of reforms that they consider right for their country and for the EU more generally (Marcussen et al. 1999; Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Schmidt 2006).

In order to fully appreciate the reform dynamics within the parliament and between different parties and member states, the configuration of constitutional preferences matters. On the one hand, parties' constitutional preferences, particularly regarding the need to strengthen national parliaments or not, depend on their partisan identity. Ideologically conservative parties tend towards intergovernmental models of the EU and towards support for empowering national parliaments. Culturally liberal parties, in contrast, are open towards federal models and prefer the empowerment of the EP. Notwithstanding these differences, however, the shared national context of parties from the same member states has the effect that these cross-party differences are more a matter of emphasis, while the biggest differences are to be found between groups of parties of different member states (e.g. Jachtenfuchs et al. 1998; Wessels 2005; Winzen etal. 2015). What is more, the parliamentary groups of most national parties comprise diverse constitutional preferences in addition to the stance of the leadership (e.g. Hix and Lord 1997; Gabel and Scheve 2007b; Steenbergen etal. 2007; Parsons 2002), not only on the constitutional design of the EU in general but also on the question as to the role of national parliaments therein (Wessels 2005). Party leaders are likely to tolerate this internal diversity because the issues at stake are marginal to domestic party competition over policy and votes. They will, however, make efforts to avoid that internal divisions in preferences turn into publicly visible, and electorally damaging, internal conflicts. To achieve this, they will seek to avoid open conflict within and between parties and, instead, seek to build inclusive compromises that many parliamentary actors can support. The result is that parliamentary adaptation choices in EU affairs reflect the preferences of broad parliamentary coalitions—where these coalitions converge on the view that national parliaments should have strong rights and capacities in EU affairs, we should expect strong adaptation efforts, and weak efforts elsewhere.

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