Puzzling Parliamentary Reform in European Political Systems

In a widely cited analysis of Legislatures in International Cooperation, Martin (2000) argues that the efforts of EU member state parliaments to adapt institutionally to integration can be understood in the same way as congressional involvement in US international policy-making. Yet, the political systems of the United States and the EU member states differ profoundly, the former having a separation-of-powers system in which legislative-executive competition is common, the latter a fusion-of-powers system in which government- opposition conflict cross-cuts institutional boundaries. Explaining the creation of oversight competences in international affairs is, if not easy, certainly more straightforward in the American than the European context.

Martin analyses the relationship between the Congress and the presidential executive administration as a delegation and exchange relationship. She contends that Congressional legislators care about international policy outcomes that may affect their country's and constituents' fortunes. And they appreciate the experience and capacity that the executive administration brings to the international bargaining table. Yet, Congress also has the tools, such as budgetary authority and ratification rights, necessary to make its voice heard and adjust its involvement as and when necessary. At the same time, legislators are not eager to invest their time in scrutinizing policy processes for which they do not see any danger of undesired consequences. Seeking influence when needed, but trying to avoid the effort otherwise, Congress members enhance their involvement in international politics in particular when their and the president's policy preferences diverge.

While it is plausible to study legislative-executive relations in the US context, in Europe the common approach is to analyse government-opposition conflict. According to King (1976), 'it is usually highly misleading to speak of "executive- legislative relations"'. The government is composed of the parliamentary majority, either a single party or a coalition of parties, and cannot, therefore, be seen as a separate entity from the parliament. The government and the parliamentary majority act together in the pursuit of their policy and office goals, and they confront the opposition parties that seek to distance themselves and present an alternative agenda that voters can choose at future elections. What is more, for their re-election parliamentarians depend strongly on voters' evaluations of party performance. As Muller (2000: 313) puts it, 'once national parties have become the vehicles of political competition there is hardly a market left for individual candidates'. For members of the government majority, this means above all that they have to support rather than control or even obstruct the implementation of the administration's policy agenda.

Scholars of parliamentary adaptation to European integration have criticized any study that treats parliaments and governments as separate entities (e.g. Holzhacker 2002; Pollak and Slominski 2003; Auel 2007). Their point, however, is not that majority parliamentarians are necessarily obedient followers of the instructions that senior party members in government provide. They may well care about the quality and direction of public policy, as much as US legislators, because this affects the party's and their own electoral prospects and it speaks to their own ideological preferences. However, government supporters are said to prefer different means to shape policy than those of members of the opposition. Those in the parliamentary majority have no interest in creating formal oversight competences because they can communicate with their party leaders through intra-party arenas. Institutional oversight competences are rather relevant for the opposition that lacks informal access to the government, and benefits from any opportunity to influence policy or extract electorally relevant information.

The result, then, is a puzzling situation. Evidently, European parliaments have made efforts to adapt institutionally to European integration. Of course, some have done so more than others and this is one of the puzzles. Yet, why has any noteworthy adaptation happened if, as the conventional wisdom about Europe's fusion-of-powers political systems tells us, majority parties have no interest in formal oversight competences? Opposition parties may want such reforms but, by definition, they lack the majority votes to redesign the parliament according to their demands. Either Martin is right and, at least in the context of EU affairs, European parliaments stand more united against the executive than usual, or there are additional policy-related or electoral reasons for majority parliamentarians to seek formal oversight competences for their institutional 'home'. Neither the one nor the other view is correct, I argue. The solution to the puzzle rather lies in the nature and configuration of parliamentary parties' constitutional preferences, and the role that these preferences reserve for parliaments as institutional entities in the EU's constitutional architecture.

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