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

Contextual Factors and Parliamentary Adaptation to European Integration

Most of the explanatory literature focuses on contextual factors in order to explain why we see parliamentary reforms. A consensual starting point of all studies to follow is that the development of the authority of the EU is the key driving force that encourages reactions in national parliaments. Domestically, existing institutions and public opinion in turn might be sources of crossnational variation. That variation in EU authority, existing institutions, and public opinion should matter for parliamentary adaptation is, of course, highly plausible. The point here is not to dispute this possibility. It is rather to highlight that each of these existing explanatory approaches is compatible with a variety of views of what happens in parliament and, in this sense, leaves it open to why parliamentarians appear to overcome the party political obstacles that, as discussed in the previous section, seem to stand in the way of institutional reform. Complementary arguments are called for that address the preferences of parliamentary actors more directly.

Consider, first, the most intuitive idea, namely that the deepening of EU authority encourages the creation of EU-related oversight competences. Plausible as this factor is, the reasons why it matters are still unclear. Some studies are agnostic, saying that parliaments as entities seek to compensate for their lost authority relative to governments, and remedy parliamentary deficits in European integration (e.g. Norton 1995). Others say that EU-related reforms are consensual efforts of all parliamentarians to improve their ability to do their work in this area (Sieberer et al. 2011). Both views are plausible but they do not tell us why it might be the case that parliaments should act consensually or collectively in EU affairs.

Similarly intuitive is the view that existing cross-national differences in the rights and capacities of parliaments in domestic policy-making should leave their mark on EU-related reforms. Consider, for instance, the British House of Commons, which has very weak committees. Indeed, in the eyes of some analysts of parliamentary institutions, the British select committees do not amount to proper arenas for legislative work at all (Martin and Vanberg 2011: 44-51). All else equal, it would be surprising if British legislators created powerful committee structures to deal with EU policy-making while paying little attention to domestic affairs that are more salient for themselves and their voters. Of course, it is possible that other factors, as discussed in the following, counterweigh this institutional effect. Parliaments across Europe differ widely in the way they organize their committee systems, the information and participation rights they afford to parliamentarians, and also in other areas such as administrative resources and budgetary powers (see e.g. Fish and Kroenig 2009; Martin and Depauw 2011; Doring 1995; Wehner 2006; Martin and Vanberg 2011: 31-55). The argument, variously made in the literature, is that parliamentary adaptation to European integration reflects these differences (Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Benz 2004; Raunio 2005; Karlas 2012).

The effect of existing institutions is intuitive yet, similar to the deepening of European integration, compatible with different perspectives on what happens within the parliamentary arena. For Benz (2004: 881), the issue is that 'no actor accepts a loss of power without resistance, especially since they [the parliamentarians] can claim to be the legitimate holders of power'. The idea is that parliamentarians, even from the majority, seek to maintain comparable rights in EU policy-making to those they enjoy domestically. If they enjoy far-reaching rights, they adapt strongly to transfers of authority to the European level, and weakly or not at all otherwise. Dimitrakopoulos (2001), in contrast, argues that 'the efforts of reformers are curbed by deeply rooted and historically defined conceptions of "appropriate" institutional change' (Dimitrakopoulos 2001: 19). At the same time, most 'promoters of institutional change have been aware of [established patterns of interaction with national executives] and explicitly or implicitly have sought not to challenge them' (Dimitrakopoulos 2001: 416). In other words, the impact of domestic institutions on reforms in EU affairs stems from the fact that institutional outcomes in both areas are constrained by social norms to which parliamentarians are committed.

Finally, scholars have argued that public opinion shapes parliamentary reforms in EU affairs (e.g. Bergman 2000; Raunio 2005; Saalfeld 2005). More precisely, they maintain that strong oversight institutions emerge where many citizens are sceptical that EU membership is good for them or their country. The idea that the decisions of politicians, whose careers depend on re-election, should depend on public opinion in some way is seemingly obvious. On the other hand, it is less clear, on closer look, why popular Euroscepticism will be relevant to them, and what oversight institutions offer politicians in the sense of playing to or appeasing opponents of integration. For instance, the way citizens think about the EU plays some role in national elections of some countries (e.g. de Vries 2007; Tillman 2004), but domestic considerations such as perceptions of government and economic performance outweigh the European effect even there. Even if politicians think that Euroscepticism matters for their electoral fortunes, it is not evident what benefit they gain from spending their time scrutinizing the government's day-to-day conduct in EU policy-making. The reasons for voters to oppose or support the EU have little to do with such details of which, as Anderson (1998) notes, they know little (see also van Ingelgom 2014). Instead, EU support has much more to do with deep-seated feelings of national identity and loyalty (Carey 2002; Hooghe and Marks 2008).

Arguments in the literature for why popular Euroscepticism matters are relatively broad, leaving what happens within the parliament open to interpretation. For instance, Raunio (2005: 326) maintains that 'the contentiousness of the European dimension is arguably important, with countries where integration matters produce divisions within parties and among the public adopting tighter scrutiny mechanisms'. Bergman (2000: 420) contends: 'If a sizeable part of the electorate is against the EU as such, politicians will see the EU opposition as important. They will take it into account when they try to play on anti-EU sentiment to win support, or when they take measures to increase the legitimacy of the European Union.' Winzen (2013: 305) suggests that popular Euroscepticism raises the prospect that the government's conduct at the European level has electoral implications, motivating parliamentary parties to strengthen their capacity to monitor and participate in the making of government policy. While the last argument might be more specific than the first two, it can be criticized for disregarding the fact that voters pay little attention to the details of EU policy-making. Moreover, it does not tell us why parliamentarians from the governing majority should be concerned about their government's policy, considering that 'the government' is composed of senior members of their parties.

Far from questioning the plausibility of the explanations discussed so far, it is nonetheless evident that they do not quite say what happens in parliament. Arguments that focus more directly on who in parliament demands and successfully creates EU-related oversight institutions would not only add another perspective to accounts of parliamentary adaptation to integration; they might also clarify the interpretation of the impact environmental conditions might have.

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