Constitutional Preferences of European Political Parties

If not in order to deal with the challenges of minority and coalition governance, what else might explain the creation of national parliamentary competences in EU affairs? I question the premise of existing studies that think of parliamentary reforms as a means to an end—that is, as choices that politicians evaluate in light of the consequences that these have for their subsequent policy influence and electoral prospects. From this perspective, institutional choices become puzzling if their consequences for key partisan concerns, such as managing coalitions, are limited; or if the consequences would seem to run counter to the goals of parliamentary majorities, such as if opposition parties would seem to benefit most from oversight institutions.

Parties regard institutional choices in EU affairs not merely as a means but also as an end in themselves. They have 'constitutional preferences'—that is, different views of how authority in the EU's political system should be distributed between the European level and the member states and between the various existing institutional entities. These constitutional preferences are not rooted in strategic considerations related to policy influence or electoral competition but rather in partisan ideologies, democratic norms, and national institutions (Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998; Marcussen etal. 1999; Rittberger 2005; Schmidt 2006; Schimmelfennig 2010). The nature and configuration of constitutional preferences of political parties within and between EU member states explains why parliamentary reforms are deemed necessary in response to European integration, and why they vary across countries.

The Nature of Constitutional Preferences of European Political Parties

The history of European integration is also a history of institutional choices, both abstract and concrete. European and national policy-makers face general questions such as what the distribution of competences between the Union and the member states should be across policy areas. They also face numerous specific questions about procedures and competences of existing and new institutional entities at both levels. Should majority voting or unanimity apply? What powers should the Court of Justice have? Is there a need for an

EP, and if so, for what kind of parliament? What role, if any, should national parliaments play in EU policy-making? Participants in discussions and decision-making on the development of European integration will have to adopt views on these questions.

To say that parties in the member states have constitutional preferences means two things. The first is that they adopt positions on institutional questions such as the ones above against the background of their views about the desirable institutional design of the EU polity. The second point, which will be discussed further in the section entitled 'The Configuration of Constitutional Preferences across Parties and Parliaments', is that these views are not rooted in strategic imperatives such as electoral interests. Instead, they are relatively stable over time and rooted in partisan identities, democratic norms, and institutions familiar from 'home'.

To illustrate the first point, Jachtenfuchs and colleagues (1998: 410) state that parties have 'polity ideas'. They mean that institutional choices are not merely a manifestation of an underlying quest of parties for policy influence and electoral gains. They rather are tangible expressions of ideal-typical models parties have of a legitimate political order in the European polity. On a general level, these authors show, parties' views map onto the classical divide between federalists and intergovernmentalists, but also incorporate notions of an output-based economic community and a participation- oriented, yet, looser network. These broad constitutional visions or polity ideas entail specific institutional choices. For instance, parties more inclined towards an intergovernmentalist vision of the EU tend to be sceptical of an EP, while favouring the empowerment of national parliaments through domestic reform. Federalists, in turn, are open to the idea that the creation of the EP compensates for the weakening of the formal competences of parliamentarians at home (Rittberger 2003: 208-10). Building on these views, one would expect that parties decide specific institutional questions, including whether national parliaments should obtain oversight competences in EU affairs, based on the fit between the available options and their constitutional preferences.

The case for the relevance of constitutional preferences for institutional decisions is closely related to the argument that formal and informal institutions existing in the member states shape policy-makers' responses to integration. For Marcussen and colleagues (1999) the most profound institutional differences between the member states are manifestations of past constitutional conflicts that were resolved and have since evolved into the consensual foundations of the polity. Writing about differences in electoral and parliamentary institutions across Europe, Powell's (2000; see also Lijphart 1999) argument is similar in the sense that he regards various seemingly unrelated choices—such as about the electoral system, the organization of a parliament's committee system, and the country's cabinets—as reflections of more encompassing 'visions of democracy' prevailing among many relevant actors in a country. In a similar way, Schmidt (1999) maintains that European integration causes widespread friction particularly in unitary states and less so in federal countries, not only because federal institutions are functionally more compatible with the EU's multi-level system, but also because policy-makers in federal systems tend to have ideas of how to organize a polity that can more easily incorporate another level of governance compared to the views prevailing in unitary states. The main point to remember is that, unless serious crises call existing institutions into question, the existing national institutions indicate what kind of institutional designs will be acceptable to most parties and policy-makers of a country (Marcussen etal. 1999: 617). This, of course, is what Dimitrakopoulos (2001, see above) alludes to when he argues that existing parliamentary institutions enjoyed support by parties across the government-opposition divide and effectively constrained the range of conceivable reforms of parliamentary competences in EU affairs.

Shared institutions also exist at the European level, that is, among the parties and policy-makers that participate in constitutional decision-making there. They, too, constrain the range of acceptable institutional choices. Against the background of the domestic institutional diversity and the state of flux of EU institutions, this may seem counterintuitive. However, institutions broadly conceived encompass more than formal rules such as the rights and structures of a parliament. They encompass stable norms and conventions that prevail in a society and that regulate appropriate behaviour (cf. March and Olsen 1984). Such informal institutions shape, for instance, the range of formal institutional choices that actors regard as legitimate frameworks for their collective decision-making.

In the EU, most important policy- and decision-makers such as political parties share a commitment to the norm that procedures for the exercise of public authority should respect democratic standards (Rittberger 2005; Rittberger and Schimmelfennig 2006; Schimmelfennig 2010). That policymakers share a commitment to being democratic does not imply that they always find it convenient to follow democratic norms, or that they agree on what following these norms means precisely in terms of tangible institutional choices. Other ambitions, for instance in domestic electoral politics, may collide with their democratic aspirations. Moreover, some policy-makers, say those with intergovernmental views of the EU's right constitutional order, may also have different views as to the design of a democratic EU compared to others with, say, a federalist vision. However, in the same vein that parties in the member states evaluate institutional choices against their constitutional preferences and existing domestic institutions, they also consider alternative reforms in light of their compliance with democratic standards.

Support for the view that European political elites share a commitment to democratic norms comes from different sources. According to Rittberger (2009) member states elites already evaluated European institutions in light of their compliance with democratic expectations in the 1950s, when they negotiated the design of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the very beginning of what would then develop into today's EU. Member state delegations were not simply discussing the ECSC against the background of imminent domestic electoral or policy concerns. Instead, 'there was a strong urge among the national delegates to tackle two themes which were central to modern constitutionalism: the first was the question about the distribution of public functions and competences, and the second was the relationship between the citizens and public authority' (Rittberger 2009: 52). The reason that these topics raised interest and controversy was that delegation 'were guided by different conceptions about the form and style of representation' (Rittberger 2009: 52). The German delegation in particular insisted on federalist institutions with a parliamentary body at the European level, whereas others such as the Dutch negotiators demanded a representation of national governments, stressing superior legitimacy of member state parliaments over the questionable claim thereto of a European parliamentary institution. We will return to these conflicts and their implications for parliamentary adaptation to integration, noting at this stage, however, that constitutional negotiations have given rise to democratic debates since the very first days in the EU's history. The EU's commitment to democratic norms is also enshrined in the EU treaties, and reflected in the fact that the Union requires new countries to be democratic before they can become members (Schimmelfennig 2003).

Even if one accepts that democratic norms encourage policy-makers to examine the democratic character of institutional choices for the EU, one may ask why their attention should focus on parliamentary authority. And it is true that strengthening parliaments is not the only conceivable answer any given actor concerned about improving the Union's democratic quality could give. Other options that could and have been pursued include the strengthening of interest group access to policy-making, increasing transparency and access to information about the policy process, and raising the substantive quality of policy deliberations and decisions through expertise (e.g. Heritier 2003; Lord and Pollak 2010). However, elected parliaments have gradually evolved into the institutions most closely associated with democratic politics because contemporary democracies are almost entirely representative, based on citizens choosing candidates in elections. Because these elections focus on the parliament, and the representatives thus are parliamentarians, the parliament as an institution stands at the centre of democratic politics (cf. Rittberger 2009:46-7). The previous paragraph already hints at the empirical relevance of parliaments in partisan constitutional preferences. In another study, Jachtenfuchs and colleagues (1998: 425) show that British, French, and German political parties discussed the input dimension of EU policy-making in terms of parliamentary authority already in the 1950s, and their basic views have remained remarkably stable ever since (see also below).

Constitutional preferences of political parties, and the related formal and informal institutions at the national and European levels, are central in the following explanation of parliamentary adaptation to the EU. They explain why questions of democratic institutional design arise in the first place, and what choices policy-makers will make, should they find the prevailing design democratically wanting. To appreciate these points fully, however, one also needs to know when and why constitutional preferences matter particularly, and how they are distributed across the parties of the EU member states.

 
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