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

The Configuration of Constitutional Preferences across Parties and Parliaments

Let us return to the origins of the European integration process and the negotiations of the ECSC (Rittberger 2009). Member state delegations with intergovernmental and federalist visions of the EU clashed already then. And these clashes clearly entailed disagreement over the relevance of national parliaments in EU policy-making. Some countries demanded a supranational assembly, later to turn into what is now the EP. Others, the intergovernmen- talists, disagreed, not least because their ideas as to the sources of democratic legitimacy for European decision-making emphasized national parliaments. Rittberger (2009: 55) quotes one of the delegation leaders:

C'est dans les Parlements [nationaux] que reside la responsabilite et non pas dans tel ou tel groupe parlementaire arbitrairement choisis. Au contraire, les ministres detiennent le pouvoir effectif et ce sont eux qui devraient constituer l'organe de controle de la Haute Autorite.

Disagreements such as in this example matter. They help understand why national parliamentary competences in EU affairs matter to policy-makers— because they speak to their constitutional preferences and because they resonate with formal and informal institutions familiar from home. Yet, to understand the nature of constitutional disagreements, we have to understand better where constitutional preferences come from and how they are distributed across Europe's parties and member states.

Existing studies provide three insights into the origins and configuration of constitutional preferences across parties. First, parties from the same country differ to some extent as a result of their partisan identity. Ideologically conservative parties are inclined towards intergovernmental visions of the EU, and towards scepticism of the EP. More liberal parties, speaking in cultural rather than economic terms, tend towards federalist visions of the EU and put emphasis on strengthening the EP rather than national parliaments. Second, notwithstanding the existence of differences between parties, the most pronounced variation in constitutional preferences, especially in the dimensions most important here, lies between countries. In other words, the parties from one country are rather closer to each other than to the parties of another country. The reason is that their constitutional preferences are not only driven by ideology but also shaped by national institutions, discourses, and histories. Third, there is reason to believe that, although parties can be said to have constitutional preferences that represent the views of their leading members, they also exhibit noteworthy intra-party diversity. This is not surprising because parties are also diverse in terms of the left-right and social ideologies of their members. Yet, unlike in questions that are crucial for national electoral and office competition, party leaders are likely to tolerate this diversity to a larger extent instead of imposing a uniform party position on all members. The relative proximity of the constitutional preferences of parties from the same country, the limited relevance of the EU for party competition, and the existence and toleration of intraparty diversity encourage the formation of parliamentary compromises in EU constitutional politics.

Parties' constitutional preferences reflect their partisan identities. A first sign is that these preferences are highly stable over time. Analysing what institutional solutions British, French, and German parties prefer for the EU, Jachtenfuchs and colleagues find that parties have shifted in some views. For instance, questions of input legitimacy have gained in prominence alongside the evolution of EU authority. By and large, however, they conclude that most of the ideas for a European political order that parties in these three countries represent today were already present from the 1950s onwards. 'In other words, it seems that the development of the EC/EU institutions and the very existence of supranational integration in Europe for more than four decades has not altered the fundamental core of legitimizing polity-ideas' (Jachtenfuchs et al. 1998: 426). Using data from expert surveys on party positions about the EP, Winzen and colleagues (2015) make a similar point, showing that the position that any given party adopted in the mid-1980s has remained essentially unchanged until today. Partisan views of the EP are only one among many elements of the constitutional visions that parties have about the EU and, therefore, it cannot be ruled out that parties have changed more on other institutional questions. Together with Jachtenfuchs and colleagues' analysis, the evidence does, however, suggest stability.

Stability alone is not sufficient evidence for the ideological roots of partisan constitutional preferences. A finding that more directly supports this claim is that parties from the same party families, albeit from different countries, tend to share at least some elements of their views regarding the political order of the EU (Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998). For instance, French and British Conservative parties, as a result of the importance that they attribute to national sovereignty and identity, are sceptical of federalist models for the EU polity. They, too, also differ in that the latter see the EU as no more than an economic enterprise while French conservatives are open to far-reaching European competences, for instance in terms of political steering of the market, albeit strictly in an intergovernmental framework. These differences notwithstanding, their shared conservatism and opposition towards federalism creates common ground on many issues. Thus, for both, it is 'inconceivable that the European Parliament might become a fully-fledged parliament with means and powers comparable to its national counterparts. Any parliament, in this perspective, has to represent a pre-existing nation' (Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998: 428).

While parties' constitutional preferences vary to some extent beyond the distinction between intergovernmental and federal models, the tendency of conservative parties to support the former and of culturally liberal parties to prefer the latter is of particular importance here. Hooghe and colleagues (2002), using information from expert surveys from 1999, demonstrate that party support for the EP can be traced back to the same divide in party ideology. Parties that are culturally conservative are more sceptical of empowering the EP than culturally liberal parties. They are inclined to preserve the national political community and, thus, sceptical of a parliament such as the EP that claims to represent a community of European citizens. Winzen and colleagues (2015), using subsequent rounds of the same expert survey, show that these initial findings continue to hold throughout the 2000s. The basic configuration of partisan disagreements over the right sources of parliamentary authority in the EU polity existed already in the 1950s and has prevailed since then. The underlying differences stem from different visions regarding the right constitutional design of the EU polity that conservative and progressive parties embrace.

Notwithstanding the importance that existing studies attribute to partisan variation in constitutional preferences, their results nonetheless make clear that cross-national differences persist and are, in fact, more pronounced than those between parties. Thus, Jachtenfuchs and colleagues (1998: 431) stress that not all parties are alike but nonetheless underline that, in Britain, 'majorities within both Conservatives and Labour are advocates of the Economic Community—and therefore often characterized as "anti-European" by supporters of a Federal State'. True to their anti-federalist stance, majorities in both British parties have expressed scepticism towards reforms that enhance the participatory elements of EU governance such as the strengthening of the EP's authority. In a similar vein, the groups of French and German parties in their study share a common focus on state-like models of the EU, albeit building on the authority of national governments in the French, and replicating federal institutions German case (cf. Schmidt 1999). In all three countries, domestic institutions, British parliamentary sovereignty, French statism, and German federalism strongly constrain disagreement between political parties, and enhance persistent disagreement between member states. Marcussen and colleagues (1999) underline that the identities of national political elites in the same three countries have displayed strong stability throughout the EU's history because changes that they might adopt regarding their view of political institutions in the EU (as well as at home) have to resonate with their existing views as well as with the norms and values reflected in existing national institutions. Changes in elites' constitutional preferences may occur, but only insofar as called into question at critical junctures, for instance through sever economic or legitimacy crises.

Analyses of party support for, or opposition to, European integration also highlight similarities rather than differences within countries. Although support and opposition for integration is not the same as support for intergovernmental and federal models of the EU, there is bound to be a relationship. In particular, federalists can hardly be strong opponents of the EU. Intergovernmentalists could more realistically support integration while opposing federalist institutions. Yet, European integration, as a matter of historical fact, has strong central institutions such as the Court, the Commission, and the EP. Therefore, it is likely that there is a correlation between party support for intergovernmentalism and party opposition to integration. Certainly, the British Conservative Party would be a case in point of a party that combines support for intergovernmental cooperation with lukewarm support for the EU.

With these comments in mind, what do analyses of party support for integration tell us? They show that strong opposition to integration is primarily situated at the margins of the political space, at the far-left and far-right ends of a left-right dimension, broadly understood to encompass both economic and cultural considerations. Thus, the party political space of EU support takes the form of an inverted-U, with the centre being generally supportive and marginal parties opposed. This pattern emerges since culturally conservative parties tend to oppose the idea of European integration for fear that it undermines the closeness of the national political community. In turn, parties that are left-oriented in economic terms are sceptical of the EU's market liberalism and social policy weakness. If we now situate parties along a general left-right dimension—from economically left and culturally liberal to economically right and culturally conservative—we observe real opposition to the EU only at the margins where opposition to international openness is strong for economic (the left end) or cultural (the right end) reasons (de Vries and Edwards 2009; Kriesi etal. 2006; Hooghe etal. 2002; Bakker etal. 2015; Statham and Koopmans 2009). The main differences in party support for integration are not to be found between the main parties of any given country but rather between countries that, for institutional and historical reasons, tend towards more or less support for integration on average.

This same pattern can be shown to hold true not only regarding support for integration in general but also regarding parties' attitudes towards empowering the EP and national parliaments. Even though, as said above, party support for the EP does vary with parties' cultural conservatism and liberalism (Hooghe et al. 2002; Winzen et al. 2015), this variation is clearly dominated by cross-national average differences between groups of relevant parties from different member states. Comparing average party support of the governing parties only, and of the parliament as a whole—effectively including all opposition parties in the comparison—the differences are, with few exceptions, marginal compared to the discrepancies across countries (Winzen et al. 2015). Focusing on individual parliamentarians, rather than parties, Wessels (2005: 452) shows that elected representatives across the member states have different views on whether the EP or national parliaments provide the EU's democratic legitimacy. In Sweden, for instance, 76 per cent of deputies favour the national parliament whereas, in Germany, 60 per cent favour the EP. Furthermore, Wessels indicates that parliamentarians' views of how democracy in the EU should work are connected to more general conceptions of how parliamentary democracy and elite-citizen interaction should work. He also traces German parliamentarians' responses through time and finds only limited change. Wessels (2005: 458) concludes that 'the preferences regarding the political order of the EU are not mere reflections of instrumental interests but of deeper understandings or preferences concerning the ways of vertical legitimacy and the working of parliamentary democracy in one's own country'. This conclusion squares with the argument that the domestic context strongly constrains the range of constitutional preferences that national parties, regardless of ideological outlook, have as to the institutional design of the EU and the authority of the EP and national parliaments therein.

Wessels (2005) analyses are important in a second way. They not only show similarities of parliamentarians from the same country; they further highlight that each party in a given country contains diverse constitutional preferences. This is not an unexpected or new phenomenon in EU politics. For instance, Parsons' (2002) study of the origins of the EU shows the existence of diverse integration preferences among French politicians of the same party or of the same public entities (for example, administrative units) more generally. For instance, when it came to support or opposition for the European Defence Community, the positions of political elites were impressively unaligned with party boundaries and, indeed, other conventional conflict lines in French politics (Parsons 2002: 62-5). In general terms, it is commonly held that questions related to European integration generate diverse responses within political parties (e.g. Hix and Lord 1997; Gabel and Scheve 2007b; Steenbergen etal. 2007). One common explanation is that these questions are multi-dimensional. The creation of the European Defence Community, for instance, or any proposal for a treaty reform in the EU, involves diverse institutional questions as well as questions about policy competences and even substantive policy choices. Each such issue could find support on economic or cultural grounds from diverse factions within any given party. The result would be intra-party diversity.

There is a problem with this point of view, however. European integration is not the only multi-dimensional issue that parties face. Think, for instance, of support and opposition for nuclear energy, about migration, about workers' rights and minimum wages, inheritance taxes, and so on. All these and many other problems policy-makers encounter raise economic questions as much as societal or cultural ones. Each could divide parties into factions that prioritize different parts of the problem. And yet, parties often manage to adopt and defend common positions, for instance, in their electoral manifestos, in legislative voting or coalition negotiations. Divisions within parties do not merely reflect the multi-dimensionality of issues as such. This may be necessary but, if sufficient, would lead us to expect far more divided parties than we actually see. The real problem is that party leaders are not necessarily able or willing to forge intra-party compromises (cf. Parsons and Weber 2011). Where they fail to do so, or where they do not consider a compromise necessary in the first place, diverse views within the party prevail. The British Conservatives are a prominent example of a party where party leaders have long failed to reconcile moderate majorities that welcome European economic integration, and sizeable minorities that oppose EU membership more fundamentally because they see it as a threat to national sovereignty and identity.

A second problem is that the question here is not even multi-dimensional. Even the opposing factions of the British Conservative Party can agree on their preference for strengthening national parliamentary rights in EU policymaking. Intra-party diversity regarding the desired role of national parliaments or the EP in European integration, as Wessels (2005) documents, then reflects not the multi-dimensionality of the issue but rather the simple reality of diverse constitutional (and other) preferences in large organizations such as political parties, and the ways party leaders decide to deal with this diversity. Finding a common party position on national parliaments' competences in

EU affairs should be as easy or difficult for party leaders as for any given domestic issue.

Even though there is no direct evidence as to this argument, one should expect party leaders to display considerable tolerance towards intra-party differences regarding the desired role of national parliaments in EU affairs. The main reason is that this issue—in contrast to, say, the minimum wage or support for nuclear energy—is not at the heart of domestic party competition over votes or critical for the successful management of governing coalitions, not least, because parties within a country do not, on average, differ strongly, even though they may all comprise diverse internal views. A second reason is that the positions that parties adopt on this institutional question do not undermine any of the many policy compromises that they may have forged internally. Policy compromises can be pursued regardless of whether national parliaments have strong or weak EU-related oversight institutions. Third, party leaders are not only able, but they might also be motivated to tolerate intra-party diversity. Forging and maintaining compromises among a party's factions requires the investment of time, at least, and perhaps other resources such as side-payments or the institution of sanctions against reluctant members. Investing such efforts on an issue that is not at the heart of party competition is likely to appear unreasonable from the perspective of the party's leadership.

At the same time, party leaders will make efforts to avoid that intra-party diversity turns into open conflict. Even if the issue, in terms of substance, itself is not central to national party competition, publicly visible divisions within the party can be electorally damaging in and of themselves because they signal to voters that the party cannot maintain cohesion (e.g. Gabel and Scheve 2007a, 2007b). The diverse views on national parliaments within parties could turn into open conflict if party leaders adopt positions that collide with the views of sizeable groups of rank-and-file parliamentarians, or with the views of sizeable groups of parliamentarians from other parties. In the first case, the risk is that the party's own 'backbenchers' feel inclined to make their divergent views clear. In the second case, parliamentarians from other parties may do so. In either scenario, heterogeneous points of view prevailing among party politicians become a problem for leaders.

The diversity of constitutional preferences within parties, the ability and willingness of party leaders to tolerate this diversity, and the need to avoid, nonetheless, that heterogeneous views turn into open inter- or intra-party conflict will encourage parties to seek inclusive parliamentary positions on EU-related institutional reforms. When parties evaluate the institutional design of the EU in light of their constitutional preferences, and formulate reform demands and choices regarding the rights of national parliaments in response, they aim for inclusive positions that are acceptable to majorities within their party and to other parties. In this way, party leaders avoid that inter- or intra-party conflict exposes heterogeneous viewpoints between them and their rank-and-file. Their efforts will be facilitated by the fact, as discussed earlier, that the national context, while not excluding all diversity, nonetheless restricts the range of constitutional preferences among party political actors in a country.

Summing up, European political parties have constitutional preferences, deeply rooted systematic views about the right constitutional design of the EU polity. The most prominent difference lies between parties inclined towards intergovernmental visions of the EU and those subscribing to federalist views. Yet, constitutional preferences do not only find expression in the 'polity ideas' parties express for the EU. They are also embedded in formal and informal institutions at the national and European levels, notably in the prevailing organization of the national polity and parliament, and in a commitment of the majority of relevant European policy-makers to democratic norms of organizing the exercise of public authority. Constitutional preferences matter in constitutional politics where higher-order rules are at stake and where parties dominate decision-making at the expense of bureaucrats and sectoral interests. They matter particularly strongly in areas where electoral incentives and other tangible concerns arising, for instance, from coalition governance are weakly at stake—a context that prevails in decisions over national parliamentary adaptation to EU affairs. The impact of constitutional preferences depends, moreover, on their configuration over parties within and across member states. While there are differences within countries that go back to variation in partisan ideology, the national context strongly constrains the range of feasible constitutional alternatives. As a result, differences between countries are larger than differences between parties of one country. Finally, all parties harbour diverse intra-party views on the role of national parliaments in the EU, primarily because party leaders are able and willing to tolerate such diversity. Yet, the differences of opinion within parties are also likely to encourage the leadership to search for inclusive parliamentary positions on institutional reform in order to avoid that internal heterogeneity turns into open, electorally damaging conflict.

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