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

Institutional Constraints on Parliamentarians' Support for a Direct European Role

Existing domestic institutions are closely connected to constitutional preferences. They indicate the results of past constitutional conflicts and the range of constitutional preferences that have become widely accepted among most domestic policy-makers. Reform proposals, thus, have to resonate with existing institutions or else raise opposition across partisan lines from policymakers that consider the proposed changes inappropriate in light of the organization of domestic politics that they have come to take for granted (Marcussen et al. 1999; Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Schmidt 2006). Domestic institutions, thus, delimit the range of reforms that parliamentarians will support or oppose.

The existence of strong parliamentary rights and capacities in a country indicates a widely shared domestic view that the parliament should have a prominent place in domestic politics. In the parliamentary democracies of the member states, a 'prominent place' does not mean that the parliament is an institutional actor independent of the government. This idea runs counter to the logic of parliamentary systems. It means, however, that policy-makers consider desirable a legislative-executive balance in which the parliament is an important arena for influencing policy and ensuring executive accountability. The strength of domestic parliamentary rights and capacities indicates that parliamentarians see their institutions' role as influencing and holding to account the government. The lack of significant competences, on the other hand, suggests that national policy-makers prefer another institutional focus than influence and executive accountability. Where parliaments' rights and capacities are strong domestically, the idea of a direct European role is incompatible with domestic perceptions of the appropriate focus of the parliament, namely on executive influence and accountability. Where parliaments never had important competences in relation to the national government, parliamentarians are not necessarily highly supportive of developing new powers in EU affairs but a direct European role does not collide with established domestic understandings of the appropriate role of the parliament in the political system. Yet, even if parliamentarians prioritize a focus on domestic legislative-executive relations over a direct European role, they are willing to consider reforms that are compatible with domestic oversight. As argued above, parliamentarians with intergovernmental constitutional preferences are not opposed to reforms that fit with their domestic focus. The same holds true for representatives in countries in which parliamentary rights in national policy-making and legislative-executive relations are strong.

We should, however, expect that existing institutions only constrain rather than encourage reforms (see also Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Chapter 5). The theoretical argument underlying the impact of institutions on national parliamentary reform in EU affairs specifies that institutions delimit the range of reforms policy-makers consider appropriate for their national context. Changes have to resonate with ideas of the right organization of policymaking reflected in existing institutions and political practices (Marcussen etal. 1999; Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Schmidt 2006). Thus, one would expect: the stronger existing parliamentary rights and capacities, the weaker parliamentarians' support for a direct European role that is not compatible with domestic oversight. Yet, the reverse is not true. There is no clear reason to think that parliamentarians in countries with weak parliamentary rights would favour reforms that are incompatible with domestic oversight over alternatives that are compatible. Members of institutionally rather weak parliaments do not clearly oppose a direct European role. Yet, the impact of institutions is driven by opposition of members in institutionally strong parliaments—there, opposition to reforms that are not compatible with a focus on domestic oversight arises.

As Table 6.1 shows, strong parliamentary institutions prevailing in the member states work primarily along the same lines as intergovernmental constitutional preferences. Parliamentarians with intergovernmentalist inclinations will never experience a conflict between what they prefer for ideological reasons and what the existing institutional organization of domestic policy-making allows. Existing institutions do not necessarily work in their favour because they do not themselves encourage reforms, but they never constrain changes that intergovernmentalists seek. While the effect of institutional and intergovernmental constitutional preferences hinges on the domestic compatibility of reform proposals, federalists primarily care about the empowerment of the EP. Consequently, they may find that domestic institutions accidentally work in their favour: in the case of changes that could weaken the EP, while being incompatible with domestic oversight. However, federalists may also experience cross-pressure when confronted with changes that might be good for the EP, but that appear illegitimate against the background of how parliamentary politics in their home country works.

While the argument put forward here conceives of institutions as indications of consensual constitutional preferences of domestic policy-makers, their effect is likely to be reinforced by instrumental considerations (e.g. Benz 2004). In countries where parliamentarians have significant domestic rights, and devote considerable time to parliamentary work related to executive oversight, additional direct rights in EU policy-making will appear as an unnecessarily costly drain on their scarce resources. Nor does a direct role in EU affairs promise advantages in terms of policy influence because parliamentarians already have opportunities to influence the national government. Since these instrumental calculations work in parallel rather than in conflict with a mechanism emphasizing the resonance of reform proposals with widespread domestic views of appropriate institutional design, disentangling the instrumental argument about the effect of institutions from the one made here will not be the primary goal of the analysis. It should be noted, however, that instrumental reasoning alone would find it difficult to account for why government supporters and opposition members support or reject reforms of formal parliamentary rights and capacities in EU affairs, even though, as Chapter 3 discussed, their reform preferences should be determined first and foremost by the relation to the governing parties rather than by existing institutions.

Finally, it is reasonable to expect indirect effects of constitutional preferences and domestic institutions that work through EU-related oversight institutions. The previous chapters highlighted that national parliaments create EU-related oversight competences to varying degrees, as a result of cross-national variation in the constitutional preferences of parliamentary parties. In the case of domestic oversight, existing institutions also worked as a constraint, in a similar way as envisaged here. When parliamentarians consider a direct European role for 'their' institutional home, they are likely to take into account the EU-related oversight opportunities that they have already created. Where opportunities to influence EU policy-making through oversight of the national government are already well developed, parliamentarians stand to benefit little from a direct European role. On the contrary, such a role might distract from their focus on domestic oversight. Yet, based on the same considerations presented above, one would not expect parliamentarians to object to reforms that fit with the orientation of their existing EU-related rights and capacities towards government oversight. Consequently, one would expect the following: the stronger the EU-related oversight institutions of national parliaments, the lower parliamentarians' support for a direct role in EU affairs that is incompatible with a focus on domestic oversight.

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