Three Proposals to Strengthen National Parliaments' Direct Role in EU Affairs

In order to analyse the reasons why parliamentarians support or oppose reforms of their direct European role more systematically, the following makes use of the European Members of Parliament study (EMPS) (e.g. Katz and Wessels 1999; Schmitt and Thomassen 1999; Wessels 2005). This study surveyed about 1150 members of 10 national parliaments between 1996 and early 1997 (excluding missing data on the measures we need in the following).

The EMPS asked parliamentarians to express their support for three possible ways to strengthen national parliaments' ability to participate directly in EU affairs. Respondents ranked each proposal on a scale from 1 (very much against) to 7 (very much in favour). (I will refer to these proposals using the abbreviations in parentheses.)

  • • There should be regular joint meetings between committees of the EP and national parliaments. (Inter-parliamentary cooperation)
  • • National parliaments should have a joint committee of MEPs and MPs to debate the Community proposals. (Joint national committee with MEPs)
  • • There should be stronger links between the European commissioners and their staff and MPs. (Closer commission ties)

These proposals differ in terms of their compatibility with a parliamentary focus on domestic oversight, and in terms whether they could strengthen or weaken the EP. They have also all been the subject of actual discussions among policy-makers and academics. Bengtson (2007: 47), for instance, includes all three on her list of relevant options to strengthen the direct European role of national parliaments. Inter-parliamentary cooperation is the best-known reform proposal. It already happens in COSAC where members of national European Affairs Committees and of the EP meet on a regular basis. In the past years, other inter-parliamentary conferences have appeared, in foreign affairs and, as the next chapter discusses, in economic and monetary policy. There are also informal meetings between national and European parliamentarians in various policy areas. The idea to hold joint committee meetings among national parliaments, and with the EP, has found some advocates among policy-makers because it could make inter-parliamentary interaction more policy-focused, going beyond broad discussions about institutional design (Bengtson 2007: 48-53).

Where does strengthening inter-parliamentary cooperation stand in terms of domestic compatibility and effects on the powers of the EP? First, sending delegations to attend committee meetings at the European level collides with the idea that parliamentary rights should focus on domestic oversight. Interparliamentary cooperation presumes that parliaments act internationally as institutional entities rather than lending domestic legitimacy to the international actions of the government. If anything, it threatens to occupy resources that parliamentarians could devote to interacting with the government. Second, the EP has in fact been highly sceptical of strengthening interparliamentary cooperation beyond loose informal information exchanges. As Chapter 2 showed, the EP envisages a division of labour in which it is the only relevant parliamentary institution in all matters at the European level. Herranz-Surralles (2014: 968-70) illustrates the uneasy position of the EP towards inter-parliamentary cooperation in the area of foreign policy. While the EP welcomed a new inter-parliamentary conference on the common foreign and security policy of the EU as an opportunity to expand its influence, it opposed an arrangement that would place national parliaments on an equal footing with itself regarding the scrutiny of EU-level actors. According to Wouters and Raube (2012: 158), it sought to send the largest delegation and staff the conference secretariat in order to pursue its own vision of foreign policy oversight, with the long-term goal 'to make CSDP [Common Security and Defence Policy] accountable to the supranational parliament'. The EP explicitly envisaged that national parliaments should focus on the behaviour of their respective governments. While the EP's position towards interparliamentary cooperation can, thus, be mixed depending on its competences in the areas in question, it is generally sceptical of enhancing national parliamentary authority on the European level, which it regards as its own domain. The EP and its supporters will tend to see proposals to strengthen inter-parliamentary cooperation as a potential threat to its role as the sole parliamentary body at the European level.

The suggestion that members of national parliaments should cooperate with their European colleagues in the examination of EU legislative proposals turns the tables. Whereas inter-parliamentary cooperation potentially weakens the EP's dominance at the European level, giving members of the EP the right to participate as equals in a national parliamentary committee threatens the domestic dominance of national parliaments. Parliamentarians with federal constitutional preferences would likely welcome the recognition that the EP and its members, thus, receive as equals of national parliamentarians.

Indeed, for instance, the Belgian parliament in which many supporters of the EP sit, already has a joint committee of national and European representatives (Vos etal. 2007). A joint EP-national parliament committee does not only potentially strengthen the EP, it is also hard to reconcile with a focus of national parliaments on government oversight. First, members of the EP are not part of the national government or opposition parties at least insofar as their vote does not count for or against the government. Second, members of the EP have repeatedly proven willing to change EU legislation in opposition to national governments, even if that placed some parliamentarians in direct opposition to the stance of a ministers from their very own party (Muhlbock 2012a, 2012b). It is highly unlikely that members of the EP would agree to limit their focus on government oversight. Their inclusion in a national committee is, therefore, not easily compatible with such a focus of a national parliament's competences in EU affairs.

Finally, the EMPS asks parliamentarians for their views on establishing closer ties between national parliaments and European Commissioners and their cabinets. European Commissioners are formally independent from national governments or parliaments. However, each member state nominates one Commissioner. Moreover, Commissioners are almost without exception former party politicians (Wonka 2008). Discussions to give national parliaments more influence over who becomes their country's nominee for Commissioner, or even over the entire set of Commissioners have occasionally played a role in past policy debate (Hix 2002; Raunio 2011: fn. 7). In the context of the 'political dialogue' with national parliaments that Commission president Barroso initiated in 2006, the Commission is also committed to enhance its presence in national parliaments, for instance in hearings or during committee meetings.[1] Closer ties between national parliaments and the Commission could be reconciled well with a parliamentary focus on domestic oversight. First, it is not unjustified to consider Commissioners at least to some extent as agents of the national governments that nominate them (Wonka 2008). Parliamentarians might regard close ties to such nominees as similarly desirable as interaction with national appointees for high political or administrative offices. Second, national parliaments could sustain close ties to the European Commission while relying on their existing EU-related and domestic rights and capacities. They do not have to integrate new actors (MEPs) in their proceedings or establish common arenas with external actors (parliaments of other member states). However, even though the proposal to strengthen the link between national parliaments and the Commission is compatible with domestic oversight, it must be seen as a threat to the powers and ambitions of the EP. Not only does the EP generally regard itself as the appropriate source of parliamentary authority for all matters on the European level, it has regularly and explicitly sought to extent its powers over the Commission's appointment, regarding the latter more as a government in a parliamentary system than an executive agency (e.g. Crombez and Hix 2011; Westlake 1998). Indeed, as early as the late 1970s, the EP styled its meetings with incoming Commissioners as 'confirmation hearings' and its accompanying resolution as a 'confidence motion' (Westlake 1998: 438). In the last parliamentary elections, the European party families announced Spitzenkandidaten. In conjunction with the treaty requirement that the national governments take into account the results of EP elections in the nomination of the Commission (also a provision the EP fought for), 'this modified procedure ostensibly makes European elections similar to parliamentary elections in national democracies' (Hobolt 2014: 1529). The idea of enhancing the ties of the Commission with national parliaments, rather than the EP, thus potentially threatens the claims to authority of the EP, and is likely to be met with scepticism from federalist parliamentarians.

Table 6.2 relates the three proposals to strengthen national parliaments' direct role in EU affairs to the expectations summarized in Table 6.1. Parliamentarians with intergovernmental constitutional preferences, relative to their colleagues with federal inclinations, are likely to welcome closer Commission ties and oppose the integration of MEPs in their parliamentary committees. Both federalist and intergovernmentalists oppose enhanced inter-parliamentary cooperation so that no net effect of inter- governmentalist attitudes, relative to federalist ones, is to be expected. Institutional constraints from existing domestic parliamentary competences and EU-related oversight rights and capacities undermine support of federalists and intergovernmentalists alike for inter-parliamentary

Table 6.2 Expected support for options to strengthen parliamentarians' direct European role

Reform proposal

Compatible with domestic oversight

Yes

No

Could weaken EP

Reform: Closer ties to European Commission

Reform: Inter-parliamentary cooperation

Positive effect of intergovernmentalism No effect of institutions

No effect of intergovernmentalism Negative effect of institutions

Could

strengthen EP

Reform: Not studied here

Reform: Joint national committee with MEPs

No effect of intergovernmentalism No effect of institutions

Negative effect of intergovernmentalism Negative effect of institutions

Parliamentarians' support for a direct European role across countries Note

Figure 6.1 Parliamentarians' support for a direct European role across countries Note: Weighted to make data representative of parties' parliamentary seat shares within countries. Country labels: Official EU abbreviation.

Source: Based on data of the European Members of Parliament study (EMPS) (Katz and Wessels 1999;Schmitt and Thomassen 1999;Wessels 2005).

cooperation and for the integration of MEPs in national committees. The analysis does not include an example of a reform proposal that would strengthen the EP, while also being compatible with domestic oversight. Such an example is hard to come up with on the basis of options that have actually had real-world relevance in the past. No relevant one was included in the EMPS.

Figure 6.1 shows the distribution of support across parliamentarians in different member states. It is clearly visible that, on average, support levels are rather high. However, this could be the result of parliamentarians giving socially desirable responses in favour of all reforms that add relevance to parliaments in the EU. The fact that survey responses do not come with actual institutional implications presumably enhances this effect. It may, thus, be more interesting to focus on the variation within and across countries, and reform proposals. In this regard, there is a wide range of points of view within each parliament and, as we will see below, also within each party in any given country. As Chapter 3 already pointed out, European parties comprise politicians with diverse views as to the desirable institutional organization of policymaking in the EU. Furthermore, there are clear differences between countries in terms of average support levels. Notably Swedish deputies, but also their colleagues in countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, tend to be comparatively sceptical of a strong direct European role of their parliament. Finally, it appears that parliamentarians are most sceptical when it comes to the idea to integrate MEPs in a national parliamentary committee. Possibly, this comparatively pronounced level of opposition results from constitutional preferences and institutions pulling in the same direction. That is, intergovernmentalism and strong institutions are expected to inspire opposition. In countries with many intergovernmentalist representatives and strong domestic institutions, these effects would thus add up to relatively strong opposition.

  • [1] See, e.g., (accessed 17 August 2015).
 
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