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

Does 'Reality Bite'? EU-Related Parliamentary Rights and Day-to-Day Policy-Making

The pitfall of building parliamentary rights on constitutional preferences is that they might not work as expected after their creation. They are not the result of the same incentives and constraints that parties encounter during day-to-day policy-making. Constitutional preferences about the democratic design of the EU polity might matter strongly for parties' and parliamentarians' institutional choices if and when concerns such as keeping governing coalitions alive, influencing public policy, and winning elections are not strongly at stake. In day-to-day policy-making, instead of being about questions related to the constitutional design of the EU and the democratic institutions that it might need, more mundane issues will occupy politicians' agendas, such as what policies a new EU law should prescribe, or whether the government did a good job negotiating in Brussels. It is an open question to what extent the EU-related parliamentary institutions that have evolved over the past decades really shape parties' behaviour regarding these daily concerns, or whether party political incentives matter more prominently again. It is also unclear as yet whether governing parties might be able and willing to use their majority in national parliaments to undermine parliaments' EU-related institutional competences, for instance, when it comes to providing information to opposition parties.

Some scholars have certainly adamantly argued that this party political dilution of parliamentary rights in EU affairs has happened already. Their views fall into a line of thinking that, for instance, Bartolini (2005) represents. While not necessarily disputing that EU policy-makers establish democratic procedures and institutions, such as rights for national parliaments, he questions whether these work as soon as they meet the reality of day-to-day policymaking. Building democratic institutions on constitutional preferences, in this perspective, amounts to little more than window-dressing without practical significance. Scholars, accordingly, suspect that parliamentary parties and parliamentarians would not use their rights as a result of party political constraints and low electoral salience (e.g. Pollak and Slominski 2003; Auel 2007).

On the other hand, what these studies do not say is why concerns arising from coalition government or electoral politics should be at stake in the often technical and detailed day-to-day issues of EU policy-making. The arguments made earlier to the point that EU affairs have at most a marginal relevance for partisan competition over votes and for the running of coalition and minority governments may still apply. Consequently, it is possible that the procedures created by EU-related oversight institutions, such as regular committee meetings or mandating processes, have a strong bearing on how intensively parliamentarians will concern themselves with their governments' activities at the European level. Moreover, in the absence of pressing electoral or other concerns, the views of parliamentarians and parties as to whether it is their task as members of national parliaments to provide government accountability in EU affairs may shape their behaviour significantly. In other words, an account based on institutions and constitutional preferences may turn out more important for understanding parliamentary behaviour in EU affairs than the sceptical views above envisage. Indeed, recent studies provide first signs that the existence of far-reaching EU-related oversight institutions leads to more parliamentary activity, such as in terms of holding debates or issuing resolutions, compared to parliaments that have so far not adapted strongly to European integration (Auel etal. 2015).

The more general point to be made here is, however, that a full appreciation of the consequences of national parliaments' adaptation to European integration will require more and more systematic, empirical research. The question whether, and why, parliamentarians and parties will make use of their EU-related rights is, of course, one of the central questions. In addition, however, there are at least three additional themes that could move the literature beyond simply asking whether rights are used, and instead shed more light on what dimensions of EU policy-making they might affect in what way.

One set of questions concerns the impact of national parliaments on EU politics and policy-making. For some time already scholars have raised the question whether the involvement of national parliaments makes EU policy-making less effective (Benz 2004; Auel 2005, 2007). If we bear in mind that EU decision-making means finding solutions that, now, twenty- eight member states can agree to, it is not inconceivable that difficulties arise from national parliamentary rights, particularly if these are being used extensively by national parliamentary actors. Government representatives that are bound to parliamentary instructions or that fear close scrutiny may find it more difficult to enter into compromises than if they operated in isolation from domestic parliamentary politics. At the same time, government representatives may be inclined to use European arenas not so much to find common ground with other countries but rather to display strength to domestic parliamentarians. Greater parliamentary engagement with EU affairs could, therefore, generate gridlock in EU policy-making. In this sense, possible objections to national parliaments are similar to those raised against the empowerment of the EP in the past (Schulz and Konig 2000; Golub 1999; Majone 2002). Whether parliaments truly have any impact on the effectiveness of EU policy-making remains to be studied empirically.

However, when studying the impact of parliaments on politics and policymaking we should not only care about effectiveness but also about substance. One issue that would bring greater clarity about the place of national parliaments in the EU is whether their growing role leads to less integration-friendly policies and institutional choices. Are parliaments a 'corrective'—are they 'gatekeepers' (Raunio 2011) that place limits on centralization and EU regulation? If they are, do they perform this function across the range of institutional and policy questions on the agenda or mainly, as Bartolini (2005) would expect, when it comes to the distribution of authority and competences between the EU and the member states. The conventional view is that European integration mainly encounters domestic constraints when citizens become involved in referendums or when treaty changes have to be approved by recalcitrant parliamentary parties (cf. Hooghe and Marks 2008; Finke 2009). The growing competences of national parliaments may impose domestic constraints also on the EU's policy process. Whether this is the case, and what kind of constraints we might observe, is another question for further study.

A third set of research questions focuses on the quality of EU democracy. It is obvious that we should be asking these questions. After all, the very motivation to study national parliaments in the EU is that limits in their competences and relevance are central to debates about the EU's democratic deficit (Weiler etal. 1995; Follesdal and Hix 2006; Cheneval and Schimmelfennig 2013). Yet, there is of course no necessary connection between the view that national parliaments make the EU more democratic by the standards of normative theory, and the possibility that national parliaments raise the EU's democratic quality in empirical terms. Many questions arise here, including the one of how to measure democratic quality. These will continue to occupy the literature. However, some studies have recently emerged that appear relevant intuitively. Thus, for instance, Hage (2011) finds that the EP makes the EU policy process more transparent in the sense that it encourages government ministers to participate in decision-making in person rather than to delegate all choices to civil servants operating in secluded arenas. In analogy, one would want to know whether the engagement of a given national parliaments affects the decision-making process, perhaps also by encouraging the minister of the country in question to participate in person in EU decisionmaking.

Exploring the impact of parliaments on the quality of democracy, Auel and Raunio (2014; see also Wendler 2014; Rauh 2015) take a different approach. Instead of asking whether parliamentary activities affect the EU or other actors such as government ministers, they focus on the 'how' of parliamentary activity. They want to know whether parties and parliamentarians address European topics only in barely visible arenas such as committees or whether their activities are at least potentially visible to the public. Indeed, they show that parliaments engage in many publicly visible EU-related activities such as public committee meetings. However, there are also differences across issues and countries with some having more closed meetings or fewer debates than others. Studies along these lines will continue to emerge, seeking to establish in more detail not only whether parliaments engage publicly with the EU, but also under what conditions they do so.

In general, it is remarkable that the study of parliamentary behaviour now confronts a scepticism that is not unlike the scepticism that inspired studies of parliaments' institutional adaptation. Studies of institutional adaptation started to emerge in the 1990s against the background of the view that European integration undermines national democratic institutions. Yet, whereas it initially appeared that little could be done about the structural constraints that integration imposes on member state democracy, it has since become clear that there are ways of how parliamentary parties and parliamentarians can strengthen parliamentary rights in the EU. In this area, more than two decades of research gradually led to a shift of perspective from the impact of integration to variation in parliamentary responses. Studies of parliamentary behaviour now face the scepticism that parties and parliamentarians will be reluctant to concern themselves with EU affairs in the first place and, if they nonetheless do so, will have little impact on politics, policy outcomes, or democratic legitimacy. Here, too, studies that draw more optimistic and more refined conclusions are beginning to emerge. With the benefit of hindsight that we will have in some years, it is possible, albeit certainly not guaranteed, that national parliaments will appear more important in EU politics than today, not only in terms of their institutional rights but also in terms of their behavioural impact.

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