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

Responses to European Integration's Democratic Dilemma

The idea that policy-makers should adapt parliamentary rights and capacities in EU affairs has played an important role in some responses to the EU's democratic deficit, albeit not in all of them. Some scholars stress the need to protect existing (state-based) democracy even if that means foregoing advantages of institutional cooperation beyond the state. At any rate, international institutions should not impose strong constraints and should be sufficiently flexible to allow re-negotiation or exemptions if national interests require so. In the EU, for instance, scholars advocate flexible legislative instruments or possibilities of opting out from common decisions or re-negotiating European Court judgements (e.g. Scharpf 2009). These reforms would of course limit, as much as possible, the detrimental effects of cooperation among European countries on parliamentary rights. They seek to avoid international constraints on all dimensions of national democracy as far as possible. The downside is that this line of thinking does not leave room for strong international institutions that may be necessary to facilitate noteworthy cooperation, nor does it give much consideration to the possibility that international institutions have claims to democratic legitimacy in their own right.

Most existing perspectives on the democratic deficits of the EU and other international institutions, however, do not focus on parliamentary rights, or any other actors and institutions of representative democracy. They, instead, stress the functional benefits of cooperation, and draw attention to the existence of alternative sources of legitimacy. Their strategy is to design international institutions so as to maximize these benefits and alternatives (e.g. Keohane et al. 2009).

The simplest response stresses the functional benefits of international institutions. Hence, one might concede that there is little room for the participation of citizens or their elected representatives in the making of international treaties on, say, environmental politics or financial market regulation. This situation could be defended on the grounds that such regulation is crucially important for the welfare of citizens that are not allowed a say, and that negotiations would become impossibly cumbersome if every government involved had to ensure meaningful public or parliamentary participation. In this view, international cooperation is democratically flawed but functionally desirable. Yet, such arguments do not go far in allaying critiques of international institutions, for they openly acknowledge the trade-off between democracy and efficiency that critics lament (Dahl 1994; Scharpf 1999).

Advocates of EU reforms that entail giving powers to the European Parliament (EP) or to national parliaments, for instance, have encountered opposition from governments and bureaucrats fearing that unwieldy parliamentary politics would make the EU's decision-making process slow and its outcomes ill-informed (e.g. Rittberger 2005; Schulz and Konig 2000). On the other hand, scholars have attacked the functionalist defence of European integration, arguing that what is being sold as widely beneficial international regulation masks important value and re-distributive choices, which should be made and defended openly by representatives chosen in a competitive political process (Follesdal and Hix 2006).

A second approach is to acknowledge the representative deficits of decisionmaking beyond the state while highlighting counterweighing sources of legitimacy. There are, for instance, sources of accountability and participation beyond representative democracy. States may allow civil society representatives in international arenas, involve experts, and they might have to render account for their actions to international markets and investors (Keohane 2006; Papadopoulos 2010; Tallberg etal. 2013). One might also add a twist to arguments about the efficiency of international cooperation, stressing that the issues at stake are (or should be) mainly regulatory and that experts deliberate in insulated arenas over Pareto-efficient policies. Thus, there may not even be a significant need for representative democracy (Majone 2002). Keohane and colleagues (2009) contend that a definition of democracy focusing only on representation is too narrow. Based on a constitutional definition, they highlight the potential of international cooperation to help states achieve important public purposes, contain the power of domestic special interests, protect individual rights, and foster deliberation. Studies of the EU also highlight non-parliamentary sources of legitimacy such as stakeholder involvement, transparency, checks and balances, and deliberation (Heritier 2003; Joerges and Neyer 1997; Moravcsik 2002; Majone 2002).

In addition to the protection of state-based democracy on the one hand, and the enhancement of functional gains and alternative legitimacy sources on the other, a third perspective on the democratic deficit of the EU and international institutions emphasizes the possibility to reduce detrimental effects of integration on representative democracy through institutional reform. Advocates of international cooperation could meet the critique that their integration efforts undermine parliamentary rights by re-creating parliamentary bodies at the international level, and by taking measures to enhance rights and competences of national parliaments to be informed about and able to participate in policy processes beyond the state. Scholars and policy-makers in Europe have discussed both possibilities, giving powers to the EP and to national parliaments. We will examine this debate in more detail in the chapters that follow. The point to make here is only that national parliaments'

EU-related rights are of considerable interest to scholars and policy-makers seeking to redress the representative democratic costs of integration, even given the existence of a powerful European-level parliament.

That the existence of parliamentary bodies at the international level should not necessarily appease critics that lament the weakening of national parliamentary rights is easiest to understand outside of Europe's regional context. Indeed, these bodies are often dismissed more as an intellectual curiosity than a phenomenon with the potential to address international democratic deficits. For instance, the idea of a global parliament (Falk and Strauss 2001) is often considered impracticable and unrealistic for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, many international organizations today, in fact, have parliamentary bodies (Kissling 2014). Yet, these bodies also encounter scepticism. Slaughter (2004: 106) argues that 'many existing regional "parliaments" or "assemblies" are quite ineffective—the kind of entities that spread skepticism about international law or institutions of any kind'. If the option of a global parliament and the currently existing international parliamentary bodies were the benchmark, it would be clear that working to enhance national parliamentary rights and competences holds the greatest promise for redressing the loss of authority that these same institutions experience in international policy-making.

However, the weakness and lack of realism of a global parliament and other international parliamentary bodies does not hold true for Europe's supranational parliament, the EP. Since 1979, the EP is directly elected and since the mid-1980s it enjoys significant legislative powers. Every successive treaty reform has expanded its institutional competences still further. After the Treaty of Lisbon the co-decision procedure that places the EP on equal legislative footing with the Council of Ministers has become the 'ordinary legislative procedure'. The EP is also neither ineffective nor irrelevant in practice. On the contrary, the literature on its operation and role in the democratic politics of the EU highlights numerous positive effects. It is not necessary to examine these arguments in detail here. Consider only the most common ones to illustrate the point:

  • • Elections: EP elections are the only direct access point to EU politics that is open to all citizens. These elections allow voters to choose from a menu of national parties with relatively distinct policy programmes that, subsequently, form ideologically cohesive parliamentary party groups with similar parties from other countries (Schmitt and Thomassen 1999; McElroy and Benoit 2010).
  • • Representation: EP elections generate reasonable levels of congruence in terms of policy preferences between parties and voters (Schmitt and Thomassen 2000; Walczak and van der Brug 2013). Thus, there is an empirical basis for the EP to claim that it represents the interests of European voters in EU policy-making.
  • • Pluralism: The EP is the only EU institution with a regular presence of national opposition parties, including Eurosceptic ones—parties that do not enjoy representation in the Council of Ministers or the European Commission. Thus, it secures pluralism unlike any other EU institution and helps to address the concern that European integration undermines political opposition (Mair 2007; Helms 2008).
  • • Transparency: The EP has the most transparent policy process of all EU institutions. Moreover, when it co-decides in the legislative process, it also encourages government ministers to decide on legislation in the Council instead of delegating to their civil servants, thus, enhancing the transparency of Council decision-making (Hage 2011).
  • • Simplification: On many important issues, the EP divides along a transnational left-right conflict dimension that resembles the conflict dimensions familiar to domestic party politics. This makes it easier for citizens and other interested observers to comprehend and evaluate EU decisionmaking relative to their own policy preferences (Hix et al. 2007; Hix 2008).

The achievements of the EP notwithstanding, important arguments for enhancing national parliamentary competences in EU policy-making remain. First and foremost, the EU will have a strong intergovernmental dimension for the foreseeable future, and thus faces the corresponding legitimacy requirements. The institutions of the national governments, the Council of Ministers, and the European Council still enjoy more extensive legislative competences than the EP (which does not enjoy any exclusive competences), a major role in the appointment of the European Commission, a pre-eminent position in constitutional reforms, and considerable informal power over the EU's policy agenda. As Moravcsik (2002) points out, for as long as the EU remains intergovernmental, the preferences that governments bring to EU decision-making will have to be rooted in domestic democratic processes of preference-formation. From this perspective, the challenge integration poses to national parliamentary rights and capacities is democratically problematic, and corresponding reforms to strengthen national parliaments are desirable.

Scholars that take the EU's lack of a common identity, public sphere, and party system as their point of departure (e.g. Cheneval and Schimmelfennig 2013; Bellamy and Castiglione 2013), as discussed earlier, come to similar conclusions. For them, it is necessary to ensure the participation of national parliaments in EU policy-making so that the preferences that national political communities legitimately express at the European level are themselves rooted in democratic processes and procedures. The views of these contributions regarding the relevance of the EP vary, but they agree that national parliaments, as crucial democratic institutions of the political communities of the member states, are important regardless of whether a European-level parliament exists in addition.

Adopting these views, EU scholars are in agreement with scholars of international institutions more generally who have pointed out the possibility to strengthen international democracy through national parliaments (e.g. Martin 2000). Nye (2001: 5), for instance, argues:

Better accountability can and should start at home. If people believe that WTO meetings do not adequately account for environmental standards, they can press their governments to include environment ministers or officials in their WTO delegations. Legislatures can hold hearings before or after meetings, and legislators can themselves become national delegates to various organizations.

In conclusion, the debate on the democratic deficit of the EU is broad and diverse. Many strands of criticism exist that this overview has touched only superficially, including, for instance, debates about the nature and emergence of a European identity, transnational solidarity, a supranational party system, and regarding the neoliberal policy bias that the EU might or might not induce. It should have become clear, on the other hand, that the detrimental effect that European integration is said to have on national parliaments lies at the heart of many democratic critiques of the EU—critiques that continue to be relevant even though the EP has acquired significant powers. One should, nonetheless, also keep in mind that the importance of national parliaments in scholarly debates about the democratic deficit does not imply that policymakers necessarily agree. As we will discuss in more detail in Chapter 3, parties and parliamentarians across the member states differ in terms of whether they think that national parliaments should have significant institutional competences in EU affairs, or whether the empowerment of the EP is the right strategy to strengthen parliaments in the EU's constitutional design. Before turning to these arguments, consider in more detail, first, what challenges European integration poses for the member state parliaments and, second, what reforms policy-makers have undertaken to reinforce parliaments' EU-related rights and capacities.

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