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

How European Integration Challenges National Parliaments

The claim that European integration weakens national parliaments has become very widespread—conventional wisdom effectively. Yet, what exactly does European integration entail that is so detrimental to the rights and capacities of member parliaments? Taking a closer look at the arguments various researchers put forward suggests four interrelated challenges relating,

Table 2.1 European integration and the decline of parliament thesis

Dimension of integration

Manifestation (example)


Functional expansion Legal transformation

Pooling and delegation Political centralization

Members grant the EU more competences No ratification requirement for secondary legislation

Decision rule shifts from unanimity to majority Legislative process shifts to the European level

Politics without policy Legislative sovereignty

Broken delegation chain Distance

respectively, to the expansion of the EU's competences, the characteristics of its legal system, the 'supranational' nature of its decision rules, and its policy process. Table 2.1 provides an overview, elaborated step by step in the following.

Functional expansion describes the gradual transfer of competences from member states to the EU. For instance, countries might agree that the EU should take decisions on environmental regulations or consumer protection. Scholars point out that, in the context of the growing range of EU competences, substantive policy negotiations move out of the reach of parliamentary parties and, instead, into the realm of European-level actors. They contend that European integration strengthens governments over parliaments (Moravcsik 1994), while what happens in the parliamentary arenas of the member states amounts to 'politics without policy' (Schmidt 2006)—that is, party competition over votes and office in the absence of the necessary institutional competences to take many of the decisions politicians claim to have control over.

One could object that this (and the following) argument, which focuses on the institutional re-distribution of authority between parliaments and governments, could easily overstate the true consequences of integration for the policy influence of domestic political actors. Under conditions of party government, governing parties in particular do not depend on the institutional competences of the parliament. We will return to the implications of this objection in Chapter 3, noting already at this point, however, that the impact of European integration on the institutional legislative-executive distribution of competences at the national level could well be important in the eyes of parliamentary parties, even if they are in government, albeit not for reasons of policy influence.

European integration has also meant a legal transformation over time (e.g. Burley and Mattli 1993; Garrett 1995; Kelemen and Schmidt 2011; Schmidt 2011). The European Court of Justice has gradually established a European legal order that is different from international law. The Court has developed important principles such as the supremacy and direct effect of EU law. Moreover, member states are obliged to implement and comply with EU law, subject to supranational monitoring and enforcement by means of penalties and compensation payments. One major consequence of Europe's legal transformation is that EU legislation becomes binding for member states, without domestic ratification. Once the EU has decided, national parliaments have no legal option to refuse implementation. This puts them in a markedly different situation compared to their role in the making of international treaties. As Martin (2000) argues, the ability to ratify, or the threat to refuse ratification of, international treaties forces executive negotiators at the international level to become aware of and take into account preferences of parliamentary actors, unless they want to risk that their bargains are unravelled at home. In fact, we observe the same reasoning in the one area of EU politics that actually continues to be little different from international treaty-making, namely the making of EU treaties. EU treaties have to be ratified in each member state, which in practice requires at least a positive parliamentary vote everywhere. Following Martin's (2000) argument, we would expect that governmental negotiators take into account parliamentary preferences in the design of EU primary law in order to avoid problems at the ratification stage. Indeed, several empirical studies lend support to this expectation (Hug and Konig 2002; Konig and Slapin 2004; Finke 2009). In EU legislation, though, parliaments lose their final say, leading observers to speak of a loss of legislative sovereignty (Schmidt 1999).

Pooling of sovereignty means that member states move from unanimous decision-making to majority voting. Majority voting in the EU is 'qualified' meaning that only super-majorities can pass legislation. Nevertheless, individual member states lose their veto power. Consequently, parliaments may be confronted with supranational legislation that not even their governments supported. Delegation describes the empowerment of supranational actors to participate in decision-making (Pollack 2003). For instance, the EP now co-decides with the Council of Ministers on most EU legislation. The European Commission, together with the Court, takes decisions on the EU's competition policy. The European Central Bank steers the EU's monetary policy. Supranational delegation means that parliaments may be confronted with European policies that their governments did not, or not exclusively, make. Scholars argue that pooling and delegation disrupts the chain of delegation from national parliaments to governments to EU decisions (Rittberger 2006; Rittberger and Schimmelfennig 2006; Schimmelfennig 2010).

Political centralization means that the political process preceding policy choices also moves to the European level and takes place between EU institutions and actors. The idea of centralization has a long history in European integration theories. Haas (1961: 366-7) understood integration as a 'process whereby political actors in several distinct national settings are persuaded to shift their loyalties, expectations, and political activities toward a new and larger center, whose institutions possess or demand jurisdiction over preexisting national states'. Yet, to date there has not been such a large-scale shift in the attention to the European level of the key actors of mass politics such as parties, voters, and the media. Scholars criticize instead that policy negotiations between elites such as governments, supranational actors, bureaucrats, and organized civil society move to the European level alongside the expansion of EU competences. Parliamentary parties and their members then find it difficult to monitor the decision-making process. They lack information on what governments do, what the strategic environment, the opportunities, and constraints are. Political centralization creates what Robert Dahl (1994) calls a problem of distance. The information asymmetry that emerges between governments that participate in EU policy-making and parliamentarians at home is another important reason why European integration is said to strengthen governments over parliaments (Moravcsik 1994).

It is important to note that parties and policy-makers of the member states do not experience the EU's functional expansion, legal system, pooling, and delegation, and the centralization of the policy process, as isolated challenges, but rather as packages of problems that they have faced in every European treaty change since the Single European Act. The only exception is the gradual transformation of the legal system, many major steps of which have taken place before the 1990s. Then, the Court of Justice established key principles such as the direct effect and the supremacy of EU law over national law (e.g. Burley and Mattli 1993; Garrett 1995). Although the Court's case law continues to develop European law, the EU's legal system is best seen as a background condition enhancing the impact of the other three dimensions of integration. Regarding those other dimensions, it is true that some recent treaties have strengthened pooling and delegation to a greater extent compared to adding new competences to the Union's policy portfolio. However, all treaties have advanced European integration on all dimensions.

To illustrate this point, take, for instance, an empirical assessment of the development of the level of integration of the EU across policy areas by Borzel (2005; for an extension of this assessment to 2010, see Leuffen etal. 2013). Across nineteen policy areas, Borzel measures the level of integration based on a six-category scale. The extent of pooling and delegation to EU institutions is the basis of this measure—while not the same, these two dimensions of integration correlate highly so that it makes sense to consider them together. For instance, the introduction of majority voting typically goes with significant powers of the European Commission and the EP (see Rittberger 2005). A level of '3' on Borzel's scale means that the Commission proposes legislation, the EP can suggest amendments, and the Council decides unanimously. A level of ‘5' would mean that a supranational institutions such as the European Central Bank or the Commission hold exclusive decision-making powers.

The development of EU competences, 1980-2010

Figure 2.1 The development of EU competences, 1980-2010

Note: SEA: Single European Act. TEU: Treaty on European Union. AMS: Treaty of Amsterdam. Nice: Treaty of Nice. LIS: Treaty of Lisbon.

Sources: The solid line shows the average level of centralization of authority across policy areas that have at least a minimum of EU involvement in 2010, based on disaggregated data in Leuffen, Rittberger, and Schimmelfennig (2013: 11-26) and Borzel (2005: 221-3). The dashed line shows the number of policy areas subject to supranational decision-making procedures (a value of '3' in the aforementioned data sources), based on the same data sources. For further details, see the discussion.

Figure 2.1 shows, first, the averge level of integration of the EU across all of the policy areas Borzel examines. EU authority has increased successively with each treaty reform. In some cases, the changes are smaller than in others but in each case significant decision-making authority has shifted from the national to the European level. This, moreover, has not merely happened within a stable set of policy areas under European jurisdiction. The set of policy areas in which supranational actors and procedures are important (a level of '3' on Borzel's scale) has equally increased. At the time of the Treaty of Lisbon, more than fifteen of the nineteen policy areas Borzel studies are subject to the activities of supranational institutions and procedures; and the average level of integration has reached a level of '4', which corresponds to the widespread application of the co-decision procedure, or what is now, appropriately, known as the 'ordinary legislative procedure'.

Every recent EU treaty has challenged the rights of national parliaments, making more policy areas more supranational and, thus, expanding the EU's functional scope, the power of European-level institutions, and shifting the policy process to the European level. Each treaty revision is a reason for parties and other national policy-makers to contemplate whether to seek reforms to strengthen national parliaments' institutional means to participate in EU affairs. The reasons why parties deem parliamentary adaptation necessary or not are the subject of Chapter 3. The remainder of this chapter first discusses those changes in EU-related parliamentary rights that have, in fact, happened.

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