Party Policy, Cabinets, and Parliamentary Reform in European Union Affairs
One approach that selected studies have pursued accepts that legislative majorities typically do not have an interest in formal oversight opportunities over the government. They agree that, generally, governing parties prefer to organize legislative-executive interaction through party channels rather than through parliamentary arenas. However, specific circumstances may motivate institutional reform.
The first situation scholars have drawn attention to is minority government (e.g. Bergman 1997: 381; Martin 2000: 154; Saalfeld 2005: 357). When the legislative majority coalition does not coincide with the party composition of the cabinet, there is a need for oversight institutions for at least some government supporting parties. Conflict resolution outside the parliament is difficult, first, because many of the arrangements that a multi-party office coalition, as opposed to a legislative coalition, might have are absent, such as coalition committees or, of course, cabinet meetings. Moreover, many minority governments do not even have a stable legislative coalition but rather rely on variable allies. Second, the problem here is not one within parties—say, between leaders in executive office and rank-and-file parliamentary group members—but between parties, some of which hold office and others do not. The outsiders may demand legislative institutions that secure their influence.
One of the shortcomings of this explanation is that it appears to be a case- specific description of Denmark and, to a lesser extent, Sweden. Other member states have also had minority governments in the past, but they are most common in Scandinavia. It is of course true that especially Denmark has comparatively strong EU-related oversight institutions but this is also the case for other countries that have never or rarely had any minority cabinets, such as Germany and the Netherlands. What is more, the standard view of the relationship between minority rule and legislative institutions has, in fact, been the opposite of what the above argument tells us. That is, strong legislative institutions such as committees, information, and participation rights have been thought to enable the formation of minority cabinets because the costs, in terms of policy influence, of not sitting on the cabinet table are lower the more opportunities the parliamentary arena offers (Strom 1990).
Saalfeld (2005: 357) also makes an argument about the composition of the cabinet but he focuses on coalitions in addition to minority governments. Coalitions, in contrast to single-party governments, create challenges of multi-party government (Martin and Vanberg 2011)—not only do coalition parties have to make compromises for the sake of a common policy agenda, they also have to leave significant power over policy formulation and over responses to unexpected problems to individual ministers. Ministers might exploit their advantages in order to promote the policy of their party rather than the coalition compromise. Martin and Vanberg (2011) argue that parliamentary review procedures could help coalition partners to monitor each other. Zubek (2015) contends that challenges of coalition government should also lead to institutional reforms facilitating legislative review. In line with these arguments, Saalfeld (2005: 357) expects stronger parliamentary adaptation to EU affairs in countries where coalition as opposed to single-party governments exist. A logical extension of Saalfeld's argument would be that coalitions pose problems only when the partners actually disagree profoundly on the best direction of government policy because, otherwise, the risk that ministers from one side or the other deviate from a coalition compromise is low (Martin and Vanberg 2011; Zubek 2015).
The main problem with explanations emphasizing the challenges of minority and coalition governments is that they see EU-related oversight institutions as solutions for problems that they do not really solve, namely for problems around who gets a say on the domestic policy of the national government. It is not a coincidence that the very same arguments have been made about reforms of legislative institutions that have nothing to do with the EU (Martin and Vanberg 2011; Zubek 2015; Martin and Depauw 2011).
Applying them to institutional adaptation in EU matters suggests that the first thing party leaders think of when confronted with salient policy disagreement in their coalition is to establish a European Affairs committee. If this seems farfetched, it is because the first priority of party leaders, as Martin and Vanberg (2011) make clear, is not contemplating institutional reform but rather ensuring mutual monitoring through whatever institutional means are available, including legislative committees but also junior ministers and coalitions committees (see also Thies 2001).
One could object that legislative institutions for mutual monitoring would have to be created where they are needed and yet lacking. It is, thus, conceivable that governing parties, cooperating in a heterogeneous coalition cabinet, implement institutional reforms in order to enhance their ability to monitor each other (Zubek 2015). But will they create specifically EU-related parliamentary oversight rights? The deeper rationale for mutual monitoring in coalitions suggests that scepticism is justified. One reason for mutual monitoring is that coalition partners stand in electoral competition. They have to govern together and make compromises but each party also has to signal to constituents that they are pushing policy in their preferred direction. Suspicion, thus, arises between partners that the other side is exploiting their control over ministries to promote their own rather than the coalition's ideal policy. Mutual monitoring can help alleviate this suspicion and facilitate cooperation between the different parties in government (Martin and Vanberg 2011: 10-13). Obviously, though, the kind of legislative institutions that parties would create in reaction to such problems have to be tailored to the mutual monitoring needs that the coalition actually has. They cannot be any parliamentary rights and capacities. And here lies the problem. We have already heard that day-to-day EU policy-making is not something voters pay significant attention to in making their vote choices. Creating EU-related oversight institutions may help coalition partners to monitor each other in EU policy-making, but doing so does not alleviate the problem that they stand in electoral competition in domestic politics.
The second reason why coalition partners might create institutions that allow mutual monitoring is that they stand in policy competition. Coalitions join parties with different ideological profiles and programmes that seek to use their governing authority to promote different policy agendas. Bringing in the parliamentary arena as a way to monitor ministers could, indeed, be beneficial. As Martin and Vanberg (2011) point out, it is already difficult for cabinet members to follow what their colleagues do domestically, given the immense information and resource advantages each ministry has in its area of competence. Monitoring a minister in EU-level negotiations additionally increases these information asymmetries—only the responsible ministry will have detailed information on the state of the negotiations, particularly in the
EU's many working groups of civil servants that prepare decision-making. Monitoring from parliamentarians could help, and the creation of EU-related oversight institutions would put them in a position to provide such monitoring.
The reality of EU policy-making, however, is that partisan ideology plays a small role only. If ideology matters little in the first place, ideological differences between parties are not a reason to expect that a minister will deviate from the coalition compromise. Studies that analyse empirically what determines the positions governments take in EU-level policy negotiations have repeatedly found little impact of party ideology (e.g. Thomson 2011). The more important factors that shape negotiation behaviour are structural, country-level determinants such as the state of the economy (e.g. Bailer et al. 2015). The most active negotiators frequently are not even national ministers but rather civil servants and diplomats (Hage 2007). Finally, while many of the decisions that the EU takes could very well be of interest to member state parties and their voters, their impact is often hidden in seemingly inconspicuous or highly technical regulations (Genschel and Jachtenfuchs 2011). Overall, although one may not want to rule out an impact of coalition disagreement on parliamentary adaptation without empirical testing, a number of considerations call the plausibility of the argument into question.
Another possible objection is that coalitions do not, in fact, use EU-related oversight institutions to accommodate disagreement over public policy. They rather accommodate different views in the coalition regarding how desirable European integration is (Winzen 2013). Such differences could matter because a minister from an excessively pro-European party could be tempted to agree to more intrusive EU rules than the other governing parties are ready to accept. Yet, as discussed in more detail in the section entitled 'The Configuration of Constitutional Preferences across Parties and Parliaments', existing research suggests that significant disagreement over the EU between European government parties is unlikely. Parties opposing integration are mainly situated at the margins of the political space, while the centrist parties that we find in government on a regular basis have relatively similar, and generally supportive, views of European integration (de Vries and Edwards 2009; Kriesi et al. 2006; Hooghe etal. 2002; Bakker etal. 2015; Statham and Koopmans 2009). There are differences between parties. However, the bigger picture is that these differences are relatively small in any given country. More pronounced differences exist in the relative support for the EU, and indeed in views of how the EU should be organized institutionally, between groups of parties from different countries.
Yet, the most important shortcoming of the explanations discussed above is their restrictive understanding of what choices over the institutions of the EU and the competences of the national parliament mean to parties and parliamentarians. Do party politicians only care about the electoral and policy implications of reforms of EU-related parliamentary rights and capacities? The following section suggests a different view, not only because the electoral and policy implications of EU-related oversight institutions are likely to be limited, but also because parties attribute substantive meaning to alternative constitutional designs for the EU polity.