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Debating EU-Related Parliamentary Reform in the Dutch Parliament

Who demands parliamentary reform? What reasons do parties advance for their support or opposition? This section engages with these questions regarding the parliament's EU-related reforms since the 1980s. The subsequent section specifically focuses on a Dutch particularity, the 'approval rights' in justice and home affairs.

Who Demands Parliamentary Reform in EU Affairs?

One of the assumptions underlying the argument advanced here is that parliamentary parties will seek mutually acceptable reforms in EU affairs. The validity of this claim is critical not least because it justifies speaking of (and measuring) the constitutional preferences of 'parliamentary parties' rather than those of each individual party. One indication that this claim is indeed valid could be said to lie in the consensual nature of parliamentary reform proposals. If parties were to put forward common reform proposals, they could be said to have either agreed initially or entered into negotiations with the aim of finding a compromise.

In the reform debates of the Dutch parliament, considerable evidence suggests that reform proposals have been made by broad parliamentary party coalitions. This is visible, for instance, in the lack of government and opposition dynamics, indicated by the fact that reform initiatives have come from within the parliament, and that government leaders have in fact repeatedly underlined that parliamentary actors rather than the cabinet should develop such reform proposals. Thus, the very first reform creating a temporary European Affairs committee in the mid-1980s was developed by the parliament's procedure committee which explicitly claims to have worked in a nonpartisan way, free from party leaders' instructions (19336-1,2&3). The government subsequently offered a generally favourable but critical discussion of the parliament's proposals (19336-6). Similarly, the 1998 report on the European Affairs committee's work (26054-1&2) makes several demands that the government then appraises (26054-3). And, while approving some demands it is in fact critical of others—something one would not expect to see if the governing parties had dominated the formulation of the report.

When the topic of EU-related national parliamentary competences became important at the Amsterdam Intergovernmental Conference (IGC), the government considered the issue in one of several 'IGC notes'. It underlined that the parliament should develop suggestions of how to regulate its own role. The government also already hinted at the relevance of unanimity and majority voting, a point to which we return momentarily:

In cases in which the Council decides by unanimity, regardless of whether on legislation or policy, parliamentary involvement is in principle secured via national parliaments. It is for the parliament itself to give substance to this.[1]

(24251-1&2, p. 7)

In a subsequent report on 'Parliament and the European Union', the government pointed out that parliament should take the initiative and ask for better information if it considers this necessary:

The government has not heard that the parliament is generally dissatisfied with the aforementioned manner by which the motion Van Iersel/Van der Vaart [an earlier parliamentary request for access to information] is put into practice. It is for the chamber to ask for additional information in case. (25181-1&2, p. 8)

A parliamentary summary of the subsequent debate noted that the Home Affairs minister, Dijkstal of the VVD, held the view that 'it is for the chamber to determine at what moment and on the basis of what information it takes political action' (25181-4, p. 8).

The creation of a permanent European Affairs committee in 2002 also originated in a collective parliamentary initiative. It followed the unanimous adoption of a parliamentary presidency proposal (28452-1) during the plenary session of 4 July 2002 (TK91-5444). The rationale for the reform, according to the proposal, had been outlined in a report of the existing temporary European Affairs committee. This report had pointed out

a clear infrastructure for effective control in EU affairs is still lacking in the Tweede Kamer, amongst others, because of remaining uncertainty over the continuation of the Algeme Commissie voor Europese Zaken. Yet, the Commission has amply proven its right to exist in the past year. (28449-1, p. 16)

In 2008, the parliamentary parties introduced an amendment to the government's proposed ratification law for the Lisbon Treaty in order to establish a scrutiny reserve procedure (31384-23; see also the corresponding motion

31384-25). This amendment passed consensually (TK93-6619). It was cosponsored by a governing party (CU) and an opposition party (VVD). It is also remarkable that the cabinet representative present during the corresponding parliamentary debate, state secretary Timmermans, expressed reservations against the scrutiny reserve and recommended not adopting it (TK91-6451, TK92-6541). In the following year, a detailed report on the negotiation and implementation of the scrutiny reserve procedure was adopted consensually by the European Affairs committee—again co-sponsored by government and opposition authors (EAC report 31384-27). The report underlines the existence of broad parliamentary support for the scrutiny reserve (p. 4).

These initial observations about the demand for parliamentary reform are consistent with the theoretical argument. They support the idea that 'parliamentary parties' together consider and adopt EU-related oversight institutions. The comments from the government are further interesting in this regard. They highlight the relative autonomy of the parliamentary parties from considerations prevailing in the cabinet and executive bureaucracy. If this seems surprising in light of the conventional view that party politics lead to an alignment of positions across the institutional divide between parliament and government, it is important to note that the government concerns we observe are about efficiency. In ideological terms, the government does not position itself differently from its partisan parliamentary supporters. It only additionally highlights the efficiency implications parliamentary reforms could have. This will become clearer once we consider the substantive arguments different actors advance for and against reforms of EU-related oversight institutions.

  • [1] The quotes are my translations from Dutch into English.
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