Home Political science
Motivations Underlying Parliamentary Reform Demands
An explanation based on constitutional preferences assumes that parties demand parliamentary reform in response to perceived disconnects between their preferred and the EU's actual institutional architecture. They consider parliamentary reform as a result of perceived democratic shortcomings, especially deficits arising as a result of the introduction of majority voting. Depending on the nature of their constitutional preferences, federal or intergovernmental, they respond differently to the empowerment of the EP. Are the substantive concerns that parties express in reform debates consistent with these purported reform motivations?
There is considerable material supporting the view that calls for EU-related national parliamentary competences were linked to party perceptions of a democratic deficit. For instance, in one of the first debates in 1989 on the Single Market Programme and the Maastricht intergovernmental conference, numerous MPs from the CDA, VVD, PvdA, and D66 complained about the EP's weakness (UCV52-2, 8, 9, 12). They linked their concerns explicitly with parliamentary ambitions to play a role in EU decision-making. Consider two examples, the first from a governing party, and the second from an opposition party.
Van Iersel (CDA):
In addition, national parliaments retain a great co-responsibility for the course of matters. It is a shared responsibility. This is why the CDA, in contrast to the VVD, supported the creation of a European Affairs committee for three years. Then the goal was: to follow matters in Brussels better, to control the cabinet members better, also in the expert committees, and to control the implementation of what is agreed in Brussels better. (p. 3)
In this context, in this period in which the European Parliament still has insufficient democratic competences, we have asked already previously that the Tweede Kamer receives more insight, if necessary confidentially, into the most important parts of the white paper [that structures the implementation of the EU's Single Market Programme]. (p. 11)
Several debates in the 1990s and early 2000s clarify the circumstances that, according to the main parliamentary parties, create a democratic deficit. In these debates, growing EU authority was understood to pose challenges but the main concerns focused on the introduction of majority voting. The solution to democratic deficits was seen to lie in the empowerment of the EP. There is evidence to suggest, moreover, that in the absence of EP empowerment calls for national parliamentary rights emerged.
The debate on the ratification of the Nice Treaty in 2001 and early 2002 illustrates under what conditions parliamentarians deem a democratic deficit to exist, namely when majority voting does not go together with co-decision (the final European Affairs committee debate: 27818-6; the final plenary debate: TK26-1862; votes on motions: TK27-1945).
Scheltema-de Nie (D66):
In several areas we introduce majority voting. However, this is not automatically coupled to co-decision of the European parliament, certainly not for the older matters for which majority voting already applied.
Under qualified majority voting without co-decision, the European Parliament does not get competences while national parliaments lose some of their competences. Without veto rights for the Netherlands the Dutch parliament's options to try to achieve something are considerably smaller. (27818-6, p. 8)
Van Baalen (VVD):
The VVD holds the opinion that democracy in the Union has to be strengthened.
A basic rule should be that community legislation in the first pillar under decisionmaking by majority should take place under co-decision of the European Parliament, save for fiscal matters. (TK26-1881)
The problem is that in fact all national parliaments lose if decisions are taken by majority without co-decision of the European Parliament. The European Parliament because it does not co-decide and the national parliaments because they lose their possibility to exert influence. The government suggests that a country's position in the Council should in a relevant way be motivated by the position of the national parliament. Yet, because of the lack of openness of the Council, the national parliaments cannot know what positions ministers actually took. This objection loses its relevance, because a member state can be outvoted under majority voting. In this case, the national parliaments lose anyway. (27818-6, p. 17)
Similar statements are easy to find throughout the debates (e.g. Timmermans PvdA: TK26-1863; Vos GroenLinks: TK26-1878; Van Middelkoop ChristenUnie: 27818-6, p. 7). The parliament also actively promoted the EP's empowerment. For instance, all major parties supported a motion calling on the government to put the coupling of majority voting and co-decision on the agenda of the upcoming IGC (27818-10. Pro-votes: PvdA, VVD, D66, CDA, GroenLinks). Similar statements and motions as above can be found during the ratification of the Amsterdam Treaty (e.g. 25922-4; TK19-1146) as well as in the context of the 1999 dismissal of the European Commission (TK58-3618).
The process leading up to the creation of a permanent European Affairs committee in 2002 further clarifies that parliamentarians regard the strengthening of oversight institutions as a response to the growing importance of the EU. The parliamentary report concluding in favour of the creation of a European Affairs committee stressed that otherwise EU decision-making would risk not receiving the necessary parliamentary attention:
Without the European Affairs committee, it is likely that the necessary attention to EU affairs will get lost in the daily national preoccupations of the standing committees. This is the case while it is being underlined from different sides that domestic politics can no longer be thought about without considering Europe in the future. Moreover, EU policy and rule-making becomes increasingly national policy and rule-making. (28449-1, p. 15)
In their reform debates, the Dutch parliamentary parties were especially concerned about the democratic legitimacy of the EU. The 2002 European Affairs committee evaluation (28449-1, p. 12) expressed concerns over democratic control of EU decision-making:
At the time of writing this evaluation, a discussion takes place on the possibility to strengthen democratic control and political influence on European decisionmaking. It has revealed that both the first and second chamber recognize the importance of a stronger hold on EU decision-making.
In order to justify national parliamentary engagement, the evaluation also referred to the van Baalen report (28632-1, p. 4), which criticized a shift from a pre-existing balance in which the EP and community institutions more generally would be responsible for the first pillar and NPs would mainly address intergovernmental areas. The report justified the need for more national parliamentary engagement stressing that governments had become more relevant in the EU and decision-making fussier.
It is often said that there is a democratic deficit [in intergovernmental decisionmaking] because it is difficult for national parliaments to exert effective influence
on the conduct of ministers and heads of government in the Council, while the
EP, besides consultation rights, plays no role in a formal sense.
The basic points made so far hold true for parliamentary reform debates in 2005-10 leading up to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty and the parliament's scrutiny reserve procedure. In long debates over the Lisbon Treaty and the role of the EP and national parliaments in it, the main Dutch parties reiterate their commitment to enhancing democratic procedures in EU decision-making. They stress the need to enhance the EP's powers, for instance, regarding the appointment of the European Commission. They also underline repeatedly that national parliamentary rights are especially important in areas in which the EP lacks authority (e.g., TK91-6455 (VVD), 6460 (GroenLinks), 6488 (PvDA), 6479 (D66)). However, these positions leave a puzzle on the table. They do not explain why the parliament turned towards an instrument, the scrutiny reserve, that goes further than information rights and committee structures. It has the potential to limit the government's freedom to act more decisively. The government's stance towards this instrument, considered below, makes clear that the instrument was also perceived to have that potential. However, let us first ask why parliamentary parties would turn their attention to this tool.
While the main Dutch parties continued to support the strengthening of the EP, it is important to note a shift in their optimism regarding the EP's potential to alleviate the EU's democratic deficit. The deputy Peters from the hitherto strongly pro-EU and pro-EP GL party illustrates this view by asking whether 'the democratic control that the EP will exercise after the entry into force of the new treaty will be enough to give up national democratic control' (TK91-6483). She continued that this is clearly not the case in areas in which the EP lacks co-decision powers. However, even in other areas, she maintained that 'the co-decision procedure of the European Parliament is no fully fledged democratic parliamentary control... In these area [in which the co-decision procedure applies], the parliaments of the member states have a complementary role that has to be filled.' Other strongly pro-European parties share this view. The D66, for instance, explicitly welcomed the extensive added powers that the Lisbon Treaty gives to the EP. Yet, this party also supported the introduction of a scrutiny reserve as 'a catalyst for a mentality change that has slowly begun to emerge, but that has not developed sufficiently yet, in order to make Europe a truly domestic matter also in this parliament' (TK91-6479). According to the VVD, 'co-decision cannot be seen as a fully fledged democratic rule as we know it in the Tweede Kamer... The European Union enters a new phase, in which we can no longer be satisfied with the old community method [of majority voting and co-decision of the EP]' (TK92-6541). The PvDA and the CDA were not directly opposed to the scrutiny reserve but clearly not explicitly supportive, while the cabinet members present in the debate were opposed, as discussed below. The traditionally more intergovernmentally oriented parties such as the SP (TK91-6468) or the PVV (TK91-6486) demanded as extensive parliamentary rights as possible.
The important point here is that the introduction of the scrutiny reserve procedure took place in a context of subtly changed constitutional preferences among a range of parliamentary parties. State secretary Timmermans explicitly notes this change in a reaction to the GL's stance:
I understand that a number of MPs from their background, ideology and ideas on the European Union now use this debate to change and modify the community decision-making as much as possible in a certain direction. However, from a party such as GroenLinks, which has always empathetically put the Community method first, I do not understand it. This is why I just reacted a little emotionally to Ms Peters. (TK91-6509)