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

Summary of the Argument

This book explains the adaptation of national parliaments to European integration on the basis of the nature and configuration of the constitutional preferences of parliamentary parties and parliamentarians in the member states. For these policy-makers, European integration and the institutional choices it requires are about more than putting effective procedures into place that will facilitate inter-state cooperation, enhance economic growth, and resolve other pressing policy problems (Moravcsik 1998). For them, European integration is also a process of putting into practice ideas about right and desirable institutions (Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998; Marcussen etal. 1999; Parsons 2002; Rittberger 2005; Schmidt 2006). The choices that parties and parliamentarians make reflect their constitutional preferences for the European polity—rooted in their ideologies, and shaped by informal and formal institutions at the European level and in their countries.

This investigation emphasizes the different institutional choices of policymakers inclined towards federal visions of the right constitutional design of the EU, on the one hand, and of intergovernmentalists, on the other. The former prioritize the empowerment of the EP and take comfort in its gradual evolution towards a powerful European-level legislator, on an equal footing with the Council of Ministers, and increasingly also involved in the appointment of the personnel of the European Commission. Advocates of an intergovernmental EU, in contrast, demand pre-eminence for national governments in European politics, whose actions, in turn, should be rooted in domestic democratic procedures and processes. They are the ones demanding reforms that enhance national parliamentary rights that facilitate government oversight in EU affairs.

However, an argument based on constitutional preferences has a prominent place for formal and informal European and national institutions. Regardless of the federal or intergovernmental inclinations of national parties, their constitutional demands are shaped by these institutions. They share a commitment to abstract European norms of how to design political institutions democratically, which causes them to worry about threats to parliamentary rights as a result of the expansion of EU competences, and which motivates them to seek solutions in institutional reforms that enhance parliamentary authority in common European policy-making (Rittberger 2005; Rittberger and Schimmelfennig 2006; Schimmelfennig 2010). Parties also, however, come from countries with different sets of existing institutions and, most importantly, different parliamentary rights and competences. From the perspective of an argument based on constitutional preferences, existing institutions are not merely contemporaneous constraints on the actions of policy-makers; they rather reflect past constitutional conflicts and preferences about institutions that have since become consensual for and familiar to most national actors (Marcussen et al. 1999; Dimitrakopoulos 2001; Schmidt 2006). Domestic institutions, in other words, indicate the kind of choices parties and other policy-makers will consider appropriate for the EU and for their member states.

Constitutional preferences do not necessarily matter for each and every institutional choice parties make in the context of European integration, but they matter most when pressing strategic and policy considerations are not strongly at stake. Reforms of national parliamentary rights, as argued in Chapter 3, do not have strong implications for perhaps the most important constraints parties face, namely for winning votes and policies in domestic party competition. They are not essential for dealing with problems arising from joint policy-making in coalition cabinets (Saalfeld 2005), from incongruence between legislative and office majorities under minority government (Martin 2000; Bergman 2000), or for electoral politics in which EU policymaking matters at best marginally (de Vries 2007). Under these circumstances, constitutional preferences shape parties' and parliamentarians' reform choices regarding national parliamentary adaptation to European integration.

It is, finally, important to note that the configuration of partisan constitutional preferences within and between the EU member states matters. Even though there are differences within countries, as a result of differences in partisan ideology, the most pronounced discrepancies in whether parties tend towards federal or intergovernmental visions of the EU lie between countries (Jachtenfuchs etal. 1998; Hooghe etal. 2002; Wessels 2005; Winzen etal. 2015). Moreover, most European parties are internally divided, comprising a diversity of views as to the desirable institutional design of the EU. The consequence of this configuration of constitutional preferences is that party leaders in the different member states are able, and also have strong reasons, to build inclusive coalitions around parliamentary reform choices in EU affairs. The relative similarity of party positions facilitates finding common ground, as does the limited electoral salience of choices over parliaments' EU-related institutional rights and capacities. The diversity within parties, moreover, encourages party leaders to seek inclusive parliamentary positions in order to avoid that internal heterogeneity of views turns into open conflict, which, unlike substantive questions of EU policy-making, can be of considerable relevance for the public image of the party.

These arguments lead to the expectation that parliamentary reforms in response to European integration are most likely and far-reaching in member states in which parliamentary parties tend towards intergovernmental constitutional preferences, and in which parliamentary rights and competences are already well developed in domestic policy-making. Where federalists and weak parliaments prevail, on the other hand, adaptation efforts will remain limited and incremental.

An argument based on constitutional preferences and existing institutions can also be extended to explain the characteristics of national parliaments' direct role in EU policy-making, which has so far emphasized voluntary participation and not forced the representative institutions of the member states to commit to decisions or the investment of time and resources. First and foremost, where parliamentarians and parties consider domestic government oversight as the appropriate institutional focus for national parliaments in the EU, as indicated primarily by their creation of strong EU-related oversight institutions at 'home', they oppose a direct European role. Such a role not only is incompatible with what they consider the right parliamentary focus, namely on domestic oversight, it also threatens to distract resources and time from that focus. The only reforms that find support in parliaments with strong EU-related oversight institutions are those that are compatible with domestic oversight, not requiring parliaments to act at the European level or otherwise to divert significant resources from their orientation towards national governments.

Whether parliamentarians with federal or intergovernmental constitutional preferences support a direct European role depends on the reform proposal in question. Federalists' priority is the empowerment of the EP. Accordingly, they oppose giving national parliaments opportunities to participate directly in EU policy-making to the extent that this could be a threat for the predominance of the EP as the only European-level parliamentary body. Reforms, on the other hand, that could be an opportunity to expand the competences or status of the EP will find federalist supporters. Intergovernmental constitutional preferences work in a similar way to institutions. In principle, intergovernmentalist parties and parliamentarians regard domestic oversight as the appropriate parliamentary focus in EU affairs and, consequently, regard a direct European role with scepticism. The only exception, again, is if reform suggestions are compatible with domestic oversight. As a result of the different priorities of federalist and intergovernmentalist parliamentarians and parties, it is possible that both camps have similar views of proposals to strengthen parliaments' direct European role, as is the case, for instance, with inter-parliamentary cooperation that both regard with scepticism, albeit respectively for their own reasons. Reforms that, for instance, are an opportunity for the EP, while being incompatible with domestic oversight, run into intergovernmentalist opposition. Opposite reforms, in turn, attract the critique of federalists.

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