Research note by Katrin Auel and Thomas Christiansen
‘Maybe not formally speaking, but at least politically speaking, all national parliaments have become, in a way, European institutions’ (Van Rompuy 2012). As the statement suggest, the former ‘losers’ of the European integration process have come a long way. For a long time the role of national parliaments was not formally recognised at the European level, and in the domestic arena the integration process provided ample opportunities for the executive actors to bypass legislatures and strengthen their hold on policy-making. However, over time the initial ‘victims’ of integration learned ‘to fight back’ and obtained new opportunities for participation in domestic European politics (Hefftler et al. 2015). Today, the Lisbon Treaty not only makes explicit reference to national parliaments (article 12 TEU), but also provides for their involvement in the EU’s legislative process, in particular as the new guardians of the subsidiarity principle through the ‘Early Warning Mechanism’.
Yet the story of national parliaments in the EU is not only one of success: the coming into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 coincided with one of the greatest challenges national parliaments have yet had to face, the outbreak of the eurozone crisis, raising renewed concerns about parliamentary legitimacy in the EU. Despite their improved institutional position in EU affairs, the debate continues as to whether national parliaments can and do actually play an effective role in European policy-making – ‘the assessment of the role of national parliaments oscillates between hope and frustration’ (Pollak 2014: 25).
The main reason for this debate is arguably the lack of empirical data on parliamentary behaviour in EU affairs. The aim of the research conducted by the Observatory of Parliaments after the Lisbon Treaty (OPAL), was therefore to provide comprehensive data on the way national parliaments make use of their powers and become involved in EU affairs in the post-Lisbon era across a range of different policy areas and decision modes.
The findings, published – inter alia – in a special issue of the journal West European Politics (Auel and Christiansen 2015), demonstrate how multi-faceted the role of national parliaments has become. The recent phase of European integration, and in particular the ‘double-whammy’ of the Lisbon reforms and the eurozone crisis, have created an entirely new set of opportunities and challenges to which parliaments had to respond. In many cases parliaments have reacted to these changes, but these changes are far from uniform, and generalisation across the universe of legislatures in the EU remains highly problematic.
A first observation concerns a so far under-researched aspect, namely the changing relationship between, on the one hand, elected MPs and, on the other hand, clerks in committee secretariats and other civil servants working as advisors and technical experts in parliamentary administrations (Högenauer and Neuhold 2015; see also Högenauer et al., 2016). MPs have become increasingly dependent on administrative support due to the technical expertise required to deal with the growing number of incoming EU dossiers or the dynamic of increasing horizontal cooperation among parliaments in the EU. Especially the parliamentary representatives posted in Brussels have an important role in providing informal access to information about developments within the various chambers, thus ‘short-circuiting’ the coordination of parliamentary action, for example in the context of the Early Warning Mechanism (EWM). However, across the EU significant variation remains in the roles that parliamentary officials carry out and that even though the majority of chambers now employ administrators possessing an agenda-shaping role, this remains in the service of, rather than as a replacement of, the primacy of political decision-making. This ties in with the finding that despite existing opportunities for parliamentary administrators and committees to obtain greater leverage in in shaping the course of parliamentary deliberations in EU affairs, parliamentary party groups continue to play a crucial role in defining the outcomes of the scrutiny process, even if this – privileging party political preferences over technical expertise – can lead to a somewhat ’shallow’ scrutiny of EU legislation (Strelkov 2015). A further internal dimension of adaption to Europe is the growing ‘mainstreaming’ of EU affairs (Gattermann et al. 2015) – illustrated by the fact that the scrutiny of EU matters is increasingly carried out beyond designated European Affairs Committees (EACs), as other sectoral committees engage with EU matters that pertain to their portfolio.
These internal developments are remarkable and significant, even if it remains difficult to link their incidence systematically to analytical categories such as parliamentary strength or institutional capacity that have been standard reference points in the study of parliaments. The analysis of a large, quantitative dataset on parliamentary activities – plenary debates, resolutions, reasoned opinions or committee meetings – over three years in all 40 chambers of the EU (Auel et al. 2015) shows that to understand the driving forces of parliamentary activity it is essential to go beyond the idea of institutional strength and to consider electoral or policy incentives to engage in EU affairs. Domestically strong parliaments are not systematically among the most active, possibly because they do not need to be very active to be influential. For parliamentary activities related to the communication function, in particular, parliamentary Euroscepticism, and especially the salience of the eurozone crisis, were found to be important. In addition, the findings suggest that some parliamentary provisions, such as the frequency of EAC meetings, are embedded in general institutional rules and routines and therefore largely independent of on-going, parliamentary or public, controversies about the EU.
The more specific analysis of the driving forces behind the incidence of issuing reasoned opinions in the context of the Early Warning Mechanism (Gattermann and Hefftler 2015) provides further evidence that one must go beyond formal powers and institutional capacity of chambers to understand the driving forces behind their engagement at the EU level: parliamentary activity in the EWM is especially triggered by higher levels of party political contestation over EU integration and dependent on the salience and urgency of draft legislative acts themselves as well as an adverse macro-economic context.
As mentioned at the outset, one of the greatest challenges for national parliaments has been the eurozone crisis, be it in terms of agreeing to proposed bailout packages or to the conditionality that has come with these packages for the programme countries. According to a widespread view, the urgent and technocratic decision-making and intergovernmental nature of the crisis management carried with it the risk of sidelining national parliaments thus leading to a ‘re-de-parliamentarisation’. Yet there is significant variation in the way in which legislatures have responded to the impact from the European level (Auel and Höing 2015), which can in part be explained by their institutional strength, but also by membership in the eurozone, donor/debtor status as well as potential future threats related to the crisis, such as loosing a high credit rating of government bonds. There is thus no blanket weakening of legislatures due to the intergovernmental nature of crisis management, but rather an exacerbation of the existing strengths and weaknesses of different chambers.
A final analysis provides findings on the engagement by national parliament in foreign and security policy (Huff 2015). Here, the normative frame within which MPs perceive their role with regard to foreign policy, as well as the coherence – or lack of it – in party political positions on European integration have great influence on parliamentary activity: internal divisions among parties or coalitions are seen as a reason why their interest in parliamentary debates, and hence the scrutiny of EU foreign policy, is limited. Thus, formal powers do not, in practice, equate to ‘strong’ scrutiny. The strongest parliaments are rather those that make CFSP scrutiny a systematic, normalised and culturally accepted part of parliamentarians’ everyday work.
The image of national parliaments and their activity in the European Union that emerges from these studies is varied, and does not lend itself to easy generalisation. Parliaments have not emerged from the Lisbon Treaty reforms as universally empowered and fully engaged with the European project. While some parliaments have become very active in EU affairs, others are still ‘laggards’, and there remains much scepticism, ambivalence and even ignorance within national legislatures about developments at the European level. Inevitably, parliamentary activity on European affairs remains selective, with issue salience and party politics as important variables in explaining how (in)active a particular chamber is with regard to Europe. Taken together, the results of the OPAL research validate the choice in favour of a neo-institutionalist framework that is sensitive to the relevance of both institutional capacity and motivational factors: what matters is not only the powers a legislature has in terms of scrutinising the national executive, or the EU decision-making process, but whether MPs are willing and able to make effective use of these. Access to resources – support staff, expertise, time – and especially the political incentives to engage with EU matters are relevant, and in some cases more so than the formal powers themselves.
To conclude, the involvement of national parliaments in EU affairs has developed significantly since the Lisbon Treaty and the eurozone crisis brought both new opportunities and new challenges. The degree of parliamentary activism remains patchy, and it would be wrong to talk of a generalised empowerment of national parliaments, either vis-à-vis the national executives or the European institutions. Yet they have certainly come a long way since questions were raised about them being ‘victims’, ‘losers’ or at best ‘late-comers’. A sizeable number of chambers have chosen to engage with EU affairs as a matter of course, have been adapting their internal procedures and institutional capacity, and are linking up with other parliaments on a regular basis. With more time and experience, we can expect parliamentary involvement in EU-level scrutiny to increase further and to become more coordinated. National parliaments are also much talked about in the context of future EU reforms. The British government, for example, has identified new powers for national parliaments to object to unwelcome EU legislation as one of the key points in its agenda for a ‘re-negotiation’ of the UK’s EU membership. The involvement of national parliaments in the EU may be uneven and fragmented, but it clearly is here to stay.
The research presented here was funded within the Open Research Area in Europe for the Social Sciences by the Research Councils of Germany (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft), France (Agence Nationale de la Recherche), the Netherlands (Nederlandse Organisatie voor Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek) and the UK (Economic and Social Research Council).
Read the full-text article:
- K. AUEL, T. CHRISTIANSEN (2015), After Lisbon: National Parliaments in the European Union, West European Politics, Vol. 38, No. 2, 261–281
About the Authors
Katrin Auel is Associate Professor at the Institute for Advanced Studies Vienna, Austria.
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Thomas Christiansen holds a Chair in European Institutional Politics in the Department of Political Science at Maastricht University, The Netherlands and is also part-time professor at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, Florence
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