When national governments negotiate EU policies, are they influenced by the actions of their national parliaments back home? Drawing on a new study, Sara Hagemann, Stefanie Bailer and Alexander Herzog demonstrate that they are: when national parliaments have formal powers to oversee and restrict the positions of governments, there are significantly higher numbers of opposing votes and formal policy statements by those governments at the EU level. Similarly, when governments are under pressure in their national parliaments, they are more likely to go on record and take a stand against the majority in Brussels.

Can national parliaments control – or at least influence – their governments when they negotiate policies in the European Union? These past weeks’ theatrical developments in the UK’s House of Commons might suggest the answer is ‘yes’, although the UK’s complicated situation is of course a rather dramatic case of ‘Parliament vs Executive’. Nevertheless, while the UK Brexit scenario is in many ways extreme, it is not only in the UK and not only when it comes to huge constitutional questions such as EU membership, that European governments have to take into account their national parliaments and domestic political audiences when negotiating policies in Brussels.

National parliaments in Europe have over the past 15-20 years undertaken a number of important reforms to scrutinise EU politics more closely, and increased their efforts to hold governments to account for decisions they take when negotiating in Brussels. This happens both through parliamentary debates and in committee scrutiny of EU policies (see e.g. here and here). In parallel, initiatives to increase transparency in EU decision-making mean that policy documents are now made available to the public to a larger degree than previously, and that recorded votes by the governments have become mandatory in all legislative decision-making. Therefore, it is clear that by now members of national legislatures are able to keep an eye on their government representatives, and have an incentive to challenge their actions on EU matters.

Credit: © European Union – European Parliament (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In a new study, we show how governments have in turn responded to these developments of increased domestic attention and scrutiny, and more regularised policy processes at the EU level. More specifically, we show the extent to which governments take into account their national parliaments when deciding on policies in the Council of the European Union (the EU Council), which is made up of government representatives from relevant national ministries. Our measure for establishing the link between legislatures at home and executives’ behaviour at the EU level is to explore whether governments send signals to their domestic audiences when recording policy positions in the Council’s decision records. We thus looked at the governments’ votes and policy statements in the Council since the enlargement to Eastern and Central Europe in 2004 to analyse whether and how this formally recorded behaviour is influenced by the scrutiny in national parliaments and the governments’ standing in domestic politics. Taking into account both the voting behaviour and the formally recorded policy statements, our empirical analysis is the most extensive investigation into formal legislative behaviour in the Council of over 25 Member States to date. Thus, these data are a valuable addition to negotiation research which is generally lacking data on often secretive international negotiations.

Our findings show that governments whose national parliaments have strong scrutiny powers are much more likely to either abstain, vote ‘No’ or request for formal policy statements to be included in the EU Council’s decision records. This behaviour stands in contrast to governments with less powerful parliaments, who are much more likely to simply go with the majority position and who do not add policy statements to their voting records. In addition, it also matters whether a government is in a politically strong position within the formal institutional structure of their parliament: a government which enjoys a strong political standing, and whose parliament is less influential in terms of scrutiny and amendment powers, will be much less active in the Council records, and more frequently opt to simply go with the Council’s majority position. Conversely, governments that are under political pressure at home and which come from a parliament with strong scrutiny powers will be much more likely to vote against the majority, abstain or submit policy statements to be included in the Council records.

Our analysis also looks into other factors which have previously been found to affect governments’ behaviour in the EU, such as economic interests and political bargaining power stemming from the EU’s own vote distribution and EU budget contributions: Governments who are economically and politically strong in the EU setting are more likely to voice concern or outright disagreement in the Council records than countries who are less powerful. Hence, our findings largely correspond with the literature’s conclusions, but extend the results to show that these patterns are reflected both in the votes as well as the formal policy statements submitted in conjunction with the votes. But in the formal statements the effects are often more significant, which leads us to conclude that the governments’ policy statements are an important additional data source for research into national representatives’ strategies and behaviour in EU policy-making.

For more information, see the authors’ accompanying study in the Journal of Common Market Studies

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Note: This article gives the views of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics.

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About the authors

Sara Hagemann – LSE
Sara Hagemann is an Associate Professor in European Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is on Twitter: @sarahagemann

Stefanie Bailer – University of Basel
Stefanie Bailer is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Basel.

Alexander Herzog – Clemson University
Alexander Herzog is a Lecturer in the School of Computing at Clemson University.

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