Recalibrating executive-legislative relations in the European Union?

By Diane Fromage, Anna Herranz-Surallés, and Thomas Christiansen (Maastricht University)

On 18-19 January 2018, a workshop on “Recalibrating executive-legislative relations in the EU” was held at the UM Brussels Campus, thanks to the sponsoring of the Centre for European Research in Maastricht (CERIM), the Universiteitsfonds Limburg (SWOL) and the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Maastricht University (FASoS). Gathering about 40 participants, including a diverse mix of academics with mostly legal and political science backgrounds and practitioners, the workshop took stock of the role of parliaments since the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty in 2009. Dubbed the ‘Treaty of Parliaments’ for its measures empowering both the European Parliament and national parliaments, the Lisbon Treaty raised expectations of reversing the so called ‘executive drift’ in European politics, in turn perceived as one of the main drivers of the enduring democratic deficit in the EU. The workshop participants enquired into whether these expectations have been met, and discussed proposals on whether and how should executive-legislative imbalances be further redressed.

‘Islands’ of recalibration amidst executive dominance

Several speakers noted that, over the past decade, executive dominance in the EU has not faded, but on the contrary, has even intensified. For example, from different angles, Peter Bursens (Antwerp University) and Elena Griglio (LUISS Guido Carli University) discussed the structural democratic tensions in the EU’s institutional design, which tend to empower national executives as well as ‘hybrid’ bodies such as the European Council, which are acquiring autonomous decision-making powers with little parliamentary oversight. Presenting data from several countries, Claudia Wiesner (University of Hamburg) also showed that EU governance mechanisms to deal with the financial crisis have exacerbated existing imbalances in executive-legislative relations. Other speakers identified an enduring ‘executive drift’ in the often-neglected policy implementation phase. For instance, Wolfgang Weiss (Speyer University) focused on the growing tendency to delegate the operation and implementation of international trade agreements to democratically unaccountable Treaty Bodies. Charikleia Vlachou (Université d’Orléans) examined the parliamentary oversight of EU agencies, arguing that the accountability mechanisms that the Treaty of Lisbon allows have not yet been fully tapped. In the same vein, Diane Fromage (Maastricht University) Robert Zíbral, (Masaryk University/Czech Constitutional Court) and Jan Grinc (Charles University/Czech Senate) addressed the overall low involvement of parliaments in the implementation of EU law.

Even though many of the papers provided sobering evidence of the continuing erosion of representative democracy in the EU, other papers addressed areas in which parliaments have gained significant powers in recent times. These contributions concerned mostly EU Trade Policy, but with important differences of assessment as to the extent of the recalibration observed. Cristina Fasone (LUISS Guido Carli University) and Maria Romaniello (IMT Lucca) showed how national and regional legislatures, with the support of the European Parliament, successfully used their veto right to influence the negotiation of highly contested agreements such as the CETA and the TTIP. Eugenia da Conceiçao-Heldt (Technical University of Munich), Guri Rosén (University of Oslo, in a joint contribution with Katharina Meissner of the University of Vienna), and Marco Urban (University of Lausanne) noted a significant increase in parliamentary influence, both in the substance of trade negotiations and the procedures of transparency and information sharing. Péter Márton (Central European University) brought in a more critical note on how the executives have instrumentally used parliaments to legitimize trade agreements without having to engage with the more challenging demands raised by civil society organizations.

Explaining and assessing executive-legislative (im)balances

The workshop was not only concerned with mapping the evolution in executive-legislative relations, but also with identifying the drivers and obstacles to parliamentary democracy. Half of the contributions referred to the growing ‘politicization’ of EU affairs as a factor boosting parliaments’ influence. In that sense, cases of successful advances in ‘parliamentarization’ were linked to high issue salience, public contestation and legitimacy gaps. This growing politicization also seems to have fostered inter-parliamentary cooperation (not only between national parliaments, but between those and the European Parliament), as illustrated by the case of EU trade policy. Yet, several contributions also noted that recurrent crises in the EU are fostering a mode of ‘crisis politics’ in which executive actors often manage to isolate policy-making from parliamentary and public debate. Many of the speakers concurred in that further measures are needed to ensure an appropriate level of parliamentary involvement. Proposals ranged from far-reaching institutional changes to create an EU bi-cameral system, to new ways to boost inter-parliamentary cooperation, or the establishment of stricter limits to the delegation of tasks to executive and non-majoritarian bodies.

Finally, the participants also discussed the implications of the changing balances between executive and legislative actors. One of the most interesting aspects of the workshop discussions was the realization of the inter-dependencies between executive-legislative relations across countries and governance levels. For example, some speakers noted that the newly-gained veto rights of European Parliament in Trade Policy have fostered a shift from a situation of competitive dynamics between parliamentary levels, to one of cooperation and mutual empowerment. However, recent proposals to separate investment provisions from trade agreements could eventually lead to a concentration of parliamentary scrutiny powers at the EU level, with the ensuing marginalization of national parliaments. The case of EU economic governance brought another example of the growing inter-dependencies in the parliamentary field, where an increase in the powers of national parliaments of donor states has sometimes come to the detriment of the power of national parliaments’ in debtor states.

The workshop was animated by the very interesting interventions of practitioners who acted as discussants: Thomas Fich (European Commission, Secretariat General), Pekka Nurminen (European Parliament, Directorate for Relations with National Parliaments) and Eva-Maria Poptcheva (European Parliamentary Research Service). Other practitioners and scholars in the audience contributed to give this workshop, that allowed for a true interdisciplinary dialogue, a real added value. So much so that, the workshop convenors, Diane Fromage, Anna Herranz-Surrallés and Thomas Christiansen, are working towards an edited volume that makes this collection of original studies available to a broader audience.

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