The process of European integration has affected regional parliaments in many ways. This blog article discusses how regional parliaments have meanwhile responded in order to get involved in EU affairs. Can we observe a ‘Europeanization’ of regional parliaments?
The process of European integration has affected regional parliaments in many ways. It has resulted in a transfer of policy competences to another, ‘higher’ political level; it created a decision-making structure at the European level that does not involve the regional level; and it brought about changes in political power configurations of legislative actors vis-à-vis executive ones, privileging the latter.
Overall, these developments seem to have limited regional parliaments’ room of maneuver. However, the EU multilevel system of governance may also provide them with new opportunities for political influence and action, e.g. in particular policy domains, where regional parliaments may find new potential allies at the European level.
After lots of empirical research on the European Parliament and national parliaments, regional parliaments have finally attracted scholarly attention as well, addressing the core question of how these institutional actors respond to and engage with the European structural and political environment: Has the Treaty of Lisbon created a new opportunity structure for regional parliamentary mobilization on EU affairs? Did regional parliaments adapt their rules of procedure or way of working in order to scrutinize (regional) governments on EU affairs? Do they strive for influencing EU policy-outcomes by actively reacting to new legislative initiatives from the EU, building networks with potential allies, or trying to ‘lobby’ EU institutions? To put it differently: Can we observe a ‘Europeanization’ in activities and practices of regional parliaments?
From the growing body of literature on this question, the following general, though preliminary, conclusions can be drawn: First, there is agreement regarding the empirical diagnosis of a generally low degree of ‘Europeanization’ of regional parliaments. Though (some) regional parliaments have adapted (or at least started to adapt) to the changed circumstances resulting from the establishing of the EU governance system, there are a number of challenges and limitations to these adjustment processes. Second, despite the need for systematic comparative analysis and empirical spread in this field, it seems fair to say at this point that there is large variation between regional parliaments regarding their EU-related activities, with some regional parliaments being considerably more active than others are. Among the active ones, we often find the ‘usual suspects’, i.e. parliaments from relatively powerful regions of larger EU member states, like e.g. the Bavarian State Parliament.
Regional parliaments’ involvement in EU affairs was also discussed in some detail at a most recent digital conference on Parliamentary Voices on the Future of Europe. The conference, organized within the framework of the REGIOPARL project, brought together scholarly and political expertise on the role of parliaments in EU affairs—considering the European, the national, and of course the regional level.
Discussions among scholars during this two-day conference confirmed the diagnosis of a generally limited ‘Europeanization’ of regional parliaments. At the same time, participants largely agreed that a stronger EU engagement of regional parliaments would be desirable with a view to both strengthening EU democracy as well as including regional interests and expertise. Debates were more controversial with a view to (1) how regional parliaments could best get involved in EU affairs, and (2) why they would do so in the first place. As these two issues are indeed quite relevant in terms of future research in the field, the remainder of this article will address them briefly.
How to get a foot in the door?
Whereas the national level is represented in EU decision-making in the Council of the EU (and of course—though not in legislative terms—in the European Council), the only formal channel of regional representation at the EU level is the Committee of the Regions. However, due to its consultative function, it lacks any formal power in influencing EU decision-making. Regional political actors (including parliaments) thus need to find alternative or additional ways for getting a foot in the door at the European level. They could do so through the various channels available within the constitutional and political framework at their member state level. On the other hand, they could address the institutional actors at the EU level directly, i.e. the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council.
Focusing on this latter aspect, an interesting debate emerged at the Parliamentary-Voices-Conference as to whether or not regional parliaments should simply increase their lobbying activities vis-à-vis the Brussels’ institutions, just as interest groups and others have successfully done in the past in order to get their views heard and included in EU decision-making. Whereas Gabriele Abels (University of Tübingen) highlighted the different roles and functions of regional parliaments as opposed to interest or lobby groups, Andreas Maurer (University of Innsbruck) suggested that members of regional parliaments should do exactly what interest or lobby groups do if they want their claims to be heard at the EU level: start ‘lobbying’ the EU institutions just as others do.
Required for democracy but strategically unattractive: Why getting a foot in the door?
In scholarly literature, we can find strong claims for strengthening regional (parliamentary) actors in EU decision-making. One argument in this respect is the necessary inclusion of regional interests and expertise, assuming that these differ from national ones. Anna-Lena Högenauer and Gabriele Abels (2017: 260), for instance, argue that given their distinctive territorial focus, ‘regional parliaments do indeed have the potential to contribute a distinct perspective to EU policy-making’.
Another line of reasoning highlights the importance of regional parliaments as part of an EU ‘multilevel parliamentarianism’ that would strengthen EU democracy. From this perspective, the current lack of regional parliaments’ (self-)involvement in EU policy-making is part of the puzzle of the EU’s democratic deficit. Or, as Peter Bursens (2019: 189) aptly put it, ‘not the EP but rather national and regional parliaments are the place to look when aspiring to increase EU democratic legitimacy’.
Both these arguments are straightforward and convincing. But why would regional parliaments and MPs get involved in EU affairs more actively in the first place, given the lack of an electoral channel linking regional (as well as national) parliaments directly to the EU level? Or, to put it differently, can we reasonably count on behavioral change without institutional change?
Panelists at the conference addressed this question from different angles and with different arguments. Considering the current unlikeliness of EU institutional change (i.e. EU treaty revision), Peter Bursens (University of Antwerp) called for a stronger ‘Europeanization’ of national and regional parliaments. This, he continued, would require behavioral change in order to close what he labelled the ‘opportunity-practice-gap’, arguing that members of regional (and also national) parliaments already had various options for getting involved in EU affairs but hardly used them.
However, as emphasized by Eric Miklin (University of Salzburg), such behavioral change among members of parliament (MPs) is not very likely to occur without institutional change. Linking national MPs’ behavior in parliament to party goals, Miklin argued that there was not much to gain for MPs from engaging more actively in EU affairs, neither with a view to their policy seeking attempts nor for vote seeking (and office seeking a priori drops out here for obvious reasons). This argument can easily be stretched to regional parliaments, whose MPs probably have even less incentives to get involved in EU affairs.
Getting their act together
So far, this article may read as quite a sobering assessment of regional parliaments’ involvement in EU affairs. However, there is actually a lot going on regarding regional parliaments’ activities in this respect, as the following examples shall illustrate.
Participating in a joint initiative of the Committee of the Regions together with CALRE, the Conference of European Regional Legislative Assemblies, a number of regional parliaments currently work together with the aim of strengthening their involvement in the EU legislative process. One of the objectives of this two-year pilot project is to get regional parliaments’ views heard in the drafting process of the European Commission’s Annual Work Program, as Tobias Gotthardt, Member of the Bavarian State Parliament and Chair of its European affairs committee, explained during the Parliamentary Voices Conference.
Joining forces is also the aim of yet another initiative that could be viewed as a promising indication towards a ‘Europeanization’ in regional parliaments activities and practice. In December 2019, the chairs of the European affairs committees of German state parliaments agreed to launch EUROVORS, an informal conference bringing together the European affairs committee chairs in order to coordinate their position vis-à-vis the German federal government as well as the Brussels institutions.
As these examples indicate, regional MPs do seem to find their reasons for and ways to getting their act together and actively engage in EU politics, both within their member states and directly at the EU level. Hence despite the general low degree of a ‘Europeanization’ of regional parliaments as observed in scholarly literature, these are promising signs towards a diminishing of the reported ‘opportunity-practice- gap’ in the future. Just as is the case with research in the field, what is needed now in these political activities is more empirical spread across Europe in order not to only hear the voices of the ‘usual suspects’.
Bursens, P. (2019): The EU’s multilevel parliamentary system: escaping from the trilemma of market integration, national democracy and sovereignty. In: G. Abels, J. Battke (eds): Regional Governance in the EU. Regions and the Future of Europe. Edgar Elgar Publishing, 177-193.
Högenauer, A., Abels, G. (2017): Conclusion: regional parliaments – a distinct role in the EU? The Journal of Legislative Studies, Vol 23(2), 260-273.