How does turnover of members affect the work of Committees in the European Parliament? David Alexander sets out the findings of his ESRC research.
The European Parliament (EP) has undergone a dramatic evolution in its role as a legislative actor over the comparatively short-period since its establishment. The EP has transformed from being a non-elected consultative ‘talking shop’ into becoming a fully elected co-legislator representing the democratic interests of the people of Europe. While the EP, as a single entity, has been the subject of significant, and growing amounts of, academic attention (with some notable examples from Tsebelis, Kreppel, Hix et al, Whitaker and Yordanova), the system of committees, which the Parliament uses to operate efficiently, has been woefully neglected despite its vital (and growing) importance to the formation of the EP’s position on all legislation. The role and importance of EP committees has grown significantly since the Treaty of Lisbon (ToL) (enacted in 2009 for the start of the 7th term), which recognized the EP as a full co-legislator alongside the Council of Ministers, with the extension of co-decision under the default application of the ‘Ordinary Legislative Procedure’ (OLP). It is particularly puzzling, however, that while all EP committees enjoy the same legislative powers since the ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon, some committees continue to be more influential than others.
Before the ToL, differences between the levels of influence of committees could have been attributed to a disparity of formal powers. Previously some committees operated under co-decision (more influential) whereas others did not (less influential). The understanding of what renders parliamentary committees influential has often focused on one dominant explanatory factor, the formal rules of legislative institutions, along with some focus on expertise. A disparity of formal powers has, however, now been eliminated as a variable impacting committee influence with the almost blanket application of OLP, in the case of the EP. Focus must, therefore, fall upon the potential role of expertise and how committees may draw upon it as a source of committee influence.
Committees are designed to facilitate data collection and the dissemination of information by its members with the object of increasing legislative efficiency. Uncertainty inevitably exists within policy-making and no actor can guarantee the position they support will successfully address the policy issues at hand. Members by acquiring expertise and specialization can reduce uncertainty and therefore propose better solutions avoiding unforeseen costs that no member wishes to incur. The more expertise on ‘policy making’ that a committee collectively possesses, the more influence as a legislative actor it should have.
‘Policy making expertise’ is the collection of information from the political experience that members acquire through the process of making policy. Learning from experience what legislation could be passed in a system, and what would be unacceptable to the other legislative actors who have formal veto or amendment rights, enables members to develop an ‘institutional memory’ which benefits the overall influence of the committee they serve upon. This process of institutional learning, and understanding the limitations of different political policy options, will only occur over time with greater institutional experience and the development of institutional relationships. When members who have built up policy making experience and institutional memory leave a committee, normally via the natural turnover of elections, the years of policy experience they have accumulated are lost from the committee, and as a result ‘policy making expertise’ is perceived, under current conventions, as being adversely influenced by membership turnover.
As part of the investigation, 30 elite interviews were conducted with Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), MEP’s assistants and committee secretariat, from three, highly influential, case study committees, the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee (ENVI) the Budgets Committee (BUDG) and the International Trade Committee (INTA). Comparative committee membership turnover rates, entering the 7th and the 8th parliamentary terms, are shown in figure 1. Before any fieldwork was conducted it was expected, as convention would dictate, that committees with higher membership turnover would display a lower level of influence; results, however, identified some novel and interesting observations.
From the evidence collected it would appear that some of the current conventions, regarding membership retention levels, may not accurately account for the realities of committee influence. Membership turnover was evident within the selected cases, as operating in such ways as to positively benefit a committee’s overall legislative influence. The institutional memory of a member may not guarantee continued, or exponential, growth in associated informational benefits, and membership longevity may only benefit a committee’s influence for a finite period. In order to remain influential a committee may have to undergo a level of turnover which removes members who are past their (‘expiration date’) policy making prime, and replace them with ‘new blood’ members who revitalise and ‘refresh’ the committee with new policy making ideas and initiatives. Once a member reaches an ‘expiry date’ they may no longer act as an asset to the committee’s influence but become a detriment, acting as a ‘roadblock’, or ‘bottle-neck’, to original and innovative policy making solutions.
In an equivalent manner to the benefits of keeping democratic representation refreshed with regular elections, a regular turnover of committee members has a tangible impact on the continued relevance and influence of committees by preventing the stagnation that is an anathema to any good democratic system. However, due to the limited small-n approach of this study, wider testing is required to determine the general application of these findings to wider parliamentary and legislative systems. Nevertheless, the snapshot of results, shown here, highlights several new exciting avenues for future research, which are being pursued actively.
David Alexander is an ESRC Scholar who was recently awarded his PhD (subject to corrections) from the University of Glasgow.
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