Keeping a Watchful Eye: Parliamentary Oversight of EU institutions during Crises
The backlash against international organizations has increased the demand for supervision of international institutions. Our article, “Smoke with Fire: Financial Crises and the Demand for Parliamentary Oversight in the European Union” examines the economic roots of calls to scrutinize European Union institutions. Specifically, we study the parliamentary adoption of and debates over EU oversight institutions in the midst of the 2008-09 global financial crisis.
We identify monetary pegs, and especially membership to the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), as a major trigger for EU oversight. On the one hand, we note, Eurozone membership limits the policy flexibility of member governments and their interest in monitoring how the European institutions manage the crisis. On the other hand, calls for oversight depend on the intensity of the crisis and the perceived need to grant leeway to the crisis managers. Consequently, we contend that Euro parliaments spent time debating the scrutiny of European supranational institutions, but that timing and intensity of these debates were carefully selected.
We investigate our argument with two datasets. The first one focuses on the adoption of formal oversight institutions (e.g. scrutiny mandates). Specifically, we use yearly historical data that records any adoption of legal oversight mechanisms for 25 EU countries (1957-2010). This data draws from the empirical work of other scholars (e.g. Winzen), and shows that Euro parliaments have indeed been less likely to adopt EU oversight institutions compared to non-EMU members. This is the case since the 1980s, and also at the peak of the recent crisis. Additionally, in 2009, economically “healthier” EMU countries were not significantly more likely to pass EU oversight mandates than more indebted EMU countries (Figure 1).
To explore whether Euro parliaments exchanged views on oversight mechanisms, we introduce a new dataset about parliamentary debates from three Eurozone countries: France, Germany, and Italy. To collect this data, we analyzed plenary parliamentary debates. We focused on parliamentary sessions dealing with ‘economic stability’, ‘crisis management’ and ‘EU institutions’ between 2007 and 2014, the core crisis years. We found 154 debates for Germany (Bundestag), 133 for France (Assembĺée nationale), and 97 for Italy (Camera dei Deputati). Coding based on dictionary with 20 words, we were able to identify the debates’ average (pro- or anti-scrutiny) sentiment. As Figure 2 shows, the three countries had different levels of parliamentary positions - however, the pro-scrutiny sentiment (black solid line) is less dynamic in 2012, the lowest point of the Euro crisis. This indicates that, when banks’ liquidation and soaring bond yields affected the Euro countries the most (dashed/colored lines), national parliamentarians chose to stay more quiet about EU institutions, in order to (presumably) let them govern. Statistical models corroborate these findings.
Our new dataset has of course some limits. It is concentrated on large European countries, and may only be relevant for comparisons with other parliamentary democracies. However, the data speaks to ways of measuring issue-specific debates and related parliamentary sentiments for (inter)national control beyond Europe and the global financial crisis. The data collection can be easily extended to other parliamentary institutions discussing the supervision of international organizations such as the WTO. It can also be prolonged to recent years, and is well suited to explore sovereignty concerns and threats of oversight, for example, since the outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent international agreements such as COVAX or, in Europe, Next Generation EU.
Figure 1: Adoption of EU Oversight Institutions in Selected European Countries. Lines represent an index of institutional oversight adopted in each country. The red bar indicates the beginning of the Great Recession (2008) that led to the Euro crisis; it does not refer to country-specific crises. All of these countries are in the Euro apart from Bulgaria.
Figure 2: Variation of Support for Scrutiny of EU institutions. The figure shows the variation of pro-scrutiny sentiment as recorded in the French, German and Italian parliamentary debates (black lines). The graph also shows the Greek 10-year bond yields and the ECB deposit rate as the two main indicators of the Euro crisis.