The Parliamentary Decline Thesis and the Options for Reform

The Parliamentary Decline Thesis and the Options for Reform

Parliaments are the law enacting arms of government. Over the years, legislatures have come under sharp criticism for its failure to perform its oversight role and the executive interference. Parliament, as the core institution with the systems of representative democracy, has been questioned over its ability to represent the citizens adequately. In particular, the European Parliament has been criticized over its failure to make collective binding decisions due to what has been term as the ‘relocation of politics’. The politics have shifted to new arenas of decision making including transnational and supranational arenas as well as collective decision-making areas involving private and semi-private actors (Hupe and Edwards 177). The decentralization of decision-making authority to parties that lack formal electoral authorization and electoral accountability creates a situation of power without representation. The decisions enacted through such arena are not representative of the power of the people who are entitled to choose their representatives through a legitimate process.

Academic evidence shows that there is decreasing legitimacy on the side of legislature due to the low election turnout, diminishing party identification and increasing demand for group recognition. The decreasing legitimacy has undermined the representation link between political institutions and the voting population resulting in a representation without participation. The parliamentarians elected through an electoral process end up not participating in laws that affect the electorate, but rather allows outside parties to engage in the delicate process. It can be either voluntary or involuntary depending on the source of the power. In most cases, the executive arm of government may dominate the role of parliament in making critical decisions. Such occurrences diminish the traditional political institutions that are formally authorized and xelectorally accountable to undertake legislative functions.

In the case of the EU Integration, the public debate focuses of the Parliamentary decline thesis. The European Integration has led to the transfer of the major decision-making functions from the national level to the European Union level. The transfer has resulted in the loss of legislative competencies from the national legislature, who have no contribution in the European policy making. Therefore, the problem of representation without corresponding powers is seen as one of the issues that require immediate attention. The European Parliament is not able to demonstrate the policy making function formerly provided by the national parliament. With the increase in the parliamentary powers of European Parliament, the focus now changes on the lack of electoral connection between the citizens and the legitimate Members of parliaments. The European citizen’s representatives are unable to perform their powers appropriately creating a growing gap in parliamentary legitimacy.

An Account of De-Parliamentarisation

The parliamentary decline thesis majorly discussed the context of European Integration. The problem of European integration for national parliament representation is a topic of focus for most scholars. The issue sparked debate following the institutional reforms that suggested a move towards direct elections and the greater involvement in the parliamentary process. The scenario changed following the ratification of Maastricht Treaty and the ‘Maastricht decision” by the German Constitutional Court (BVerfGE 155). The court argued that the legitimacy of the European Union had to be tied along the national parliaments as the central legislature institutions representing the European citizens. Debate ensued on the democratic legitimacy of the European Union that brought the national parliaments into the limelight as the victims of the integration process. The Integration process was a case of de-democratization, and it painted the European Union negatively (Reimund 79).

The integration of the European Union weakened the national parliaments by withdrawing its powers and taking them to the European Union level. One of the effects of this change is the loss of agenda-setting powers. Following the integration, the agenda making powers were delegated to the European Union. Parliaments lost their powers to set laws for binding decisions on policies that would be applicable domestically. Also, the integration allowed the delegation of decision-making function to EU institutions. The delegation gave policy-making powers to the Council, European Parliament, the Commission and other EU actors within the body. The national parliaments also lost their right to make the final decisions on proposed laws. The EU law receives the approval from the Council of Ministers, European Parliament, European Commission, and other agencies. The national parliament only reserves the right to amend or delay the laws depending on the type of EU legislation. However, in the end, the state legislatures are forced to comply with the EU enacted legislation. The European Council acts as a collective actor, and when the body decides under consensus, single Council members are allowed to veto a decision, but cannot enforce a decision against the will of the other Council members. In a case where the Council uses qualified majority voting, the council members can still be outvoted.

Due to the loss of the parliamentary participation and co-decision rights under the European Integration, national statutes give parliaments rights to comprehensive information on EU affairs as well the participation rights on the formulation of a national decision on the European Union decisions. Also, they have specific competencies regarding ratification of EU treaties and the changing of EU legislations. Declaration 13, added to the Maastricht Treaty was the first to recognize the role of national parliaments. Further, the national parliaments are given explicit roles in European politics via the Lisbon Treaty (Norton 14). The treaty recognizes national parliaments are the guardians of the Subsidiarity principle. Although these conventions demonstrate that the European Union recognizes national parliaments, there is evidence to show that they are still alienated in most of the vital processes. The majority of the national parliaments adapted to the European Integration by creating European Affairs Committees that are more active in acting as a watchdog. Studies show that the national parliaments remain marginalized in European Union lawmaking process.

Parliamentary Decline and Autonomy. In parliamentary democracies, there is a direct relationship between the executive arm of government and the citizens. The legislative arm of government acts as the mediator between the government and the people. The citizens elect parliamentarians through an electoral process and the elected persons vote for the government. Therefore, the government is accountable to the legislature and the legislature is liable to the citizens who elected them. The parliament enacts legislations and also has supervisory roles in the national government. The members of parliament perform a watchdog function on behalf of the people and has to keep the government in check (Norton 9). The legislative and control functions are integral to parliamentary democracy and the most important function, and if transferred to another body, parliament remains a useless institution. Typically, scholars argue that the house is not as powerful as the official account implies. In reality, it is a public institution in decline and not doing the representative function it is supposed to carry out (Flinders and Kelso 251). They argued that parliaments no longer served the original spirit of parliamentarian, and were at odds with parliamentary democracy. High public expectations about the role of parliament have contributed to the notion of parliamentary decline. Flinders and Kelso point out that the balance of power has shifted between the executive and legislature for the executive over the years. There is a consensus that the house is not as powerful as it once was.

On the question of whether to rely on a majoritarian government or a minority government, the independence of Parliament takes precedence. In a majoritarian government, a single party government controls the parliament, and it is dependence on the cohesion of the ruling party, and this is in itself dependent on party loyalty of its members of parliament. As long as party MPs remains cohesive, then the executive will enjoy the support of its majority parliamentarians (Sigalas 4). However, if the MPs loyalty is in doubt, then the ruling government must consider the views of the dissenting voices, backbenchers, and the opposition party MPs. Therefore, the more cohesive the governing party is, the tighter the executive becomes and the less independent the parliament becomes. A stronger executive will result in a weaker parliament, and therefore majority of the legislations will favor the executive function. The supervisory roles of parliament will be undermined since no member of the governing party will oppose their masters.

The political autonomy of parliament is conceptually related to the parliamentary independence. The political autonomy refers to parliament’s real freedom to practice to perform its control and legislative functions. When there is greater respect for parliamentary powers and its engagement of the executive with opposition, the legislative and oversight responsibilities of parliament will be more meaningful, and the institution will be more autonomous. In contrast, when the executive disregards the parliamentary duties and ignores the input of opposition and backbenchers, there will be a greater damage to the legislative autonomy (James 116). Even in a majoritarian parliament, the parliament does not always oppose the government. Also, the government does not continuously oppose the opposition MPs. The fear of ignoring sufficient voters makes the government sensitive to disagreements as it may paint a bad picture to the electorate.

Parliamentary Influence in European Union Affairs. The EU affairs are mostly challenging to the national parliaments due to the technical and complex nature of European policy. Nevertheless, the national parliaments have constituted specialized standing committees that handle such affairs. Also, legislatures may establish specialized administrative units and filter committees to support the work of the special committees. Taking into account the complex nature of European Union decision-making, the national parliaments can only influence one representative in the Council, who is turn tasked with influencing the other Council members. If the member is overwhelmed in a Quality Mature Voting (QMV), then the power will be worthless. Unless the national parliaments are given right of veto in EU, then their influence in the European Council decisions will be limited. Also, the policy-making function remains at the EU level, and the national parliaments have little or no power in the decision-making process.

The loss of the legislative powers to EU compares to the golden age that existed long before the formation of the EU. During that period, Lord Bryce lamented the decline in legislatures due to the growing influence of parties that limited the ability of MPs to contribute their opinions freely (Bryce 176). Due to the rise of party representations and governments, legislative powers shifted from the duality between parliamentarians and executive to the duality of government and its governing party versus the opposition. The executive therefore dominated the policy making the process even though the legislators had a significant degree of influence over the policy contents.

Options for Reform. One of the suggested changes is empowering national parliaments by provided them with co-decision and participation rights. The national parliaments will have the ability to raise parliamentary awareness of European Union affairs and strengthen the scrutiny process. The European Parliament should grant the federal parliament more participation in the EU Council since they are more representative of the citizens (MacCarthaigh 21). They should also involve the Parliament in the formulation of legislations by allowing discussions on the floor of the house. Such discussions will get public support since their representatives are involved, unlike situations where the EU parliament takes control of the whole decision-making process. Enhancing the influence of parliament will create an interactive relationship between the national parliaments and their respective governments.

There should be a second legislation for laws in the national parliament. The European integration took away the legislative powers of national parliament leaving them toothless institutions. The European Parliament is solely responsible for enacting policies that affect the citizens as a whole. Thus, their policy making ability is limited since the number of members contributing to the debates are limited and are not representative of the people. Therefore, national parliaments should be given priority in policy making since this is one of their essential functions. Laws made by the national parliament will represent the public views resulting in a greater public support. Also, the European has become more involved in the politics of the EU, and therefore requires the approval of national parliaments to affirm the legitimacy of its legislative functions.


From the analysis of the parliament decline thesis and other literature, it’s true that parliaments are losing their power to the legislature. In the case of European Union, the EU integration weakened the national parliaments by delegating their policy-making role to the European Parliament. The delegation has undermined the role of national parliaments play the representation role on behalf of the citizens. The situation is the same in other nation’s legislatures where the executive takes over the functions of the legislature. As a result, parliament is unable to perform independently due to the interruption of its function by higher authorities. In the case of European Union, the national parliaments should be empowered through participation and co-decision in the affairs of the EU affairs. Participation of the national parliament in the affairs of EU parliament will ensure policy are more acceptable than when they are enacted by EU parliament alone. The members of parliament are representative of the electorate and therefore their input into the decision-making process will attract public support. The involvement will also increase public confidence in the EU parliament.








Works Cited

Bryce, James. Modern Democracies. London: MacMillan, 1921.

BVerfGE. “German Constitutional Court, decision on ‘Brunner v European Union Treaty.” BVerfGE (Oct 1993): 89-155.

Flinders, Matthew and Alexandria Kelso. “Mind the Gap: Political Analysis, Public Expectations, and the Parliamentary Decline Thesis.” British Journal of Politics and International Relations 13.2 (2011): 248-268.

Hupe, Peter and Arthur Edwards. “The Accountability of Power: Democracy and Governance in Modern Times.” European Political Science Review 4.2 (2012): 178-190.

James, O. “Evaluating the expectations disconfirmation.” Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory 19.1 (2009): 110-123.

MacCarthaigh, Muiris. “Conceptualizing the Role of National Parliaments in the EU System of Governance.” Discussion Paper. 2005.

Norton, Phillip. “Introduction: The Institution of Parliaments.” Norton, Phillip. Parliaments and Governments in Western Europe. London: Frank Cass, 1998. 1-15.

Norton, Phillip.  “Reforming Parliament in the United Kingdom.” Legislative Studies 6.1 (2000): 2-15.

Reimund, Seidelmann. Democracy-Building in the European Union: Conditions, Problems, and Options. Brussels: University of Brussels, 1995.

Sigalas, Emmanuel. Economic Crisis and Parliamentary Autonomy: Evidence from the Greek Parliament. GPSG Working Paper 25. Leuven, 2016.