[Editor’s Note: In this installment of I•CONnect’s Book Review Series, Sabrina Ragone reviews Hoai-Thu Nguyen’s book on An Uneven Balance? A Legal Analysis of Power Asymmetries between National Parliaments in the EU (Eleven Publishing, 2018).]
—Sabrina Ragone, Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law, University of Bologna.
The volume An Uneven Balance? A Legal Analysis of Power Asymmetries between National Parliaments in the EU (Eleven, 2018), by Hoai-Thu Nguyen reads the evolution of parliamentary involvement within the EU through the lens of the financial crisis, showing to what extent asymmetry among parliaments shall be considered as a keystone to analyze the topic. In this regard, she focuses on the implications on representative democracy, which embodies the main conceptual point of reference of the examination (p. 11 ff.), as she claims that the financial and monetary crisis carried a democratic dimension (p. 1).
The author describes the different stages of the debates on domestic parliaments and their changing role over time, according to the transformations of European integration as a whole–in particular, from an international to a supranational endeavor (pp. 25-42). More specifically, she identifies three major phases which have preceded the changes introduced by the Lisbon Treaty: i) 1950s-1970s; ii) 1980s-mid 1990s; iii) since the Mid 1990s. The next part of the book examines the powers allotted by the Lisbon Treaty to both national parliaments and the European Parliament (pp. 42-68), as they jointly perform representative functions with respect to European citizens. The reinforcing effect of the clauses embedded in this Treaty was thwarted by the pivotal role played by the executives in the years of the financial and monetary crises, which happened simultaneously to the entry into force of the Treaty. The impact of the sovereign debt crisis is analyzed in detail in chapter 6 (p. 139 ff.). Nevertheless, this phenomenon did not appear consistently all over Europe, as the loss of powers did not affect all parliaments equally.
A wide section of the volume, consisting in chapters 4 and 5 (pp. 69-138), concerns the EU-related powers of the two parliamentary bodies selected as case studies: the German Bundestag and the Irish Dáil Éireann, which represent respectively a creditor-big Member State and a debtor-small Member State. Of course, also the unique position recognized to the Bundestag vis-à-vis the executive and EU institutions in the case law of the German Federal Constitutional Court must have been taken into account (see p. 70).
Building upon this reconstruction, the author critically assesses the impact of the crisis on democracy within the EU, offering a few suggestions on how to improve the role of the European Parliament and national legislatures in the light of the power imbalances that emerged during the crisis. In particular, with respect to the Economic and Monetary Union (EMU), she recalls/elaborates several proposals, such as the equalization of the European Parliament (EP) with the Council, the strengthening of the EP’s participation in the so-called European Semester, or the reinforcement of the EP’s scrutiny on the EU Minister of Finance. The idea of establishing a separate parliamentary assembly for the Eurozone is discussed as well (p. 187). As far as domestic parliaments are concerned, the author focuses on interparliamentary cooperation as a possible way forward (p. 205), with reference to the Conference of Speakers of the European Union Parliaments, the COSAC, as well as the organization of joint meetings on topics of common interest, or the interparliamentary Conference on Economic Governance, among others.
Comparatively, the analysis of the asymmetries is of the greatest interest. Hoai-Thu Nguyen addresses the cleavage between Eurozone Member States and the Member States which have not entered into the common currency, as some legal sources are applicable exclusively to the first category (p. 144 ff.). A second layer of comparison concerns the members of the Eurozone internally, as they differ in constitutional and political arrangements, especially with reference to the potential control and guidance to the corresponding executive (p. 152 ff.). Although the strengthening of the executives is a general trend in times of crisis, at the European and at the national level, in some Member States this was more emphasized, as empirical data prove from both a legal and a practical perspective (as it was shown by K. Auel, O. Höing, “Scrutiny in Challenging Times – National Parliaments in the Eurozone Crisis”, SIEPS European Policy Analysis, November, issue 2013. Finally, also with respect to non-Eurozone Member States, a further distinction becomes relevant, between those that have entered into the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance and those that have not, in light of the reduction of budgetary rights of the parliaments of the first ones.
Overall, the risk connected to these phenomena is the consolidation of asymmetries between “first class” and “second class” parliaments, that carry as a consequence the existence of different degrees of democracy at the domestic level (see A. Benz, “An Asymmetric Two-level Game. Parliaments in the Euro Crisis”, in B. Crum, J.E. Fossum (eds), Practices of Interparliamentary Coordination in International Politics, Routledge, 2013, p. 125 ff. and S. Ragone, “La incidencia de la crisis en la distribución interna del poder entre parlamentos y gobiernos nacionales”, in Revista de Derecho Constitucional Europeo, n. 24, 2015, pp. 527-550). The book sheds light on the overlapping cleavages and differences within EU Member States that became clear during the financial crisis and are currently being revitalized in the context of the COVID-19 emergency, being a useful tool to address the current situation characterized by new asymmetries and cleavages, such as the “frugal” vs. “sympathetic” countries.
Suggested Citation: Sabrina Ragone, Review of “An Uneven Balance? A Legal Analysis of Power Asymmetries between National Parliaments in the EU ” (Hoai-Thu Nguyen), Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, Dec. 24, 2020, at: http://www.iconnectblog.com/2020/12/book-review-sabrina-ragone-on-an-uneven-balance-a-legal-analysis-of-power-asymmetries-between-national-parliaments-in-the-eu-hoai-thu-nguyen/
The book review by Professor Sabrina Ragone of “An Uneven Balance? A Legal Analysis of Power Asymmetries between National Parliaments in the EU” written by Professor Hoai-Thu Nguyen is timely and pertinent. This assumes greater significance in the current context of the COVID-19 global pandemic. There is a feeling among few quarters that autocracies have performed better than democracies in combating the deadly pandemic. It is a matter of study and research. The tug of war between the executive and legislature in a functioning democracy is a well-known phenomenon. It is a topic of recurrent debate in the democratic systems of government. There exists a healthy competition between the executive and legislature to exercise more power to tackle the crises emerging from time to time. The constitutionalists are, however, right in getting worried by any real or perceived imbalance created on account of this struggle for domination between the legislative and executive institutions. Free, frank, and cordial debate and discussion help a lot in clearing doubts on such vital issues. In that sense, this valuable academic work plays a role of catalyst in enriching this indispensable democratic exercise.
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