ECPR Standing Group on Parliaments

1-2 July 2021.

Game-Changer or Old Wine in a New Bottle?
The Impact of the Pandemic on Democracy in the EU

Panel Chair: Eric Miklin
Discussant: Aleksandra Maatsch

Without doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic generated an unprecedented global crisis that not only affected our health, but also many other aspects of our lives. In March 2021 it has been exactly one year since the WHO recognized the coronavirus as a pandemic. While the crisis is not over yet, it is therefore time to take stock of its impact so far: To what extent has the COVID-19 crisis affected representative democracy at the national and supranational level? Has it triggered parliamentary decline, empowerment or perhaps no change at all? Do we observe one dominant or perhaps various trends and how can we make sense of such patterns?

While a pandemic in a globalized world is a new phenomenon, representative democracy in ‘crisis-mode’ is by no means new. In fact, ten years ago the Eurozone has been destabilized by a very profound economic crisis. The EU and its member states’ responses to this crisis have received a significant amount of scholarly attention, which has provided important insights. Responses to the Eurozone crisis have entailed a trade-off between efficiency and democratic legitimacy. On one hand, a crisis requires that decision-makers react quickly in order to cope with the challenge. Usually, a crisis-situation cannot be foreseen and hence the decision-makers lack clear-cut instructions. On the other hand, ad-hoc decisions by the executive usually undermine democratic legitimacy as extraordinary measures escape democratic control and scrutiny. As a result, responding to the financial crisis resulted in an empowerment of executive actors vis-à-vis to national and European parliamentary actors in the short but also in the longer run (see e.g. the limited role of the European Parliament in the European Semester). With crisis-mode increasingly becoming the ‘new normal’ within the EU, we therefore also raise the question about potential differences in the impact of both economic crisis on representative democracy on the national and European level: Is the Covid-19 crisis simply ‘old wine in new bottles’ or do we observe different patterns when comparing it to the Eurozone crisis? If the latter, how can we explain these differences?

We welcome case-studies and comparative papers examining the politics of the crisis/crises (Under which circumstances did representative democracy prove so far prove to be more or less resilient?), but also papers looking at the impact that respective differences across member states and/or crises have had on the (efficiency of the) measures adopted to respond to the challenges posed.

The Role of the European Parliament in the Establishment of the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF): A Rebound Opportunity?

Ermela Gianna (University of Salzburg, Salzburg Centre of European Union Studies)

The year 2020 has been a turbulent one: what initiated as a health crisis soon transformed into a deep economic crisis, probably deeper than that of 2008. This challenge forced the European Union (EU) to find new solutions to appease the economic and social impact of the Covid-19 crisis. The decision to establish a Recovery and Resilience Fund (RRF), which will be responsible for the recovery after the pandemic, is the centrepiece of this common European effort and a key instrument to show unity and responsiveness towards European citizens. Therefore, this paper analyses the role that the European Parliament (EP) has played in providing responses to the crisis. The paper compares the role that the EP has played in the RRF with past efforts in crisis decision-making during the Eurozone crisis (2010-2012), where, despite its eagerness, the EP played a very limited role. The paper builds on existing theoretical accounts of EP empowerment and influence in crisis decision-making and uses process tracing based on document analysis and interviews of key decision-maker to determine to what extent the EP has influenced the negotiations according to its preferences, and whether it has thereby managed to increase its powers.

Democracy in Lockdown: Concentration of Powers in the European Parliament under COVID-19

Ariadna Ripoll Servent (Salzburg University, Salzburg Centre of European Union Studies)

The Covid-19 crisis poses a particular problem for parliamentary democracy: how to uphold the main democratic principles if parliamentarians cannot meet? Internally, assemblies need to adapt to a sudden process of digitalisation and remote participation; externally, the crisis disrupts legislative processes and the capacity to shape policy. This is all the more noticeable on the European Union (EU) level, where crises often lead to a competition for leadership between executive and legislative powers. This paper builds on a survey of and in-depth interviews with members and staff of the European Parliament to examine how the pandemic has affected legislative work. It argues that the move to remote work has heavily disrupted the formal and informal practices underpinning coalition-building inside the European Parliament. As a result, power has become even more concentrated in the hands of office holders – ensuring ‘business continuity’ in legislative work but weakening oversight mechanisms from backbenchers and outside groups. Therefore, while the European Parliament has been very successful in keeping the institution working and ensuring that decisions can be made in the European Union, the move to remote has shown the importance of face-to-face interactions to ensure that Parliament is not reduced to a rubber-stamping machine.

A Hamiltonian moment for European Solidarity? Domestic Ratifications of the European Financial Stability Facility and the Own Resources Decision.

Carlos Closa Montero (Spanish National Research Council, CSIC and European University Institute, EUI) and Aleksandra Maatsch (Willy Brandt Centre for German and European Studies, University of Wrocław)

This paper examines whether the current crisis generated by the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the notion of European solidarity during a crisis. We focus on the predominant perceptions among national parliamentarians. We compare two processes that can provide evidence on changing notions of solidarity: domestic ratification process of the European Financial Stability Facility(EFSF) in 2012 and the Own Resources Decision (ORD) in 2021. Both instruments have deep fiscal implications for each state and hence provided the basis for discussing in terms of EU solidarity vs, national self- interests. The paper  inquiries about the factors that drive domestic support and opposition towards the EFSF and the ORD and assesses the change regarding the value of European solidarity for national parliamentarians. We look empirically  at parliamentary plenary debates accompanying the domestic ratification process.

Toward a new form of representative democracy? Introducing a comparative database on parliamentary democracy during the pandemic

Edgars Eihmanis (European University Institute & University of Wrocław)

As we have entered a third wave of COVID-19 with concomitant economic restrictions, there is only a patchy understanding of how European representative democracy has fared since the beginning of the health crisis. As national and European authorities have often reacted by executive orders, to adequately tackle the mounting challenges related to public health and the economy, the role of parliaments have become less clear and understood. This paper is a conceptual and empirical preparation exercise for a comparative database project that aims to shed some light on this knowledge gap. By collecting qualitative and quantitative data on institutional changes in representative democracy at the national and European levels – while also paying close attention to the changing landscape of EU socio-economic governance – the project sets out the following goals: 1) to gain a better understanding of how representative democracy has fared during the pandemic, 2) locate these institutional changes in a broader theoretical and empirical context of the global financial crisis and the sovereign debt crisis, and 3) serve as an empirical basis for comparative research designs. More specifically, the paper sets out to: a) review the literature on representative democracy at the national and supranational level since the two aforementioned crises; b) review the emerging literature on representative democracy during the pandemic; c) develop a preliminary coding scheme for organizing raw data, based on the existing scholarly and press accounts; d) discuss a rationale for selection of country cases from Europe’s Northern, Southern and Eastern regions; e) identify potential empirical research strategies, including strategies for obtaining primary and secondary data. If successful, the paper would facilitate building a team of fellow academics and country experts, willing to contribute to the construction of the comparative database and subsequently engage in research collaborations.

Parliamentary outreach and the pandemic

Alex Prior (University of East Anglia)

This paper presents the first results from a case study on parliamentary responses to COVID-19, conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union as part of a joint report (with the United Nations Development Program) on how parliaments engage with publics. The findings for this case study are based on an extensive research program, including a literature review (of institutional responses to COVID-19 and other historical crises) as well as a focus group with representatives from a diverse range of countries. In doing so we discuss the importance of continued public engagement during times of crisis, when citizens’ demands for information from their representatives increases substantially. We also discuss the various political, institutional and technological challenges to parliaments, and the ways in which parliaments respond to these challenges. These responses include an increased focus on core functions, a changed application of technology, and attempts to reach ‘offline’ communities and other hard-to-reach groups. This case study also examines the likelihood of these responses enduring beyond the context of COVID-19, and becoming institutionalised as long-term practices. In this way, we will illustrate the challenges and opportunities that COVID-19 has presented (or revealed) to parliaments.