Achieving Consensus Through Committees: Does the European Parliament Manage?


  • An earlier version of this article was presented at the ‘EUSA Tenth Biennial International Conference’, Montreal, Canada, 17–19 May 2007. The authors would like to thank all participants, especially Amie Kreppel for her comments as a discussant, as well as two anonymous referees for their extremely helpful input. Pierpaolo Settembri writes in a personal capacity and the views he expresses in this article may not in any circumstances be regarded as stating an official position of the Council.

Pierpaolo Settembri
General Secretariat of the Council of the European Union
175 rue de la Loi
1048 Brussels, BELGIUM
Tel +32 2 281 54 57
email Christine Neuhold
Department of Political Science
University of Maastricht
Grote Gracht 90-92
6200 MD Maastricht, the Netherlands
Tel +31 43 3882537


This article examines the role of the standing committees in building consensus within the European Parliament (EP) and asks whether the ability to fulfil this function has remained stable even in the context of enlarged membership after the June 2004 elections. To this avail, original data have been collected on the voting behaviour in EP committees, from July 1999 through July 2006, and interviews with key players have been conducted. Findings show that committees generally work very consensually, regardless of the issue at stake and the procedure applied. At the same time, the committee system seems to be evolving towards greater differentiation across policy areas and, partially, across legislative procedures.


In the last decade, the European Parliament (EP)1 has been studied from a plethora of angles, ranging from topics such as the analysis of voting behaviour and EP elections to inter-institutional dynamics.2 This article contributes to the literature by answering the following question: how do EP committees reach consensus and has this changed since enlargement?

To tackle these questions, this study engages with the literature on the role of EP committees and the various works on the place of the EP in the EU legislative process. EP committees have unsurprisingly attracted increasing attention in recent years: their revaluation went hand in hand with the fast acquisition of new powers by the EP. They have become a key element in the EU policy-making process and are today seen as a vital contribution to the shaping of legislation, effectively pictured as the ‘legislative backbone’ of the EP (Westlake, 1994, p. 191). Several new studies shed light on these forums, particularly paying attention to appointments to committees, selection of committee chairs and distribution of reports within the committees (Mamadouh and Raunio, 2003; McElroy, 2001; Whitaker, 2005), while others describe in great detail their prerogatives and duties (for example, Corbett et al., 2005). Yet, their political evolution, including the emerging elements of differentiation between committees, has been slightly overlooked, at least from the perspective taken in this article.3

In addition, given the current temporal context, inevitably any study charting the evolution of EP committees must evaluate the impact of enlargement upon them. Like other EU institutions the EP has been exposed to robust pressures as the EU expands from 15 to 27 states, hence exploring the consequences of enlargement upon EP committees is key for the broader understanding of the institution. Yet, identifying the pressures at stake and detecting their repercussions can be, for several reasons, problematic and challenging. Among other things, the impact of the enlargement can hardly be conceived as a homogeneous phenomenon, as the pressures it exerts vary greatly across institutions, policy areas and other dimensions, and that the change these pressures can foster depends very much on the predisposition for change of the institution. EP committees are key political laboratories to track the interaction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe.

Studying EP committees also responds to the need to clarify even further the role of the Parliament as a (co-)legislator. Although the literature on the place of the EP in the legislative process is more developed than the one on its committees, views are still quite divided. In the context of a vast, sophisticated and growing literature, scholars disagree over crucial aspects such as whether and under what conditions the Parliament is a strong and important player. Selck and Steunenberg (2004), for example, provocatively but convincingly argue that, probably because of pure luck, the Parliament shows greater legislative abilities and proves able to pull the outcome closer to its preference under consultation than co-decision procedure. Similarly, against the opinion of the vast majority of scholars and practitioners (Corbett, 2000; Crombez, 2000; Scully, 1997), Tsebelis and Garrett (2000) put forward the controversial and counter-intuitive argument that the EP is more powerful under co-operation than under the co-decision procedure (as introduced by the Treaty of Maastricht: co-decision I). They do concede, however, that co-decision II, i.e. the newer variant of co-decision as reformed by the Amsterdam Treaty, has improved the stance of the EP. Burns (2006) on the other hand challenges this assumption arguing that, after Amsterdam, despite the general increase of powers, the EP is potentially weaker under co-decision II. In the same vein she questions the literature that tends to portray the EP as a unitary institution and – crucially for the purposes of this article – comes to the conclusion that there is scope for conflict between committees (Burns, 2006).4 Moreover, Burns (2005), from a different perspective, finds that the EP is much more influential on regulatory rather than distributive and redistributive issues.

From a theoretical point of view, interest in committees is grounded in the belief that parliamentary procedures may affect political outcomes and that it is therefore desirable to shed light on the organization and functioning rules of legislatures. As Shepsle and Weingast (1994, p. 151) point out, this idea is quite recent: ‘features of legislative structure and process as the committee system [. . .] figured hardly at all in the first-generation formal models’. Explaining how committees operate is the objective of a fructuous literature interested in legislative organization and developed around the US Congress. Over time, three main competing models have been proposed to analyse committees. According to the distributive perspective (Baron, 1991; Weingast and Marshall, 1988), members decide which committee to join, which results in committees dominated by ‘high demanders’ that generate constituency-specific benefits to secure their re-election (Whitaker, 2005, p. 6). On the contrary, Cox and McCubbins (1993) suggest that committees are instruments of the majority party: as a consequence, committee chairs exercise power on behalf of their respective parties (Mattson and Strøm, 1995, p. 255), highly influential positions within committee are predominantly reserved to those that vote with the party, and also transferral to highly popular committees is done according to these criteria. Furthermore the (majority) party is seen to have a firm grip on its members when it comes to house rules and as such can gain control of the institution itself (Cox and McCubbins, 1993, pp. 2 and 278; McElroy, 2001, p. 3). Finally, other scholars regard committees, whose members are considered specialized but not necessarily high demanders, as efficient generators of information (Gilligan and Krehbiel, 1989).

As far as the EP committees are concerned, these models have been applied with parsimony, not least because the EP can hardly be compared to other national legislatures and, similarly, the treatment of its committees requires special caution. If, for example, one follows Norton (1990, p. 1) in defining parliaments as ‘constitutionally designated institutions for giving assent to binding measures of public policy’, then the EP, in many respects, cannot be included in the club. A fortiori, these caveats apply to EP committees. At the same time, however, the committee system is one of the most distinctive and developed features of the EP. Following the typology proposed by Mattson and Strøm (1995, p. 259), the EP structure comprises samples of all the five existing committee variants: there are, for example, cases of (1) ad hoc committees,5 (2) law-making committees by function,6 like the committees on constitutional affairs or on budgets, (3) specialized committees, which are the vast majority, as well as (4) non-law-making committees, like the one on petitions. Eventually, since the introduction of the co-decision procedure, the system also includes an example of a (5) joint committee, namely the conciliation committee.

These rapid references suggest two observations: first of all, that committees play a central role in the ways in which the EP operates and that more studies in this field are needed to shed light on the entire legislature. Second, that in the light of the uncertainty over the comparable nature of the EP and the measurability of its strength, it might be unfortunate to base an analysis of EP committees on the simple assumption that the EP is or can be treated as any other parliament. Therefore, to take into account both concerns, we consider it preferable to embrace a slightly different approach, based on an evaluation and an interpretation of conflict and consensus patterns in EP committees.

There are several reasons in support of this choice. Firstly, it is important to know how parliamentarians behave. Do they eventually decide by consensus or do they split into majority vs minority? Do political groups (individually or in coalition) compete with one another for distinct political outcomes or do they accommodate their preferences within a grand coalition gathering as many of them as possible? Are coalitions stable or do they shift over time and according to policy issues? Does behaviour in plenary differ from behaviour in committee? Depending on the answers, different models of democracy are entitled to be invoked with reference to the EU, thus contributing also to the understanding of its Parliament.

Secondly, it is precisely in this area that innovative findings have been recently presented and have put in question pre-existing knowledge. For many years, scholars unanimously submitted that, consistent with the nature of the political system in which it operated, the EP embodied the features of a consensus institution:7Westlake (1994) effectively portrayed the predominance of a grand coalition within the EP with the colourful image of an ‘oligopoly’ between the two larger political groups. Against this background, however, new studies have recently detected a ‘significant empirical phenomenon in contemporary EU politics: the changing pattern of political competition in the European Parliament (EP), from a “grand coalition” of the two main parties in the 1994–99 parliament, to a new structure of left–right competition in the 1999–2004 parliament’ (Hix et al., 2003, p. 75).8 Coherently, they conclude that the EP is ‘very much a “normal” parliament, where political parties organize and compete as vigorously as in domestic parliaments in Europe’ (Hix et al., 2003, p. 6).

Thirdly and crucially, there is a serious gap in the literature. Whereas the above conclusion is reached on the basis of voting records in EP plenary,9 there has been no attempt so far at testing the solidity of the argument by looking at voting behaviour in EP committees. At the same time as making the ‘normal parliament’ thesis vulnerable, this limitation suggests that charting voting behaviour in EP committee is not simply an isolated step toward a better understanding of Parliament, but a crucial move forward in theory testing. And the fact that this evaluation was carried out across the 2004 enlargement – the greatest the EU has ever experienced – makes the test more credible. It is not suggested, nevertheless, that enlargement changes the consensual nature of the Parliament. On the contrary, the working hypothesis is that, despite the greater political diversity existing in EP6 and contrary to the ‘normal parliament’ thesis, committees are real consensus-builders and that they are as successful in fulfilling this function after enlargement as they were before it.

The rest of the article is organized as follows: section I explains the limits and the merits of our data, including a description of some key indexes applied to our quantitative evidence; section II presents the main findings, on the basis of quantitative information, whereas section III, on the basis of some preliminary interviews, offers an interpretation of the changes detected in the previous section and suggests the next steps to improve the explanations proposed in this article. The conclusion summarizes the general findings.

I. The Data: Limitations and Assets

The extent to which the ‘real’ nature of the EP can be grasped and the role of its committees in building consensus appreciated depends very much on the quality (and quantity) of empirical evidence available. Due to the complexity of the phenomena under analysis, the dimensions of parliamentary activity to be considered would be too numerous. Among others, this work privileges two combined approaches. On the one hand, it looks at voting behaviour: this is perhaps the most understudied dimension of EP committees, despite the fact that voting behaviour as such is very common for the study of legislatures (for example, Poole and Rosenthal, 1997) and voting behaviour in plenary is one of the most developed fields in the study of the EP. On the other hand, this article offers selected qualitative evidence to shed light on the specific mechanisms that determine the politics of committees.

Studying voting behaviour in the EP is challenging. Roll call votes – the only votes providing information on how each MEP voted – only take place if requested by a political group or (currently) 37 MEPs10 and account, in total, for roughly just one-third of EP votes (Hix et al., 2006). Moreover, they cannot be treated as a representative sample of the entire population of EP votes because the reality that they picture is biased by the reasons underlying their request (Carrubba et al., 2003). When it comes to committees, however, the challenge of studying voting behaviour is even more severe, as there are no roll call votes at all. Yet, committees do vote on amendments and on the final legislative resolution that is sent to the plenary for adoption. The overall result of these votes is recorded and there are various reasons to pay attention to them. Compared to roll call votes in plenary, the information provided by committee votes on final texts in committee is certainly poorer: records of such votes do not give an indication of the way individual members voted (unless, obviously, the vote is unanimous). By revealing the number of ‘Yes’, ‘No’ and ‘Abstain’, final votes in committee represent the magnitude of the consensus on a text, revealing at the same time the size of the supporting and opposing camps.


Figure 1: Standard Deviation


Figure 2: Index of Political Perturbation

To exploit this potential, all 945 final legislative reports adopted during the period of July 1999 to July 2001 and July 2004 to July 2006 have been collected and analysed with respect to the number of deputies supporting and opposing each text (or abstaining), the procedure applied and the committee primarily responsible.11 On the basis of this information, three indexes have been calculated: the average of the majorities adopting a text (MEAN), their Standard Deviation (STDEV) and a similar index that we called the ‘Index of Political Perturbation’ (IPP). The MEAN represents very broadly (and roughly) the general level of consensus within a committee, in the adoption of reports subject to the same procedure or in the overall legislative activity performed by committees. The STDEV is an indication of how much variation around the mean there is in each case, and whether this variation is consistent across committees, procedures and time periods. The IPP is conceived and introduced to overcome some of the limitations of the STDEV, making it more suitable for the study of voting behaviour and for comparative analyses.12

If one considers as the population the sizes of the winning majorities in a number of votes taking place in a committee, the STDEV tells us how distant (the scores of) these majorities are from the size – i.e. the score – of the average majority (whose value obviously changes from committee to committee). The IPP, on the contrary, indicates how distant the majorities are from the most consensual vote one could imagine, which is the one where all voted Yes (i.e. a majority of 100 per cent). Compared to the STDEV, the IPP is better suited for comparison, as the reference value remains constant. The STDEV measures how spread out the values in a data set are from their arithmetical mean, which makes the index problematic when comparing two data sets, whose arithmetical means can be quite different. Where the IPP is high, on the contrary, one immediately understands that the votes taken in a given committee (or under a given procedure) are quite controversial, because they generate dissent and prevent consensus. And on the basis of similar information from two committees, one would be in a position to conclude that one committee is more consensual than the other.13

As for our qualitative data, 30 interviews have been conducted with MEPs and Members of the EP General Secretariat before enlargement inter alia to probe the intriguing question of how consensus is achieved within committees. A selected number of interviews were also conducted after enlargement in 2006 to probe into the question whether and how they (still) fulfil this role of ‘consensus builders’. The interview partners were chosen because of their involvement in the negotiation of contested pieces of legislation during EP514 and EP6. In this context influential players within the EP involved in the negotiation of the Port Services Directive,15 the so-called ‘Bolkestein Directive’16 and the REACH regulation17 were selected as interviewees. The reasoning behind the case selection is the following: these cases could in principle refute our working hypothesis, which – to oversimplify it somewhat – would be that consensus can be found with ease within EP committees. One would thus assume that as the issues at stake were so highly contested no or limited consensus could be found. It would go beyond the scope of this paper, however, to go into the case studies in great detail,18 thus the main focus will be directed towards the Bolkestein Directive. This piece of legislation is not only very instructive as regards consensus formation in committees but also gave rise to new forms of negotiation that might become institutionalized in the future. Due to the fact that focusing on a single case study has the drawback of limited applicability (Burns, 2006, p. 232), references will be made to insights gained as regards the other case studies conducted where appropriate.

II. The Findings

The votes on the legislative reports adopted in the periods July 2004 to July 2006 and July 1999 to July 2001 are summarized in the following tables.

Their interpretation can be divided into two parts, dealing with an interpretation of the data per se and in connection with the recent enlargement, respectively.

Overview on Voting Behaviour in EP Committees

Results on the voting practice in EP committees are consistent: votes in all committees and under all procedures are virtually unanimous. While fulfilling the task of preparing the vote of the plenary, they are almost inevitably successful in building and offering a consensual deal. The average majorities endorsing a text in the first two years of EP5 and EP6 are 94.8 per cent and 95.1 per cent, respectively. On average – in other words – a ‘giant coalition’ is behind any final vote. In both legislatures, the EP proved more consensual when it was only required to deliver an opinion than in cases where its assent was necessary to adopt legislation. On average, a majority constantly above 90 per cent endorses reports under co-decision: 93.3 per cent and 92.5 per cent in EP5 and EP6, respectively (all readings taken together).

Table 1.  Voting Behaviour in EP6 Committees (by Committee): July 2004–July 2006
   No. ReportsAv. Major. (%)IPPSTDEVIPP-STDEV
 1AFETForeign Affairs2498.
 3INTAInternational Trade1799.
 5CONTBudgetary Control594.
 6ECONEconomic and Monetary Affairs3495.
 7EMPLEmployment and Social Affairs1390.517.315.12.2
 8ENVIEnvironment, Public Health and Food Safety4690.
 9ITREIndustry, Research and Energy1892.610.37.42.9
10IMCOInternal Market and Consumer Protection1095.
11TRANTransport and Tourism4391.
12REGIRegional Development1295.
13AGRIAgriculture and Rural Development3698.
15CULTCulture and Education1695.311.811.20.6
16JURILegal Affairs4199.
17LIBECivil Liberties, Justice and Home Affairs5595.111.710.71.0
18AFCOConstitutional Affairs494.610.710.70.0
19FEMMWomen's Rights and Gender Equality596.
TOTAL  46995.
Table 2.  Voting Behaviour in EP5 Committees (by Committee): July 1999–July 2001
   No. ReportsAv. Major. (%)IPPSTDEVIPP-STDEV
 1AFETForeign Affairs, Human Rights, Common Security and Defence Policy1396.
 3CONTBudgetary Control00.
 4LIBECitizens' Freedoms and Rights, Justice and Home Affairs5191.915.913.92.1
 5ECONEconomic and Monetary Affairs2795.
 6JURILegal Affairs and the Internal Market3694.313.512.41.1
 7ITREIndustry, External Trade, Research and Energy4897.
 8EMPLEmployment and Social Affairs1493.511.19.31.8
 9ENVIEnvironment, Public Health and Consumer Policy9692.313.711.42.3
10AGRIAgriculture and Rural Development3697.
12RETTRegional Policy, Transport and Tourism4494.912.711.70.9
13CULTCulture, Youth, Education, the Media and Sport1497.
14DEVEDevelopment and Co-operation1394.613.412.70.7
15AFCOConstitutional Affairs786.218.513.45.2
16FEMMWomen's Rights and Equal Opportunities396.
TOTAL  47694.811.210.01.3
Table 3.  Voting Behaviour in EP6 Committees (by Procedure): July 2004–July 2006
Co-decision (1st read.)***I12995.
Co-decision (2nd read.)***II4883.823.216.86.4
Co-decision (3rd read.)***III00.
Co-operation (1st read.)**I192.
Co-operation (2nd read.)**II165.
Budgetary proc.BDG3197.
Interinstitutional agree.INT1196.
Table 4.  Voting Behaviour in EP5 Committees (by Procedure): July 1999–July 2001
Co-decision (1st read.)***I12196.
Co-decision (2nd read.)***II8492.
Co-decision (3rd read.)***III2985.
Co-operation (1st read.)**I00.
Co-operation (2nd read.)**II00.
Budgetary proc.BDG2698.
Interinstitutional agree.INT898.

Yet, although under the shadow of a very consensual political culture, some patterns of differentiation across committees seem to be emerging. In both legislatures a group of committees is present whose political temperature occasionally rises, leading to IPP values above ten. The intermittent nature of political conflict in these cases is confirmed by the fact that high IPP values are accompanied by relatively high STDEV values. This means that IPP values above ten are not due to the occurrence of a series of quasi-unanimous votes, but that they are generated by a certain number of tight majorities in a population of usually unanimous votes: in other words, although rarely, bitter conflicts do happen in selected committees. The same occurs, mutatis mutandis, for procedures: although votes under consultation show levels of political conflict comparable to those taken under co-decision first reading, the perturbation mounts as co-decision moves towards the subsequent stages. The higher IPP values recorded under co-decision second and third readings are only partly explained by the fact that abstentions are added to No votes: they also reflect a stronger contentiousness. The fact that the difference between IPP and STDEV values grows higher under co-decision second and third readings proves that the overall levels of consensus are declining, suggesting the presence of a small portion of the committee membership excluded from the negotiation and the final decision on a more permanent basis than under other procedures during those phases of the legislative process.

Before and After Enlargement

Differences between the first two years of legislative activities in EP5 and EP6 are not manifest. At the macro level, the general level of consensus (the MEAN), the STDEV and the IPP for the two periods are almost identical. The total legislative output generated by committees did not suffer (or benefit) from the increased membership of the EP: the difference between the number of reports adopted in EP5 and EP6 is minimal (seven reports). This is particularly significant as the second semester of 2004 saw the legislative activity significantly slowed down by the late approval of the Barroso Commission and by the fact that many more files than usual had been deliberately finalized before the accession of the ten new Member States and the European election of 2004 (Hagemann and De Clerck-Sachsse, 2007).

A closer look at the data shows that political conflict is generally more pronounced in the same committees in the two legislatures. Out of the seven and eight committees scoring values above ten in terms of IPP (in EP5 and EP6, respectively), five are the same (EMPL, ENVI, TRAN,19 LIBE, AFCO): the other committees either have an IPP close to ten or are not comparable because the same committee did not exist in both legislatures. Political conflict remains low and decreases between EP5 and EP6 in some (and usually the same) selected committees: AFET, BUDG and AGRI. Although not decreasing, political conflict remains relatively low in PECH.

The evolution of these two groups of committees (the former conflictual five and the latter consensual four) suggests that a bifurcation between two ideal-types of consensual and conflictual committees is growing larger.20 Looking at their nature, it seems safe to submit that the determinant of competition is a combination of strong EP powers (i.e. the issues dealt with in the committee are predominantly subject to co-decision procedure) and the possibility of a left vs. right divide on the issue, which is consistent with the ‘normal parliament’ thesis.21 The committees of the consensual block lack at least one of these properties.22

When it comes to procedures, reports adopted under co-decision diminished significantly.23 However, this decline is distributed unevenly across the different stages of the co-decision procedure: reports adopted under first reading have slightly grown, those under the second reading have declined by almost a half, whereas no report was adopted under the third reading in EP6 committees (against 29 reports during the first two years of EP5). These data betray the will of MEPs and political groups to avoid the stage of negotiations in conciliation, perhaps fearing that they will not work with a delegation of 25 (now 27). The diminution of co-decision reports is in part compensated for by the slight increase in the number of reports adopted under consultation (25 reports). In terms of political conflict, whereas consultation and assent procedures become more consensual, co-decision files are treated very differently between the first and the second reading and this difference is much more evident in EP6 than in EP5. Moreover, as in EP6 the option of a third reading seems to be particularly unattractive, political conflict is anticipated and concentrated in the first and particularly the second reading, where the highest scores of IPP are recorded.

III. Investigating Change and Persistence

More than explaining how consensus is achieved, these data illustrate where and under what conditions consensus is more likely to occur. To go beyond these preliminary conclusions, one needs to look at the mechanisms whereby negotiations are conducted and compromises are reached. To do so, two complementary strategies are suggested: focusing on key committee players and paying greater attention to selected case studies.

First, even more so than in the plenary session, committee proceedings are to a large extent shaped by key players, who contribute to building consensus and whose role is ignored by data on voting behaviour. Beside the role of committee chairs and rapporteurs, whose key role as ‘legislative entrepreneurs’ has been properly described elsewhere (Benedetto, 2005), political groups have a firm grip on committee proceedings also by way of group co-ordinators and shadow rapporteurs where the interplay between these different actors is often and regrettably overlooked.

Based on interview data obtained before and after enlargement we can observe that co-ordinators (still) play a key role in the quest of achieving consensus in committee (and beyond).24 Each political group chooses its own co-ordinator as its main spokesperson and these are in most cases formally elected. Group co-ordinators have been described as acting as ‘watchdogs’ for their party in committee.25 In more rigorous terms, co-ordinators have also been referred to as ‘whips’, convening meetings of group members before the committee meeting begins, and attempting to maximize their group's presence and influence during important votes not only in committee but also in plenary (Corbett et al., 2005). In this context it is noteworthy that already before enlargement co-ordinators perceived it as one of their main tasks to achieve consensus within ‘their’ political group within committee (even if it might mean having to bypass the rapporteur). One interview partner clearly identified his or her role as having to ensure that members of the group adhere to more or less the same position:

We have to ensure that the political group is moving along the same track, so that we get a majority in plenary, because some rapporteurs just write a report the way they like. Of course as a co-ordinator one also has to step back, but we have the responsibility for the group's behaviour and always have to be ready to step in.26

This crucial role of co-ordinators in minimizing conflict is reconfirmed in the interviews conducted in 2006. One of the main tasks co-ordinators stress in this context is to ‘flag up’ conflictual issues, i.e. to get those on the agenda of the political group in order to minimize the number of national delegations to vote against the issues at stake.27

It is worth stressing, moreover, that once a report has been allocated to a group, it is often the co-ordinator that plays a decisive role in choosing the individuals that will be allocated key dossiers and as such has the potential to steer the political process. It is the co-ordinator after all who can ‘demote or promote’28 members within his or her political group (within the respective committee) by not only selecting rapporteurs or shadow-rapporteurs but also by deciding who gets speaking time in plenary and as such can ‘best promote interests’ of the respective political group.29 As such co-ordinators have a firm grip on committee proceedings and are seen by some as playing a more important role than the rapporteur, i.e. are referred to as the ‘working animals of the Parliament’.30

Shadow rapporteurs can also play a role in the quest of finding consensus within committee. These players are appointed by opposed political group(s) not only to monitor the work of the rapporteur and to report back to their respective political group but also to find agreement on political issues across the boundaries of political groups. Close co-operation between shadow rapporteurs and rapporteur could for example be observed under the Directive on equal treatment without racial discrimination31 and under the Bolkestein Directive.32 The disadvantage of this system is of course that shadow rapporteurs do not always manage to convince their political group to go along with compromise hammered out with the rapporteur, as was the case under the directive to combat racial discrimination concluded at the beginning of the new millennium (Neuhold, 2002). Lessons seemed to have been learned from such experiences as under the Bolkestein Directive the rapporteur clearly stated that it did not suffice to come to an agreement with the shadow rapporteur but that larger negotiation teams needed to be formed (see below).

Secondly, selected case studies can reveal important dynamics that are often disregarded by broader quantitative information. The Bolkestein Directive, the directive on services in the internal market, which aimed at creating a single market for services within the EU, is very instructive as regards to consensus formation. In this case the committee responsible, the Committee on the Internal Market and Consumer Protection (IMCO), could agree on a compromise on several aspects of the Directive such as the provisions making it easier for a service-providing company to establish itself in another Member State. The controversial nature of the draft legislative act was reflected by the fact that 1,600 (!) amendments were made in committee. Nevertheless in its amended version the report was adopted by a large majority in committee.33 At first glance this might come somewhat as a surprise and the question is raised how consensus could be found despite the controversy of the issues at stake.

When probing into this case in more detail and when examining methods of consensus formation we uncovered the limits of certain committee practices and found that rather unorthodox mechanisms to reach consensus had been developed. In this case, an informal forum – the Trade Union Intergroup34– which was composed of one or two representatives per political group as well as representatives from the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) was seen as one of the key forums for hammering out a compromise for proposals dealt with in the Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL) Committee, which had joint responsibility for the text: ‘we work out compromises and ventilate the honest arithmetic prevailing within the respective political group.’35

It should be noted, however, that this forum was not established as a reaction to enlargement but had already been resorted to earlier, for example in connection with the Directive on working time of mobile workers.36 Yet, it regained its importance for politically contentious matters in this current legislative period of the EP.

The Bolkestein Directive was instructive also for another aspect: the use of an original enhanced co-operation procedure between two committees (IMCO and EMPL), with shared responsibility on the same report; each committee had the last word on a part of the final text. This ‘procedure with associated committees’ as it is officially called not only foresees that the rapporteur and the draftsmen ‘shall endeavour to agree on the texts they propose to their committees and on their position regarding amendments’ but also that the committee ‘responsible shall accept without a vote amendments from an associated committee [. . .] which fall under the exclusive competence of that committee’.37 The enhanced co-operation procedure was chosen for the Bolkestein Directive due to the fact that this proposal not only touched upon questions concerning the internal market but also had far-reaching implications for employment and social affairs. It is interesting to note that a clear division of labour between both committees was laid down before embarking on official negotiations, where the EMPL committee was to deal with employment and social rights issues.38 This enhanced co-operation procedure is seen as one key factor on the path to reaching consensus as the issue was seen to be of such a complexity that ‘separate discussions on certain issues made sense and paved the way to a final text that enjoyed wide consensus’.39 It is noteworthy that the enhanced co-operation procedure was not only chosen in the case of the REACH regulation, another proposal of high complexity,40 but became quite a frequent practice in EP6: in the first three years (until September 2007), there were some 56 reports adopted with an enhanced co-operation procedure, slightly less than half of which (25) fell under the co-decision procedure.41 There had only been 27 adopted reports in the entire EP5.

These cases illustrate that the traditional mechanisms of one responsible committee ultimately prevailing over opinion-giving committees can have important and increasingly frequent exceptions. It is remarkable that, in contrast to the previous EP,42 under the Bolkestein Directive enhanced co-operation was set up between two different committees with rapporteurs from the same political group.43 Moreover, whereas the EMPL committee had its vote in summer 2005, the IMCO committee voted in November and discussions between committee members took place in between that period, and on some issues (such as on posting of workers and as regards patient mobility) the rapporteur took over the position of the EMPL Committee without any amendments.

The case of the Bolkestein Directive brought about an additional peculiarity: despite the enhanced co-operation between two committees, the parallel negotiations did not lead to an agreement until a more restricted informal forum of negotiation was created. On the initiative of the rapporteur and with the approval of their respective group's leaders, two informal negotiating teams of five to six deputies each from the EPP-ED and the PSE political groups were formed. The composition of these teams seemed to be in the first place determined by whether MEPs boasted some policy expertise within the respective field, but political factors also played a role; such as including an MEP from the country holding the presidency at the time (Austria) and including a representative from the new Member States.44 These teams, with no legal basis, met weekly in the month preceding the plenary. The vote of the plenary was based on the compromise reached within this restricted forum, de facto bypassing the committees. This practice is a novelty insofar as, contrary to earlier practices (where group co-ordinators draft compromises for final votes in plenary), the role of ‘consensus crafters’ was distributed to several players that did not necessarily boast a formal role such that of group co-ordinator. Yet, these MEPs did have a ‘mandate’ to negotiate on behalf of their political group and to strike a compromise for plenary.45

In this context, it should be underlined that informal negotiating practices are by no means a novelty within the EP: one only has to think of the ‘trialogue’,46 which, according to the Commission itself, is the ‘true negotiating forum’47 preparing conciliation under co-decision, or the ‘informal negotiations in trilogues’,48 which developed in first and second readings of co-decision, particularly after enlargement. On the other hand one has to note that these informal mechanisms are no longer restricted to interinstitutional negotiations. Based on the experiences of the trialogue, which was created – without formal ground – on the basis of the motto ‘necessity is the mother of invention’, one can only speculate that the informal negotiating teams, which were for the first time set up under the Bolkestein Directive, might become standard features of preparing difficult votes in plenary. This of course could lead to a circumvention of committees and could lead to similar problems as encountered with informal trialogues, i.e. that it is not entirely clear who negotiates with whom behind closed doors, and on the basis of what mandate (Farell and Héritier, 2003; Farell and Héritier, 2004).

Finally, these examples also give us the opportunity to observe the ways in which the MEPs from the new Member States have interacted with the cleavages pre-existing in a committee, noting, in particular, whether their positions were accommodated along the pre-existing structures, exacerbated older tensions or generated new fractures. The quantitative data provided in this study give a broad indication of these trends: they suggest, for example, that in the field of agriculture the entry of new Member States has not altered the pre-existing balance of powers, whereas the enlargement might have amplified tensions in the field of employment and social policy. With regards to the specific case of the Bolkestein Directive, one stressed the fact that disagreement was largely caused by a division between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ Member States. This was prevalent within the political groups themselves especially within the EPP, where the position of the new Member States could not be reconciled with that of the rest of the political groups.49 As one interviewee explained, ‘Eastern Member States felt that the Bolkestein Directive touched upon what Europe meant to them’.50 An interview partner from the EPP conceded that within the EPP the new Member States tried to form an ‘Eastern block’, i.e. trying to establish majorities on certain issues such as the accession of Romania and Bulgaria. Within the negotiations on the REACH regulation none of the new Member States played a key role but one could make out differences as regards which Member States had national interests at stake, for example, the Czech Republic seemed much more interested than the Baltic States or Poland.51


Throughout this article the focus has been placed on EP committees, a choice based on the belief that they are still relatively understudied, despite their crucial role in the European legislative process. The activity of committees has been mainly analysed from the angle of voting behaviour, in search of patterns of consensus and conflict. This approach is very much developed for the study of the plenary, but usually disregarded in the case of committees. In addition to narrowing an evident gap in the literature, this research design is instrumental also to testing the solidity of the recent claim describing the EP like a ‘normal parliament’, characterized by a traditional structure of left–right competition. The occasion of the EU expansion to 25 Member States in 2004 and the greater political diversity added to the EP provided an unprecedented opportunity to analyse these phenomena and assess these claims. To this end, almost 1,000 final votes on committee reports in the periods July 1999 to July 2001 and July 2004 to July 2006 have been collected and analysed. To maximize the information provided by these data, apart from resorting to traditional statistical indexes, a new measure of political conflict has been elaborated: the index of political perturbation. At the same time, several interviews with key players have been conducted to complement, expand and deepen our understanding of committee politics, with a special focus on the mechanisms by which consensus is achieved.

Findings show that committees generally work very consensually, regardless of the issue at stake and the procedure applied. The dispersion is minimal and political conflict is equally weak. Not even the increased number of national delegations represented in EP6 has altered this peculiarity: total values of MEAN, STDEV and IPP remained practically identical. Yet, although in the context of a very consensual political culture, patterns of differentiation seem to be emerging across both committees and procedures. On the one hand, there is a cleavage – amplified after enlargement – between a group of more conflictual and another of more consensual committees. On the other hand, reports adopted under the co-decision procedure, at stages other than the first, are the clearly more contested reports than those adopted under other procedures. Finally, although the legislative output generated by committees has remained stable over the two legislatures considered, the share of reports under each procedure has changed unevenly from EP5 to EP6: the slight increase of reports adopted under consultation has been more than balanced by the decline of reports under co-decision. Interestingly, there were no reports adopted in committee under co-decision third reading in EP6. This is an indication of a clear pattern that emerged after enlargement to achieve agreement as early as possible in the procedure. The committee is the first locus where the legislative (and enlargement) challenge is addressed and settled.

We also find that EP6 has developed and uses extensively new processes for encouraging norms of inter-committee co-operation in order to achieve consensus, a trend initiated before enlargement but amplified after 2004. Evidence of consensus-seeking across committee boundaries goes some way to refuting the more recent literature that highlights the notion of conflict and rivalry between EP committees, notably over budgetary allocations for multi-annual programmes (Burns, 2006). Not only do we observe the tendency of inter-committee co-operation but also the possibility (where the Bolkestein Directive is the most notable example) that committees are side-stepped altogether in order to reach consensus. This observation in no way would lead us to declare the ‘decline of EP committees’. We argue, on the contrary, that committees are crucial in channelling expertise and appointing key players to find consensus, even if this means over or side-stepping committee boundaries. Overall, we thus see that the EP seeks to strengthen itself by developing new norms to facilitate co-operation in order to become a cohesive actor, notably under co-decision.

Although the global figures seem to refute the ‘normal parliament’ thesis, the fact that some political contestation emerges when the EP has strong decision-making powers and the issues at stake are amenable to politicization along a left–right continuum lends credibility to the intuition that morecompetition is likely to appear in the future, under specific circumstances. At the moment, the occurrence of genuine political conflict is too circumstantial to allow general and conclusive claims on the competitive nature of the EP, but more studies are needed to come to a decisive word on the matter.

The qualitative findings have inter alia reconfirmed the salient role of key players within committee such as those of group co-ordinators. These players have a firm grip on committee proceedings not only by playing an important role when allocating prized positions within committees but by perceiving the achievement of consensus within ‘their’ political group within committee as one of their main tasks and as such trying to ‘flag up’ conflictual issues in advance of any vote. We can also reiterate the observation that informal negotiation forums such as the Trade Union Intergroup have become an important feature in the quest for ‘pre-cooking’ legislative dossiers not only for votes taken in plenary but also within the committees. For highly contested legislative dossiers such as the Bolkestein Directive we have observed a novelty: the formation of two informal negotiating teams comprising members of the two largest political groups within the EP that had the sole purpose of negotiating a compromise that could be passed by a majority of MEPs in plenary. Only time will tell how the proliferation of informal and unconventional negotiating forums will affect the position and the prerogatives of EP committees in the future.

Interview List52

Interview with Eveline Gebhardt, MEP, July 2006.

Interview with Stephen Hughes, MEP, June 2006.

Interview with Georg Jarzembowski, MEP, June 2006.

Interview with Hartmut Nassauer, MEP, July 2006.

Interview with Wouter Gekiere, Legal adviser Anne Van Lancker, June 2006.


  • 1

    EP5 and EP6 are the 1999–2004 and 2004–09 European Parliaments, respectively.

  • 2

    For a comprehensive review of the state of the art on the European Parliament, see Hix et al. (2003) and, more recently, Burns (2006, particularly pp. 230–3).

  • 3

    Notable exceptions are Smith (2007) and, as illustrated later, Burns (2006).

  • 4

    ‘[P]articularly between the Budgets Committee and its legislative counterparts’ when a committee is handling a programme with a multi-annual budget (p. 244).

  • 5

    Such as, in the EP6, the temporary committee on policy challenges and budgetary means of the enlarged Union 2007–13.

  • 6

    These permanent committees not only prepare legislation, but also additionally differentiate their law-making functions by preparing, for instance, all legislation of a particular type (such as constitutional law) or for one geographical region (Mattson and Strøm, 1995, p. 259).

  • 7

    Especially in terms of presence of a grand coalition and rule of proportional representation. Please refer to Lijphart (1984, 1999) for the definition of the two ideal-types of democracy, namely a majoritarian and a consensus model.

  • 8

    The same findings are not only confirmed, but also amplified in EP6 (Hix and Noury, 2006).

  • 9

    See, for example, the numerous works of Hix, Noury and Roland, including the recent book Democratic Politics in the European Parliament (2006, Cambridge University Press).

  • 10

    Except for a few cases in which a roll call vote is automatic.

  • 11

    Considered as ‘legislative reports’ were all texts adopted in the framework of legislative and budgetary procedures as well as inter-institutional agreements. A very limited number of these reports (less than 1 per cent) could not be used because of missing information. Moreover, when a text was adopted according to a simplified procedure, allowing a report to be considered as approved if one-fifth of the committee does not show opposition, the agreement was considered as unanimous. Finally, to determine the majority for the adoption of each report, Yes votes were counted against No votes. However, although committees decide on the basis of the absolute majority of votes cast, in the case of reports adopted under procedures requiring in plenary the support of an absolute majority of Members of Parliament, abstentions were considered as No votes.

  • 12

    Whereas the STDEV is the square root of the average squared deviation of each score from its mean, the IPP is the average squared deviation of each score from 100, which is the highest possible value of the population. A small STDEV describes a population where scores are clustered around the mean, whereas a small IPP represents a population clustered to the highest possible value (i.e. 100).

  • 13

    Just like the STDEV, the IPP is sensitive to extreme scores (because of the squaring). This is appropriate in both cases, since scores further from the mean and from the most consensual vote, respectively, may be more significant. It is certainly the case for the IPP: a vote cast with a 51 per cent majority in a population of other nine consensual votes ‘hurts’ (or perturbs) more in terms of political conflict than ten votes cast with a majority of 95 per cent. In the case of votes cast under the traditional majority rule (50 per cent + 1), the IPP goes from 0 – where all votes are unanimous – to 49.9 – where the tightest majority endorses all votes. The STDEV goes from 0 – where all votes are identical – to 35.4 – where there are only two votes: one is unanimous and the other is the tightest majority. Methodologically, the fact that the IPP is sensitive to extreme scores is an asset: as the purpose of the article is to assess whether committees are consensual or conflictual, the fact that conflicts are magnified by the index (due precisely to its sensitivity to extreme scores) lends even more credibility to the potential finding that committees are consensual.

  • 14

    The dossiers studied before enlargement included for example the Directive on Equal treatment without racial discrimination (Directive 00/43/EC) and the Directive of Open network provision (ONP) to voice telephony. Universal service for telecommunications (Directive 98/10/EC).

  • 15

    Proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on market access to port services (COM (2004) 0654 – C6 – 0147/2004/0240 (COD)).

  • 16

    Proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on services in the internal market (COM (2004)0002 – C5-0069/2004 – 2004/0001 (COD)). This directive is commonly referred to as the Bolkestein Directive due to that fact that it was drafted under the leadership of the former Commissioner for the Internal Market, Frits Bolkestein.

  • 17

    Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning the registration, evaluation, authorization and restriction of chemicals, COM 2003 0644 (03).

  • 18

    An overview of the interviews conducted during the period of 2000–2002, the cases selected and the results is given in: Neuhold (2002).

  • 19

    TRAN was not present in EP5, as Transport and Tourism were covered by RETT, which was also responsible for Regional Policy.

  • 20

    Other committees cannot be safely located in this dichotomy, either because they did not exist in the previous EPs or because they have not been responsible (yet) for a sufficient number of reports to draw statistically significant conclusions.

  • 21

    The Committee on Constitutional Affairs is a justified exception to this: the high degree of conflict (which is nevertheless based on a small number of cases and should not be overestimated) does not stem – as its name might suggest – from discrepancies over the future EU constitutional settlement; on the contrary, it is caused by genuine tensions between political groups over the proposed amendments to the EP rules of procedure.

  • 22

    Of the supposedly consensual committees (AGRI, AFET, BUDG and PECH), the BUDG lacks the second precondition, whereas the other three lack the first one.

  • 23

    It is quite clear that the decline is not due to a lower number of Commission proposals being put on the table after enlargement: in the period 1999–2000 the Commission proposed significantly less acts than in 2004–05 (an annual average of 537 and 619, respectively). There might thus be two complementary explanations: first, as documented elsewhere (Settembri, 2007, p. 32), there is an interinstitutional tendency after enlargement to come to an agreement, under co-decision, increasingly at the first reading and to devote more time than in the past to interinstitutional negotiations during this stage of the procedure. Therefore, the lower number of co-decision reports adopted after enlargement might be due to a greater number of ongoing negotiations. The same is not true for the consultation procedures, which are found to last, on average, significantly less after enlargement (p. 29). Second, it is reported (Hagemann and De Clerck-Sachsse, 2007, p. 10) that an unusually high number of co-decision negotiations was purposely concluded right before the 2004 enlargement took place. This might have left the newly elected EP6 and its committees with less co-decision reports to adopt.

  • 24

    Interview with MEP, November 2000.

  • 25

    Interview with MEP, November 2000.

  • 26

    Interview with MEP, November 2000.

  • 27

    Interview with MEP, June 2006.

  • 28

    Interview with MEP, June 2006.

  • 29

    Interview with MEP, June 2006.

  • 30

    Interview with MEP, June 2006.

  • 31

    Directive 2000/43/EC.

  • 32

    In the first case we refer to the co-operation between the rapporteur delegated by the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance and the shadow rapporteur delegated by the EPP. In the second case we refer to co-operation between PES (rapporteur) and EPP (shadow).

  • 33

    Twenty-five votes for the amended report to ten, with five abstentions.

  • 34

    This forum also played a role in the Port Services Directive and the REACH regulation.

  • 35

    Interview with MEP, June 2006.

  • 36

    Directive 2000/34/EC.

  • 37

    According to Rule 47 of the EP Rules of Procedure.

  • 38

    Interview with MEP, July 2006.

  • 39

    Interview with MEP, July 2006.

  • 40

    In this case the enhanced co-operation procedure applied to the IMCO committee and the committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI).

  • 41

    Given the sudden ‘success’ of the procedure, the Parliament voted, in May 2007, on some amendments to its rules of procedure dealing with the enhanced co-operation between committees (Rule 47). Modifications provide, among other things, for the possibility that the enhanced co-operation (now renamed ‘Procedure with associated committees’) could involve more than two committees.

  • 42

    Where one had already resorted to the practice of co-rapporteurs from different political groups, for example in the context of the Directive on equal treatment without racial discrimination.

  • 43

    Evelyne Gebhardt (PSE rapporteur for IMCO, which was appointed as responsible committee) and Anne van Lancker also from the PSE (for the EMPL committee).

  • 44

    Interview with MEP, July 2006.

  • 45

    Interview with Legal Advisor of MEP, June 2006.

  • 46

    The trialogue was first set up in co-decision in 1995. Both the terms ‘trialogue’ and ‘trilogue’ appear in EU websites or documents.

  • 47

    See «».

  • 48

    As defined by the Joint Declaration on practical arrangements for the co-decision procedure, adopted by the three institutions in June 2007 (paragraph 14).

  • 49

    Interview with MEP, July 2006.

  • 50

    Interview with legal advisor of MEP, June 2006.

  • 51

    Interview with MEP, June 2006.

  • 52

    For an overview of the interviews conducted in 2000–01, see: Neuhold, 2002.