Events & News


Who Decides, and How? Preferences, Uncertainty, and Policy Choice in the European Parliament

Assistant Professor Nils Ringe, University Of Wisconsin–Madison

11 Apr 2011

Political Science Staff Lounge, AS1/04-01, Arts Link, National University of Singapore, Singapore 117570



While the European Parliament (EP) is one of the most widely studied legislative assemblies in political science, little research has been done on individual behaviour and patterns of voting amongst the MEPs. Addressing this, the lecture by Dr. Nils Ringe focused on the individual legislators in the European Parliament to address the issues related to the frequency with which members of the EP vote with their parties. MEPs are faced with a multitude of policy proposals spanning a wide range of policy fields and are expected to make decisions despite a lack of knowledge in many of these areas. Furthermore, the dimensions of conflict in the EP are different from those in national assemblies and parties are not divided nationally. Instead, the EP has both a Left-Right spectrum, and a pro and anti-EU dimension. Despite this, MEP’s patterns of voting manage to be aggregated into cohesive parties at the European level.

In explaining preference cohesion in the EP, Dr. Ringe questioned the ‘party control model’, where party discipline is assumed to be the explanation for high levels of party cohesion. He argued that if applied to the EP in theoretical terms, such a model would be based on backward reasoning, as firstly, the EP is a heterogeneous group of legislators, comprising 732 MEPs from 27 Member States with over 500 million citizens, and secondly, because European party coalitions have weak organizational structures. He also questioned the ‘shared preferences model’ allowing for cohesive parties to develop in the absence of party discipline as this model assumed that legislators have informed policy preferences in the first place. He hypothesized that MEPs would adopt positions of party colleagues in the responsible committees because parties in the EP had little discipline, citing the limited effectiveness of the ‘line whipping’ system if used by Europarties, and because the preferences of the MEPs were uncertain. His hypothesis was based on the Policy Preference Model (PPC), which posits that non-expert legislators adopt the preferences of expert colleagues with whom they perceive to share the same positions and same outcome preferences on issues. For the EP, this PPC would be with the members of the EP’s informational committees.

His hypothesis was confirmed by 90 in-depth interviews with MEPs and EU officials, as well as quantitative data from 122 EP roll-call votes. In the quantitative study, the dependent variable was their votes in the plenary, and independent variables were the common positions of firstly, the EP party groups in the committee, secondly, national group members in the committee, and lastly, the national party delegation in the committee, he found that the probability of a ‘yes’ vote from the floor could be predicted with a large degree of certainty. When EP group and national party members voted ‘yes’, the probability was 0.97.

His findings also revealed that MEPs had no exogenous (originating from external circumstances) policy preferences if they were not experts in that particular policy field. Party leaderships also had no exogenous preferences and were incapable of enforcing party discipline, whether through sanctions or rewards. He thus concluded that the theory of PPS explained ‘normal’ decision-making in the EU, and that the outcome of preferences and party effect (as a proxy for shared outcome preferences) has a mutually contingent effect on party cohesion.

This raised certain questions from the audience who were concerned about the power and influence these experts wielded: who they were, and if there was anyone that controlled them, as they had a considerable influence on the outcomes of policy proposals. Dr. Ringe alleviated these concerns by explaining that there were safeguards inbuilt into the system. For example, the impact of lobbying and business interests was alleviated by the Commission’s funding of interest groups to act as watchdogs. Questions were also raised about the effect of Lisbon treaty on the predicted probabilities of his research, but he said that he would expect changes, if any, to be minimal.

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