Speaking or drafting? How parties’ candidate selection procedures shape the prioritization of parliamentary activities in the European Parliament

Photo Credit: Florian Pircher/ pixabay.com

Legislators have a large number of duties but only a limited amount of time. This scarcity of time is a particularly severe problem for the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs): they act on several political levels (the European level, the national sphere and possibly the regional level) and must bridge large geographical distances. Additionally, MEPs serve multiple principals: their national party and their European Party Group (EPG) (e.g., Hix & Høyland, 2014). The national party, for instance, nominates candidates for (re-) election to the European Parliament (EP) and is also instrumental in elections for future domestic positions. The EPG controls a range of offices and benefits within the EP, including committee membership, chairmanships, positions in the party group hierarchy, rapporteurships and speaking time, and is therefore key to political success in parliament (Koop, Reh, & Bressanelli, 2018, p. 563; Kreppel, 2002). Accordingly, MEPs have a large number of tasks with which they serve different principals (i.e. national party or EGP).

For coping with this workload, it is wise to prioritize some parliamentary activities over others. For instance, some MEPs tend to favor parliamentary speeches over written questions or the drafting of legislative texts (proposals) over legislative opinions. Some extraordinary active MEPs in the 7th legislative term of the European Parliament (2009-2014), for example, held more than 2000 speeches within five years. Yet, it is important to know that this includes also so-called “1-minute”-speeches, in which MEPs quickly state their policy positions. It means, such a speech does not require large preparation compared to very time-consuming activities, such as the drafting of official opinions (of a committee) or legislative reports, on which MEPs are working over weeks. Yet, we still do not know why some MEPs prioritize speeches, while others prefer to draft written questions, reports or opinions. Accordingly, in our recent article in Politics and Governance, we ask: How can we explain MEPs’ prioritization strategy in terms of different parliamentary activities?

We argue that MEPs’ prioritization strategy in terms of parliamentary activities – i.e. how large the share of a certain activity (e.g. speeches) is in relation to all activities of the MEP – depends on who within the national party has the power to select candidates. If the candidate selection procedure the MEPs’ national party employs is very exclusive, then few people, mostly members of the party elite, decide on re-nomination and candidacy. The MEP will then identify these few people as key principal and will serve their interest. At the same time, parliamentary activities vary in their “visibility” and their utility to facilitate the interests of different principals (Klüver & Spoon, 2015). Some parliamentary activities are more suitable to “cultivate a personal vote” and thus, to communicate national or individual interests than others. This argument links up to the scholarship of legislative behavior in the national context. Some studies have shown that the rules and procedures by which parties select their candidates affect parliamentary activity of the respective parliamentarians (Fernandes, Won, & Martins, 2019; for an overview see Hazan, 2014). Based on this research, we distinguish between two steps of the candidate selection process of a national party: the nomination and the final decision on list placement.

We explore this novel argument – i.e. that the candidate selection process of national parties impacts on MEP’s prioritization strategy in terms of parliamentary activity – based on a new and comprehensive dataset. It includes four important but very different parliamentary activities (i.e., speeches, written questions, written opinions, and legislative reports) of all MEPs, their personal characteristics and offices within the 7th legislative period of the EP (2009–2014), as well as information from expert interviews. Data on national parties’ candidate nomination procedures, we received from Fortin-Rittberger and Rittberger (2015).

Our results confirm what we expected: the choice to prioritize some parliamentary activities over others varies significantly with the exclusiveness of candidate selection procedures of national parties and thus, with the key principal an MEP serves. We show that MEPs nominated by the national party executives (i.e. exclusive procedure) speak more (66 speeches on average) than MEPs nominated through a more inclusive process (for example by all party members) (hold about 62 speeches on average). The pattern is the other way around for written questions: MEPs nominated by the party executive table on average only 30 written questions compared to MEPs nominated by more inclusive procedures who ask 33 questions on average.

The results of a multi-level regression analysis also point into the same direction: if candidate selection processes are organized exclusively (e.g. by party executives), MEPs tend to prioritize speeches. If candidate selection is organized rather inclusively (i.e. a larger group of party members selects the candidates), MEPs tend to engage more in written questions, reports or opinions. Our models predict 58 speeches for MEPs who are nominated by many individual party members and a mean of almost 69 speeches for MEPs being nominated by a very exclusive cycle (see Figure 1a below). Moreover, our interviews with MEPs show that particularly written questions are used to cater for constituency or wider party interests. One interview partner, who is a member of the Social Democratic Party in Germany, whose candidate nomination and selection process are quite inclusive (a subset of members nominates and decides over nomination), explains:

[I] submit written questions, if I am asked for it by anybody; especially local actors or groups. For instance, that was the case with Opel. As Opel wanted to relocate a factory [from Germany] to other European countries, I should prepare a written question to the Commission, asking whether Opel has already requested project funds for the construction of a new plant in other European countries. [I prepare written questions to the Commission], if I am addressed from outside: “Can you even check with the Commission if this and that is the case?” (Interview 07, 21:48)

Figure 1. Predicted effects of exclusive candidate selection on the prioritization of different activities (a-d)

This study is also of broader societal relevance, besides its theoretical contribution to the scholarly debates on legislative behavior and multi-level governance. Our results illuminate the channels through which national and sub-national party interests could enter EP politics and thus, increase the legitimacy of EU policy-making more generally. In detail, if party members opt for a more inclusive candidate selection procedure within their party, they and the electorate at large can expect MEPs to communicate more regularly with them and to articulate their interests on the supranational level. Accordingly, systematic reforms of candidate selection procedure across all parties and countries in Europe would substantially increase the communication with the people in this selecting group. This could potentially also mitigate the fierce criticism of (populist) opponents of the European Union, gaining ground in many member states.

By Eva-Maria Euchner und Elena Frech in June 2020

Eva-Maria Euchner is a post-doctoral researcher at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (Germany). She is specialized in comparative public policy analysis and legislative behavior. Her current research interest lies at the intersection between gender, religion and morality politics in the EU’s multi-level system. She is co-principal investigator of the research project “Religion and morality policy.”  Eva-Maria’s work has been published in the Journal of European Public Policy, Parliamentary Affairs, Regulation & Governance and with Oxford University Press, amongst others.

Elena Frech is a post-doctoral researcher at the Ludwig-Maximilians-University Munich (Germany) and teaches at the University of Basel (Switzerland). She is a member of the “Parliamentary Careers in Comparison” project (University of Geneva, Switzerland). Elena is interested in the European Union, in particular the European Parliament, and legislative as well as comparative politics. She specializes in political parties, with a focus on party behavior and decision making, public opinion, and political recruitment/candidate selection. She also works on international political economy topics and multi-level governance. Her work has been published in International Organization, European Politics, Legislative Studies Quarterly, Parliamentary Affairs and other journals.


Fernandes, J. M., Won, M., & Martins, B. (2019). Speechmaking and the Selectorate: Persuasion in Nonpreferential Electoral Systems. Comparative Political Studies, 2, 001041401985896. https://doi.org/10.1177/0010414019858964

Fortin-Rittberger, J., & Rittberger, B. (2015). Nominating women for Europe: Exploring the role of political parties’ recruitment procedures for European Parliament elections. European Journal of Political Research, 54(4), 767–783. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6765.12101

Hazan, R. Y. (2014). Candidate Selection: Implications and Challenges for Legislative Behaviour. In S. Martin, T. Saalfeld, & K. Strøm (Eds.), [Oxford handbooks]. The Oxford handbook of legislative studies (pp. 213–231). NY: Oxford University Press

Hix, S., & Høyland, B. (2014). Political Behaviour in the European Parliament. In S. Martin, T. Saalfeld, & K. Strøm (Eds.), [Oxford handbooks]. The Oxford handbook of legislative studies. NY: Oxford University Press. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199653010.013.0021

Klüver, H., & Spoon, J.‑J. (2015). Bringing salience back in. Party Politics, 21(4), 553–564. https://doi.org/10.1177/1354068813487114

Koop, C., Reh, C., & Bressanelli, E. (2018). When politics prevails: Parties, elections and loyalty in the European Parliament. European Journal of Political Research, 57(3), 563–586. https://doi.org/10.1111/1475-6765.12252

Kreppel, A. (2002). The European Parliament and supranational party system: A study in institutional development. Cambridge studies in comparative politics. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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