Parliamentary parties’ discourses on anti-crisis measures: between solidarity and particularistic interest

5 Parliamentary parties’ discourses on anti-crisis measures

Between solidarity and particularistic interest1


This chapter addresses the following questions: what were the major reasons that stood behind support or rejection of anti-crisis measures among national parliamentary parties? How convergent or divergent were parties in their choice of arguments supporting or rejecting anti-crisis measures? How can we explain the discursive differences among parliamentary parties?

It has been often observed that national parliaments are not only ‘law-making’ but also ‘talking’ institutional bodies. In particular, the major functions of national parliaments comprise not only of legislating and controlling governments but also of legitimizing outcomes of the legislative process. According to the literature (Blondel, 1973), national parliaments exercise three constitutive functions: law-making, representation of citizens and control of governments. Fulfilment of these functions depends to a large extent on communicative activity of national parliaments (Auel and Raunio, 2014a). In particular, communication remains central for the law-making process as it accounts for the quality and inclusiveness of deliberation. Representation of citizens would not be possible without communication: national parliaments rely on various channels and forms of communication in bringing national and European matters closer to their constituencies. Furthermore, the quality of the feedback that parliaments receive from their voters depends to a large extent on communicative practices. Finally, parliamentary control of governments’ work also depends heavily on available forms of communication.

The link between voters and parliaments has been long recognized as crucial for the democratic legitimacy of decision-making processes at the EU level. Not surprisingly, scholarly attention towards communicative activities of national parliaments increased recently (Crespy and Schmidt, 2014). The initial focus remained on analyzing communicative practices between executives and parliaments; however, recent contributions have also focussed on analyzing how national parliaments communicate European matters to voters (Auel and Raunio, 2014a). The findings of the recent studies present a sobering picture: in general, the intensity and the quality of communication in European matters are not satisfactory. In particular, in plenary debates European matters are not intensively discussed; there has been also a lot of internal variation among particular parliaments (Auel and Raunio, 2014b). Plenary debates on European issues are more superficial in southern than northern European states (Lupato, 2014). Furthermore, national parliaments have not been particularly active employing new media in order to reach voters (Pollak and Slonimski, 2014). Against that background, national parliaments have not contributed particularly to closing the gap between the European Union level and national voters.

However, it has to be admitted that once a party or coalition obtains a majority after elections, approval of successive bills and policy measures does not depend on the discursive exchange of arguments. Nonetheless, parliamentarians need to justify their actions and decisions, and discourse constitutes an essential instrument for pursuing that goal (de Wilde, 2010; Wendler, 2011; Trenz and Michailidou, 2013). The arguments that parliamentarians use convey a justificatory logic, which, in turn, reveals their political preferences.

In order to legitimize or de-legitimize a given decision parliamentary parties employ political discourses. Parliamentarians have at their disposal various institutional forms of expressing their opinion publically and engaging in argumentative exchange with other members of the parliament, such as, for instance, plenary debates, question hours or hearings. The arguments voiced publically by parliamentarians reach national public by means of mass-media. As a result, voters learn which arguments political parties employed in order to support or reject a given decision or a bill. Parliamentary parties are also aware that their arguments are to be evaluated by their constituencies.

This chapter analyzes in a qualitative and inductive manner which arguments parliamentary parties employed in order to support or reject the increased budgetary capacity of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) as well as the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union (Fiscal Compact) (see also: Closa and Maatsch, 2014). These two measures were selected for various reasons. First, while parliamentary debates on the EFSF revolve around solidarity among euro states, the discussion on the Fiscal Compact concentrated on new obligations in budgetary politics. As a consequence, focussing on these two measures allows investigating how parliamentary parties debate the two most important aspects of the European economic governance reform. Second, the debates on the EFSF and the Fiscal Compact are separated by the period of approximately two years’ time (ratification of Fiscal Compact took place at different time in the euro states). As a result, it is also possible to observe whether particular parties changed their discourses. The empirical enquiry has been based on the analysis of plenary debates in lower chambers (unless there is a unicameral parliament in a given state) in the following states: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

The study of parliamentary discourses can be perceived as supplementary to the analysis of vote outcomes presented in the prior chapter. In particular, discourses help us to establish why parliamentary parties supported or rejected a given bill. It can be well the case that support or opposition had various ‘faces’. Hence, distinguishing between the reasons that motivate parties to vote in a particular way can also help us to establish which arguments drive – or hinder – consensus in European economic matters.

Analytical framework

The analysis presented in this chapter has been conducted in a semi-inductive manner. Namely, the exact content of arguments has not been anticipated but only the general categories, that is: pragmatic, ethical and moral (Habermas, 1991). Pragmatic discourses are those based on rationality oriented towards finalities. Once the finality is rationally established, the discourse presents the most efficient options for attaining these rational finalities. Actors pursuing consequential logic give reasons presenting a calculus of benefit and an optimal outcome in a given context. In pragmatic discourses conflict revolves around considerations of utility and/or efficiency.

In contrast, ethical discourses refer to the notion of ‘good’. Ethical arguments put forward a specific community’s view on constitutive values. Actions and decisions are recognized as legitimate when they comply with norms and conceptions which define the identity of a social group. Hence, conflict is likely to occur if different notions of ‘good’ are confronted with each other.

Finally, moral arguments aim at justifying political action by providing reasons that can be accepted as fair and just across different social groups with potentially conflicting interests or ethical values. In this sense, moral discourses convey arguments that, being accepted by all affected parties, can be universalized. Moral discourses systematically construct third parties or the ‘other’ as essential in their justification.

The relation to the ‘other’ makes it possible to distinguish between pragmatic, ethical and moral discourses. In pragmatic discourses, third parties are relevant only as a means to enable or restrict conditions for action. In ethical discourses, the ‘other’ is relevant only as far as he or she is interconnected with our own constellation of identity and interests. Hence, the other has only a relative importance. In moral discourses, taking the ‘other’ into account in conditions of equality is the central requirement for an acceptable outcome.

Methodological approach – frame analysis

Contemporary definitions of a ‘frame’ stress its interpretative notion (Tannen, 1993): in other words, frames are ‘persistent patterns of cognition, interpretation and presentation of selection, emphasis and exclusion by which symbol-handlers routinely organize discourse’ (Gitlin, 1980). Gamson and Modigliani (1989) define frames as interpretative packages at the core of which is a central organising idea, or frame, for making sense of relevant events, suggesting what is at issue. Frames also define problems, diagnose causes (Goffman, 1974 and 1981), make moral judgements and suggest remedies (de Vreese and Kandyla, 2009). In the course of the empirical analysis all frames that MPs used in their discourses were classified into the three categories of discourse: pragmatic, ethical and moral.

Frames, as speech acts, contain four major elements: (1) actors – the authors of statements (classified according to their political affiliation), (2) the subject of the statement (here, the parliamentary approval of the EFSF or the Fiscal Compact), (3) the direction of the statement (in favour or against) and (4) justifications (how the decision was framed). This analytical structure has been used in order to develop a ‘code-book’, an analytical tool enabling an empirical analysis in different states using the same procedure. The code-book was constructed in both a deductive and an inductive manner. Whereas categories 1, 2 and 3 were established prior to the empirical analysis, category 4 (frames) was further expanded during the analysis.

In the second step, when the coding process was finished, the data from all the countries were merged and analyzed in a comparative way, which helped to establish regular patterns in the discourses employed by parliamentary parties. The debates were analyzed (coded) in their original languages by the group of researchers who were proficient in these languages. The codes were assigned in English. The analysis has been conducted with help of the Atlas.ti software which allows systematic, qualitative analysis of discourses.

For instance, pragmatic frames reflected predominantly interests: in particular, MPs referred to economic interests of states, the eurozone or the European Union, and/or the political interests of specific euro states and institutions, such as governments or parliaments. MPs would also refer to the various interests of banks. The second group, ethical frames, included on the one hand, frames reflecting fears of diminishing national sovereignty in financial matters, and on the other, frames advocating deeper political integration of the EMU. The frame responsibility for the euro and EU integration stressed the fact that the euro currency is a project worthy of support. Hence, MPs who used that frame wished to demonstrate that the euro is an important component of the European integration project. MPs also referred to breach of EU legislation, in particular the Stability and Growth Pact and the no-bailout clause.

The third group, moral frames, consisted of frames referring to solidarity and justice and social unjustness of austerity measures. The former referred to solidarity among states or individuals in the name of universal justice. Regarding austerity, MPs would stress that the measure pushes common people, who are not responsible for generating the crisis, into deep poverty and hopelessness.

The empirical evidence has been based on plenary parliamentary debates accompanying the approval of the increased budgetary capacity of the EFSF and the Fiscal Compact in the following euro states: Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

Regarding the ratification process of the Fiscal Compact Ireland and Greece constituted special cases. In particular, in Ireland there was a referendum while in Greece the ratification of the Fiscal Compact was merged with the ratification of the ESM Treaty and the amendment of the Article 136(3) of the Lisbon Treaty. These specificities were also reflected in the content of plenary debates in these states.

Discursive support and opposition: dominant patterns

The empirical analysis of discourses demonstrated that there was little change in parliamentary parties’ arguments throughout the analyzed time-period. As the previous chapter demonstrated, neither the voting patterns nor the discourses have changed over time. The major differences observed concerned country-specific peculiarities (e.g. the legislative merger in Greece). Furthermore, some ideas became more explicitly voiced. While already in 2010 parliamentary parties considered deepening integration in economic governance, two years later their ideas became more tangible.

According to the empirical findings, each of the two sub-groups of supporters and opponents employed specific discourses (see Table 5.1): pragmatic arguments revolving around national economic interests were the domain of governments (pragmatic supporters). Mainstream opposition parties, ergo idealistic supporters, referred predominantly to ethnical discourses pointing to the value of European integration process and the euro. Right-wing Eurosceptic opposition parties (nationalistic opponents) employed ethical arguments revolving around the fear of losing national sovereignty whereas left-wing Eurosceptic opposition parties (anti-austerians) employed moral discourses focussing on anti-solidaristic nature of anti-crisis measures.

Table 5.1 Dominant frames
Supporters Political affiliation Dominant frames


governing parties

economic interests (national and the European), responsibility for the eurozone


mainstream opposition parties

economic interests, strengthening of EU integration in economic governance


Political affiliation

Dominant frames


Eurosceptic, opposition, economic right

national economic interests, loss of sovereignty, breach of the SGP and the no-bailout rule


Eurosceptic, opposition, economic left

solidarity (among states and people), social justice

Source: Adapted from Closa, C. and Maatsch, A. (2014) ‘In a Spirit of Solidarity? Justifying the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) in National Parliamentary Debates’, Journal of Common Market Studies, 52(4)

The comparison of voting patterns and discourses reveals one asymmetry. In particular, some parliamentarians voted in favour of anti-crisis measures but, at the same time, they voiced critical statements. This asymmetry between voting and discourses has been also observed in other cases, for instance, parliamentary ratification of the Treaty of Lisbon (Maatsch, 2010). It is likely that these parliamentarians wanted to voice their criticism without endangering the completion of the ratification process. For instance, during the ratification of the Fiscal Compact parties which otherwise voted in favour of the Treaty pointed towards democratic deficit in the ratification procedure:

This is the first time any Government has brought a proposal for a European treaty to the Dáil without first publishing a White Paper. Past White Papers have served as a definitive statement of each treaty’s implications in an Irish context. (…) This is a very bad start to a serious debate about a measure that is an important part of the wider agenda of restoring growth and job creation to Ireland and Europe. In effect the Government has ignored its duty under Standing Orders and precedent to provide Members of the Oireachtas with briefing sufficient to ensure a fully informed debate.

Many people are suffering today because of the impact of the recession. Unemployment is far too high and living standards are under pressure. However, we must remember the simple fact that both living standards and employment rates remain significantly higher than they would be if Ireland were outside the Union or the euro. (…) Let us not forget that the Union remains an immense force for good in areas such as equality, education and working conditions. People can summon up all of their ideological fury to condemn the Union as some elite conspiracy to do down ordinary people, but the reality is that it has done more for the people of Ireland and Europe than any left or right-wing ideology.2

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