Surveillance policies and party cohesion in the European Parliament


The wave of terrorist attacks that affected Europe in 2015-2017 as well as the revelations of Edward Snowden in 2013 jointly framed the demand for a new social contract in the field of surveillance and privacy and its acceptable limits. On the one hand, governments presented themselves as being responsible for the people, and requested increased powers of surveillance, especially taking advantage of new technologies developed and the overwhelming expansion of computing power in less than a decade. On the other hand, civil society organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union or Privacy International argued that governments are responsible to the people and need clear regulations on their surveillance activities. The existence of radically different regulation regimes between EU Member States in areas such as metadata collection, the collection of Passenger Names Records and the specific bounds between personal data protection and national security exceptions only added fuel to the fire and led to a need for supra-national regulation.

Our article adds another layer to the understanding of this debate by investigating the determinants of voting on such security policies in the European Parliament (EP). We select two salient directives adopted in this field, the Data Retention Directive (DRD)  of 2005 and the Passengers’ Names Record (PNR) directive of 2016 and use the 28 roll-call votes that were cast on the occasion of the adoption of the directives as empirical data. We first analyze the history of the adoption of the directives, taking advantage of the fact that we have the benefit of hindsight concerning the eventual annulment of the Data Retention Directive. The selection of these directives is justified by several reasons. First, the Data Retention Directive represented the first legal act adopted under the co-decision procedure in the Area of Freedom Security and Justice (AFSJ). Second, unlike previous acts that governed the AFSJ, the directives were adopted through a public deliberation process in the European Parliament, as opposed to inter-governmental negotiations. Third, the PNR Directive was remarkable because it incorporated the reasoning of the European Court of Justice (including on the Data Retention Directive) and it considerably advanced the protection of individual rights.

Researchers have consistently focused on how Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) vote and what makes them defect from the voting line established by their European party group (EPG). Usually, such dissent should be rare and it should occur mostly when there are strong ideological differences between the MEP’s national party and the leadership of the European party group. This relationship has not been investigated with a specific focus on MEPs’ voting behaviour on security issues. This is the main goal of our article. First, we argue that the national parties’ position concerning further European integration predicts the MEP’s voting behaviour on the two directives more strongly than their placement on the social values dimension (GAL-TAN). Second, the opposition of the MEPs to the DRD and PNR directives should be influenced by the extent to which their national parties emphasize human rights and constitutionalism in their manifestos or on the contrary, the degree to which they give more salience to law and order issues. Last but not least, we draw on principal-agent theory and expect MEPs to dissent from the position of their European Party Group when the distance between it and their national party is large on the EU integration dimension and when there is considerable difference in the saliency awarded to human rights, constitutionalism and law and order between the two principals.

As hinted above, we use a number of multivariate regression models to explore the MEPs’ support or opposition to the DRD and PNR directives and what determined their dissent from their European Party Group. We found that MEPs were more likely to vote against the two directives if their national parties are more Eurosceptic or they are closer to the green, libertarian end of the GAL-TAN continuum. Nevertheless,  national parties’ position on EU integration mattered more for the MEPs’ voting behaviour on these issues than their placement on the GAL-TAN dimension. The results also illustrate that the salience national parties assign to human rights issues matters greatly for how their MEP voted on both directives.

The second set of analyses show that the probability of dissent in these votes was higher the more anti-EU the national party of the MEP was in comparison to the European Party Group, and when the two principals assigned different salience to law and order issues. Also, MEPs from parties closer to the TAN end of the GAL-TAN axis tended to dissent more, as was the case when the European Party Group was positioned much more to the right of the national party.

Overall, our research shows that there is a strong association between what parties officially claim through their manifestos in European elections and how their representatives vote in the European Parliament on matters regarding surveillance policies. Another relevant conclusion is that the influence of the European Party Group on how MEPs vote is smaller when the national party assigns more importance to that particular issue than the EPG. This could possibly hold for other issues which, as liberty/security topics, cannot be easily integrated on a traditional left-right axis.



Mihail Chiru

Mihail Chiru holds a PhD in Political Science from the Central European University and is a Lecturer in East European Politics at the Russian and East European Studies Programme of the Oxford School of Global and Area Studies. His main academic interests include: legislative behaviour and legislative organization, party politics and electoral studies.



Valentin Stoian

Valentin Stoian holds a PhD in Political Science from the Central European University. He is currently a collaborator of the Bucharest Center for Political Theory. His main academic interests include: political theory, ethics, surveillance policies and corruption.