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Political parties and the European Union
Political parties are usually viewed as national organisations which have local and regional branches. However, they may also have an international and/or transnational dimension. Given its immense size, the EU provides opportunities for like-minded parties to cooperate in pursuit of their aims. It also has a considerable impact upon party politics in the member states, providing a whole new set of issues with which politicians have to deal.
As the Union developed, so commentators began to look for signs that national parties were becoming more ‘European’ in their outlook, in reflection of the general move towards a more integrationist approach. To what extent is a uniquely European party system likely to develop, linked to but distinct from the party systems prevalent in member countries? Or can European party politics only be interpreted in terms of the impact on the fortunes of national parties in the various states?
There is a wide spectrum of political parties across Europe. Over recent years, there has been a decline of far-left organisations, with the diminution in support for eurocommunism from its heyday of the 1970s in Western Europe and the breakdown of the Soviet empire in the East. Today, social democracy is the main ideology of the left and this is a moderate form of socialism. In most cases, it combines support for governmental provision of services with a greater interest in self-reliance than was prevalent in the past. On the right, Christian Democrat parties are active in most continental countries. They share a greater interest in social issues than has been traditional in the British Conservative Party, seeing welfarism as the best means of avoiding tension within society.
These two positions dominate party politics within the member states and the European Union.
At present, national political parties of whatever persuasion are involved in the affairs of the European Union in three ways:
The establishment of European institutions as part of the ECSC, EEC and other bodies encouraged the growth of transnational confederations of political parties. They are loose associations which bring together broadly like-minded parties from member states in one organisation. Their development was given further impetus as a consequence of the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament. Their arrival on the European political scene was recognized in the Maastricht Treaty. A new Article 138a was written into the Treaty of Rome: ‘Political parties at European level are important as a factor for integration within the Union. They contribute to forming a European awareness and to expressing the political will of the citizens of the Union’.
Since then, transnational parties have been identified as having an increasingly important role in EU affairs. The Nice Treaty authorised the Council to lay down ‘regulations governing political parties and in particular rules governing their financing’ at European level. In order that recognition and resources should be limited to bodies that were genuinely transnational in character, the Party Statute of the EU (2003)1 narrowed their definition to parties which were represented in at least one quarter of Member States by Members of the European Parliament, members of national parliaments, or members of regional parliaments or assemblies or have received in at least one quarter of Member States at least three per cent of the vote in those Member states in the most recent European elections.
The statute gave formal shape to European parties and represented a considerable boost to their significance. These parties have become increasingly important players in the politics of the European Union over recent years. They have one or more members in most of the member and associated states. They are actively engaged at all levels in the major institutions of the EU. They have a close working relationship with the party groupings of the European Parliament.
Transnational parties operate in much the same way as do their member parties. A congress of delegates decides on the political programme; an executive committee deals with current issues and day-to-day business; a chairman (supported by a party presidium or board) speaks for the party and represents it; a secretary general (supported by a secretariat) is in charge of internal communication and the technical and organisational work necessary to ensure that party bodies can operate properly. There are often associations for certain categories of members, such as women and young people.
The three main transnational parties are the rightwing European People’s Party (EPP), the leftwing Party of European Socialists (PES) and the more centrist European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR).
1. The European People’s Party (EPP) was the first transnational party to be formed at European level and remains the largest political force on the continent, with sixty-nine member parties from thirty-seven countries. It is a family of the political centre right, which has pioneered the European project from its inception. It is committed to a federal Europe, based on the principle of subsidiarity. It exists to advance the goal of a more competitive and democratic Europe, closer to its citizens. The EPP is open to individuals, via the mechanism of ‘supporting members’.
2. The Party of European Socialists (PES) was founded in The Hague (1992) to succeed the Confederation of Socialist Parties of the European Community. It is an associated organisation of the Socialist International. Its membership includes thirty-three social democratic, socialist and labour parties of the European Union member states, as well as others from Bulgaria, Romania and Norway. Like the EPP, there are no fully involved members, but the PES is accessible to individuals via the mechanism of ‘PES activists’. Some 5,000 of these activists can exchange their views on the PES website, organise meetings within their countries and take part in Europe-wide campaigns.
3. The European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party (ELDR) brings together political parties with common liberal, democratic and reform ideals from more than thirty European countries. It sees its role as to strengthen the Liberal Democrat movement in the EU and throughout Europe; assist Liberal Democrat politicians across Europe to become better acquainted to define a common political vision; and draw up and adopt a common manifesto for the European elections. If these three main transnational groups are only loosely coordinated, the smaller ones which have emerged have in the past suffered even more seriously from the disadvantages of fragmentation and limited resources. Two of the more prominent ones have been the European Federation of Green Parties and the Party of the European Left.
4. The European Green Party was created in 2004, as a replacement for the Federation, underlining the objective of a deeper cooperation. European Greens stand for ‘the sustainable development of humanity on planet Earth, a mode of development respectful of human rights and built upon the values of environmental responsibility, freedom, justice, diversity and non-violence’. It currently has thirty-three member parties in twenty-nine states, ranging from Ireland to Georgia, from Malta to Norway.
5. The Party of the European Left wants to see a different kind of Europe that is anti-war; redistributes wealth, power and influence; resists capitalist globalisation; and is fully democratic and accountable. Its seventeen member parties from fifteen countries are of various shades, socialist, communist, red-green among them.
Uses and weaknesses
Transnational parties are described as confederations rather than federations, for the bonds which unite them are not strong and there has traditionally been little central direction or leadership. However, the politicians involved in them see mutual benefit in cooperation and the exchange of information. They provide an opportunity for the coordination of activities and ideas at the European level, enabling them to present common propaganda and to fight elections on a common platform. As we see below, they have in recent years coordinated campaigns for the five-yearly European elections. They have other uses. There has been a developing tendency for various national leaders within a political family to meet together prior to European summit meetings, to enable them to agree a broad stance in preparation for the main sessions. For instance, centre-right politicians might seek to coordinate their policies on business deregulation and liberal trade policies. There are some indications that transnational parties might develop more in the future. But at present, other than organising and attending meetings and producing election literature, their role is modest. Nugent explains their weakness in this way: because the confederations have no institutional focus (such as Westminster or the European Parliament) they are not involved in day-to-day political activities.
They cannot develop attachments and loyalties. From this, other weaknesses flow; low status; limited resources and loose organisational structures. Moreover, there are additional factors which make it difficult for them to achieve greater significance, one of which is the divergence of national interest between member parties. There are occasions when national leaders have to take a stand in Council to defend or advance their domestic interest, irrespective of whether this may conflict with their broad ideological inclinations. In recent years, Dutch and Swedish representatives have often aligned themselves with the British position in favour of reform of the CAP, whereas their French and German counterparts have been on the other side. The interests of significant groups within their populations have been a greater priority than any transnational party loyalty, so that the Third Way, centre-left premiers in the United Kingdom and Germany found themselves at odds over the issue. In the same way, a coalition based on national interest allowed Tony Blair to work with the Spanish centreright prime minister in advancing the agenda of deregulation.
There are other difficulties. National political parties often find themselves having to adapt to decentralisation within their own country and devote more time to safeguarding their party organisation at home rather than working on any joint European initiatives. Moreover, lacking as they do in many cases a sound financial basis, they cannot afford to divert many of their monetary and personnel resources to transnational and European Parliamentary activity. Finally, there is a difficulty in communication between the European and national levels which affects their political effectiveness and the possibilities for organisational development. Jansen points out: The number of politicians and officials working at European level is still fairly small. National party headquarters have many more times the personnel, operational capacity and financial resources available to the European party secretariats. Inadequate equipment makes regularly supplying comprehensive information and communication with member parties in the various languages impossible. As for spreading the word to the wider public, this is not yet feasible.
At present, there is no clear idea how individual memberships should best be constituted. National parties have already had to confront a similar issue in the context of regional devolution. This led to the creation of specifically ‘regional’ parties, linked to their political family at the national level, but with a considerable degree of autonomy, as happens in Scotland and Catalonia. It may be that individual members joining parties which are simultaneously active at the regional, national and European levels could enjoy specified rights at all levels.
Present strength and future prospects: differing views Opinions concerning the present and likely future state of any European party system based on transnational parties are highly diverse. At present the tendency among many commentators is to see them as facilitating bodies which are necessary to make the elections for and workings of the European Parliament more effective, bodies via which the conflict of ideas and tendencies among MEPs can be recognised and organised. For others, they are more just machinery via which the electoral battle can be fought and around which Parliament can be made to function. They add an extra dimension, providing a genuine European feel to party battle, having an appeal and reach that the national parties cannot attain. Finally, there are those who believe that the present parties will evolve into key agencies via which elections are contested, with individuals being able not only to join but to play an active part in their proceedings and in the evolution of their policies and ideas. Under this scenario, voters might come to see themselves as supporters of a national party for domestic issues and a transnational party for European issues.
Those who are dismissive of the party federations tend to view them as political parties at the European level. They lack mass membership and do not have a direct relationship with European electorates. It follows that they cannot be anything more than pseudo-parties. Those who see them as something altogether more significant perceive them as being European or at least European Union parties.
The Tsatsos Report (1996) of the European Parliament which dealt with the financing of euro-parties saw them as important in advancing integration, for they contributed to a ‘developing European awareness and were a means of expressing the political will of the citizens’. They must not be ‘created with the purpose of attracting Community funds: rather, they must pursue long-term policies’. It suggested that for them to be recognised as such, they would need to have ‘various features derived from the image of the political parties in the Member States and transferred - mutatis mutandis - to the level of the European Union’. According to Jansen, these include:
1. internal structures which resemble those of national parties
2. official recognition of their role in resourcing similar functions to these carried out by conventional political parties
3. some mechanism for agreeing programmes and manifestos
4. an agreement by the national parties that, to some extent, their authority should be limited in favour of the euro-parties.
In assessing the claims of party federations to be genuinely European parties, Jansen finds that to some degree they do meet these criteria. For instance, dealing with each of them in order, he makes the following observations:
1. The typical structure of Euro-parties is comparable to that of a national party. Moreover, some three-quarters of MEPs come from national parties committed by their membership of euro-parties to joining a corresponding group in the EP and some of these parties do provide for individual membership.
2. Since the Statute, parties are officially recognised and funded, via the Union budget.
3. Euro-parties have over recent elections agreed manifestos for European elections; their ideas on policy, as reflected in their party texts, are fed through into meetings in Council and in gatherings of MEPs.
4. The Statutes of the EPP, PES and ELDR allow party positions to be decided by majority vote, so that over some areas of policy national parties are willing to cede some decision-making to the euro-parties.
There are some similarities between national and euro-parties, but they are as yet undeveloped. Few would argue that euro-parties form a meaningful link between European citizens and their elected representatives. When voters go to the polls in European elections, they are not choosing between the candidates of euro-parties. They are voting for candidates of national parties which belong or are affiliated to euro-parties. Very few voters would identify themselves as supporters
Bale speculates that what may happen in the future is that transnational parties ‘will adopt a kind of “franchising” model, whereby (like many fast-food chains) the component parties of the organisation will be allowed a great deal of autonomy as long as they use and promote the basic brand: this less hierarchical structure might facilitate within parties the kind of multilevel governance they are having to adjust to both at home and in Europe’. Others have higher aspirations. Wilfried Martens, the ex-president of the EPP, shares the view that European political parties are crucial to building up new awareness and wants to see voters ‘electing the President of the Commission in a real European political campaign’ for which the euro-parties nominate the candidate.