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It is national parties which select the candidates who stand in European elections, and who run the campaigns designed to bring about their victory. They may increasingly use the literature of the transnational groupings, but they fight primarily on national rather than European issues and they interpret the outcome very much in terms of what it means for their standing in domestic politics. Party politicians attend EU gatherings as national figures, advancing their countries’ interests. They will be influenced by their position on the political spectrum, those who are left-inclined being more concerned with social justice, protecting employment and supporting stronger environmental action and those on the right is more concerned with deregulation of business, free markets and open trading policies. But these ideological leanings usually take second place to arguments based on national interest and the leaders’ perceptions of the demands of the political situation ‘back home’.
National parties have their own priorities and use a range of policy issues in Euro-elections. Yet although they tend to see them as another opportunity to rally the faithful and inflict a defeat on their main rivals, nonetheless Europe is a key question with which they have to deal. Most leading European parties have to some extent incorporated Europe into their policy thinking and ideas. They cannot afford not to. The topic has the potential to create tensions, but events on the European stage mean that engagement is essential. European developments occur with remarkable frequency, whether because of the desire of some continental politicians to devise a European constitution or to create a common currency. National politicians have no option but to respond to such initiatives.
As a broad trend, parties of the moderate left have adapted to a more pro-European position over the last two or three decades. This trend has partly reflected the parties’ realisation that coordinated continental action often makes good sense and can be more effective in the pursuit of their goals than national action alone. Also, it recognises that national and international action is today more closely connected than they were in the distant past, as the ability of countries to pursue a purely independent line has been reduced. Accordingly, moderate-left politicians in Europe perceived that the European Union could develop in a way that was to the advantage of those elements that supported them. In particular, the pro-business, free-market Community of the 1980s has become the EU which now has a social dimension as a result of the Delors initiatives of the late 1980s. This allows for the possibility of interventionist policies to correct market failures and protect and enhance workers’ rights. Green parties from several countries have also learned to live with the European Union, whatever doubts they had about its early direction. It can be a force for effective action in the environmental arena, providing the opportunity to introduce stiffer regulations on anything from the emissions caused by air travel to the cleanliness of water supplies. Growing representation of the Green element in the European Parliament enables it to highlight green concerns and associated areas of policy. The situation created by euro-elections has made it highly desirable for Green parties to become involved, even in a country such as the United Kingdom where the changeover to a party list electoral system has enabled the Green Party to gain representation.
The trend has been for the main parties in most member states to adopt a broadly pro-European stance. Accordingly, the European Parliament has always had an integrationist majority. But even within the PES and EPP, there have been disagreements about the pace, direction and extent of integration. At the national level, those disagreements have been echoed, the more so as parties come to realise the growing doubts of many voters about the European project. Most mainstream parties accept the fact and desirability of membership, but think more carefully today about the extent of their commitment to the political goals of the post-war pioneers of an ‘ever closer union of the peoples of Europe’. Recent European elections have revealed the growing extent of Euroscepticism among the electorates of several member states. Anti-EU parties of the far right have made significant headway. They received some encouragement from the results in 1999 and 2004, which indicated a loss of enthusiasm for and interest in the EU and it works, and increased support for parties such as UKIP which question the whole direction of Union policy and ‘want out’.
British political parties and their reactions to the European Union: a case study
The issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe, and particularly with the European Union, has been a difficult one for the two main parties. Towards the end of the twentieth century, the Conservatives found the issue seriously divisive, whereas previously it was the Labour Party which suffered internal ructions because of it.
Initially, the dispute over Europe concerned membership of the European Community. For a long while, this has not been the case, although some politicians and observers do make occasional calls for withdrawal. In recent years, the questions for the parties have concerned the form the Union should take, and how to react to the initiatives and policies espoused by leading figures in other EU countries.
In the early decades after 1945, Labour was sceptical of any moves in the direction of a unified Europe. Though a few individuals were well disposed of, the bulk of the party was unsympathetic to the rhetoric of Monnet and some of the other enthusiasts. They wanted nothing to do with integration, even though fellow socialists on the other side of the Channel were much involved in the early moves. Prime Minister Attlee showed an insular approach when he wrote in 1948: ‘The Labour Party is a characteristically British production, differing widely from continental socialist parties’.
The party never displayed any real interest in joining what is portrayed as a ‘rich man’s club’, and there was great scepticism about any benefits which might accrue. In the office, it made an abortive attempt to join the Union in 1967, but thereafter the question of membership proved highly divisive. These divisions were apparent in the 1975 referendum in which some ministers were allowed to campaign against continued British membership of the Community.
After Labour lost the 1987 election, policy towards Europe was reassessed at the time of the Policy Review. As a leader, Neil Kinnock had come to admire European socialist leaders, of whom several were in office in charge of leftwing governments. They wanted to see Britain more committed to membership. Kinnock himself appreciated that having been in the Community for fifteen years there were difficulties and dangers which made it undesirable to leave. Moreover, Europe had begun to seriously divide the Conservative government. There was possible party advantage to be gained in striking a more positive note.
Above all, however, it was the visit of Jacques Delors which was the catalyst for a change in Labour thinking. When he spoke of the social dimension of the EC, Labour found itself warming to the theme. After years in which many remnants of socialism were killed off under Margaret Thatcher, Labour realised that a version of it still survived on the continent. Via the Social Charter (as it was then known), there was a chance for the labour movement as a whole to reverse the tide. After this, there was a wider recognition that democratic socialists had a role to play in the development of the Community, and the Kinnock leadership wanted to play its part.
By the early to mid-1990s, Labour was urging that Britain should play a more active role in developing European institutions and in making membership work to Britain’s advantage. It was the accession to the leadership and in 1997 to the premiership of Tony Blair that finally convinced many European leaders that the party was now firmly committed to the European cause. From the beginning, Blair was keen to sound positive on Europe. Thereafter, his rhetoric and actions established him as one of the very few actively pro-European British prime ministers.
Labour has had six broad positions in Europe since the war. Cool or hostile up until the late sixties, it advocated entry in 1967, became lukewarm again in opposition after 1970, supported membership in the referendum, was sharply critical in the early 1980s and became committed to membership later in the decade. This is how it portrays itself today. Labour is now in a broadly pro-European phase, committed to making membership work to Britain’s advantage. The Conservatives After the war, Winston Churchill’s Zurich Speech and his involvement in organizations such as the United Europe Committee combined to give the impression that he was sympathetic to the political and economic union. Yet despite the language, his ideas were vague and he never seriously envisaged that Britain would be a member of a united Europe. However, it was the Conservative government of Harold Macmillan which first (unsuccessfully) applied to join the Community. Edward Heath – the man responsible for the first set of negotiations – was committed to the European cause and saw the attempt to join as something of a crusade. As prime minister, he signed the Treaty of Accession in 1972, seeing it as an historic turning point in Britain’s fortunes. His Conservative successor, Margaret Thatcher, never shared his degree of commitment. She adopted a more mimimalist position. She could see the economic benefits of membership and wanted Britain to stay in the Community. However, her outlook was more of a Gaullist one for she favoured a ‘Europe des Patries’. For her, the EC was what she called in her Bruges Speech ‘a partnership of nation-states each retaining the right to protect its vital interests, but practising more effectively than at present the habit of working together’.
To many members of the party, her approach was seen as determined – if sometimes strident – and there was some admiration for the way she defended her country’s interests as she saw them. Party critics exhibited much irritation and resentment about her manner in dealing with European leaders, which could be carping and hectoring. Ultimately, Mrs Thatcher’s attitude towards Europe was her undoing, for the divisions within her party, more especially within her government, proved difficult to contain. After 1986, several of her ministers left the cabinet directly or indirectly because of policy towards the EC. John Major appeared to be a cool pragmatist in Europe. Soon after becoming a leader, he made it clear that he wished to place Britain ‘at the heart of Europe’, but he was aware of the potential for division inherent in the issue. His immediate task was to keep the party together in the run-up to the 1992 election. He showed some skill in terms of party management, although pro-Europeans thought that this was at the expense of giving a clear lead to the country about the direction in which he wished to see the Community develop. After the election, he had a particularly difficult course to navigate. At the same time as he was trying to convince other members of the European Council that he was a ‘good European’, he was also concerned to assure his own right wing that he was rolling back the influence of the EC. He courted the eurosceptics and the jingoistic vote in the country by a series of ‘tough’ stances towards Britain’s European partners, and by so doing he sacrificed some support from pro-European Conservatives (particularly the more pro-federal MEPs) who were dismayed by his policy and approach post-Maastricht. Europe proved a seriously damaging issue for the Conservatives in the run-up to the 1997 election.
Since the electoral debacle of that year, the party has become more united over Europe around a broadly eurosceptic approach. It has supported British membership, whilst seeming lukewarm or hostile to any initiatives taken in Brussels to move the Union forward. It still supports a Europe of sovereign states and resists what it portrays as any move towards a European superstate.
The Liberals/Alliance/Liberal Democrats
The Liberals supported closer integration and British participation in Europe long before the two main parties were prepared to take this route. Inevitably, theirs was a minority voice, and the absence of coalition politics at Westminster meant that it was rarely advanced at the top table. They supported the attempts to join the EC made by the Macmillan and Wilson governments. Later, they gave solid backing to Edward Heath in the debates over accession in the early 1970s and joined him on the pro-European side in the Referendum campaign in 1975.
Now operating as the Liberal Democrats, the party maintains the traditional Liberal support for European cooperation.The bulk of the party has retained a pro-federalist line, though there are individuals who are uneasy about the commitment to political unity exhibited by the leadership.The pro-European rhetoric was toned down by Charles Kennedy.
United Kingdom Independence Party
The United Kingdom Independence Party was formed in 1993 but only began to make a significant impact in the 2004 elections. It was the only party to campaign primarily on European issues. It stressed that it was not anti-European, but was opposed to membership of the EU which – bureaucratic and corrupt – ‘stifles our initiative and threatens our freedom’ and is a drain on UK resources. It had a clear, unambiguous message: withdrawal from the Union, which made it a natural vehicle for eurosceptics and voters wishing to lodge a protest vote without changing the government.
Impact of the European issue on the parties
In no other country have the parties and politicians found the European issue so difficult to handle. Just as Home Rule for Ireland was a divisive question in the 1880s and Tariff Reform was in the first decade of the twentieth century, so Europe has been in postwar years. The issue of integration has divided both parties for more than forty years, ever since the Attlee government declined to take part in the negotiations leading to the Treaty of Paris and the creation of the ECSC.
What has been remarkable about the splits within each party is not so much their longevity but rather their intensity. At various times, Europe has constituted the fault line within each party, offering the prospect of breaking it asunder. As they have had to contend with these internal divisions, the temptation for party leaders has been to adopt short-term policies which have got them off the hook until the next election was safely out of the way.
If Labour’s disunity was over the actual fact of membership, the issue for the Conservatives has been different. Few felt that Britain could survive outside the Community/Union, but many were uncertain as to the sort of future they wanted it. Most politicians and writers agree that there is little to be gained from espousing an anti-European viewpoint today; the debate has moved on, and there is no going back. All three parties are officially in favour of ‘Britain in Europe’.
Political parties in Europe have had to adapt to the demands of their countries’ membership of the European Union. The issue has the capacity to create internal party tensions, influence domestic election outcomes and foment discussion about the degree of commitment of member states and anxieties about the pace of integration, particularly every five years when euro-elections are due to be held. Noting the way in which previously lukewarm or even hostile parties have adapted to membership of the Union, Bomberg10 concludes that: ‘Parties need not simply lie back and “let Europe happen to them”: they can [and often do] actively engage and exploit European structures for their own party political gain’.
What is emerging, in a limited way, is a European party system mainly based on the series of transnational groupings at Strasbourg. These blocs adopt common manifestos and produce brochures which set out their policies and programmes, a development which has been apparent over the last four elections and inevitably means that more attention is paid to European issues and to the debate on the future of European integration. The political groups – in cooperation with national leadership – have been able to influence the agenda of the European Council and have built up a foundation for European political parties. As yet, the transnational parties cannot be comparable in importance or strength to national parties in the member states. But with the help now received from the European budget, they can use their funds to organise support for their positions among the inhabitants of the Union. In the long run, they might be the basis for a stronger and more influential European party system. It remains the case that the overwhelming majority of MEPs are politicians from one of the national parties in their country of election. They and their parties have stood for election and campaigned as national party candidates on national – rather than European – issues. Within the blocs of the European Parliament, they often sit and act as a national contingent.
Despite repeated pleas from Brussels, in virtually no country were the last European elections fought primarily on European issues. In most cases, they descended into little more than a referendum on the government of the day. Voters had the chance to cast a protest vote against those in office and to a lesser extent against the EU in general. In several contests, much of the running during the campaign was made by eurosceptic candidates and parties, noticeably in Denmark, Poland, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands.
Eurocommunism The name applied to a variety of communism developed by some Western European communist parties, most evidently in France, Italy and Spain. They were seeking to develop a theory and practice of social transformation that was more attuned to Western democracies and which would appeal more broadly than the
Soviet-based approach. Transnational parties Federal associations of national or regional parties from several member states of the European Union whose members are committed to permanent cooperation on the basis of an agreed political programme. In terms of their structure and modus operandi, as well as their ambitions and field of operations, they are transnational. As Jansen explains: ‘Their terrain is the political system of the Union and their deputies belong to the same groups in the European Parliament’