08 Dezember 2023

European party politics between integration and national inertia

By Enrico Liedtke
Flags in front of the European Parliament
To maintain influence in European decision-making, parties need to integrate and adapt their internal structures to the political system of the EU.

These days, political parties are once again starting to nominate their candidates for the European Parliament. For the tenth time, the citizens of the European Union will be called to the polls next spring to elect their pan-European representatives. However, the way in which candidates are being nominated, and the parallel consultations on election manifestos, show that the European elections are still insufficiently Europeanised and that the parties taking part in them remain stuck in national ways of thinking.

As in the two previous elections, the European party families will likely nominate European lead candidates (Spitzenkandidaten) next year. But it can be assumed that the campaigns will be characterised by the competition logic of the national party systems.

Refusal to Europeanise national party structures

It is regrettable that the parties have so far failed to adapt adequately to the conditions of politics beyond the nation state and to align themselves more closely with the structures of the European Union, both organisationally and programmatically.

It is regrettable not only because it frustrates the idea of European unification. By refusing to integrate organisationally and transfer some of their political prerogatives to a European level, the national parties are almost deliberately derailing efforts to democratise the EU and make it more accessible to citizens.

Strengthening European political parties

Europeanisation does not mean transferring all action and decision-making powers of the national or sub-national party units to the European level. However, where the EU institutions have the power to make political decisions, both the need for party-political coherence and a certain degree of efficiency in policy-making argue in favour of strengthening and empowering the European organisational level of the parties. This applies not only to personnel decisions, but also to questions of authority over policy positions.

In this, the European parties have a key role to play. So far, they are still organised as formations for the transnational cooperation of national parties. But they harbour an untapped potential to shape European politics democratically and to compensate for the creeping loss of importance of political parties in decision-making outside the national arena.

Only European parties can create democratic responsiveness

As in all representative democracies, parties at the European level have specific functions – albeit insufficiently exploited so far – that differ from those at the national level due to the special nature of the European Union as a political system. In particular, these functions include the aggregation of EU-wide political preferences and the coordination between the individual member parties and the institutions.

But the role of European parties goes much further than that. Only they will be able to occupy the position in the EU’s political system from which it will be possible to establish a democratic responsiveness between the will of Europeans and the decisions of the EU institutions and to sufficiently legitimise the political system as a whole and its decision-making processes. The potential of European parties to bundle positions and interests can help to overcome the fragmented influence of a large number of national parties on policy-making and thus make it more efficient and comprehensible.

National parties’ diminishing ability to shape policy

As long as the EU had only a relatively small number of member states, individual national parties, especially the larger ones, may still have had a tangible influence on European decision-making processes. However, both the enlargement to 27 member states and the far-reaching changes in the national party systems (increasing fragmentation, pluralisation, erosion of “catch-all” parties) are noticeably reducing national parties’ power and their ability to shape EU policy.

In the medium term, they will hardly be able to have a decisive influence on the complex European decision-making processes in general and on the crucial institutional agenda-setting moments in particular. It would therefore be in their own best interest to adapt to the EU’s systemic framework in European policy matters.

Lacking integration of party, group, and membership base

Compared to the political system in general, political parties have integrated only to a very low degree. This has resulted in their various organisational components acting largely autonomously in the multi-level system. But without a stable network of relationships between all three elements of their organisation (party leadership, parliamentary group, and membership base), parties are unable to unfold their full effect in all spheres of the political system.

The organisational unity of these so-called “three faces of a political party organisation” is necessary in particular in order to guarantee the party’s central function, namely creating a link between society and the state. More autonomously acting individual segments of a party mean a greater tendency towards internal disintegration and more problems in creating a unified external image.

So far, the European political integration of national parties has mainly taken place via their quantitatively limited elites. As a result, there has been little progress in the vertical and horizontal integration of the organisational segments: Both between the party base and the European party organisation, and between the European party organisation and its group in the European Parliament, the links are at best rudimentary. The result is that there is no complete congruence in the membership structure between the parties and their parliamentary groups, and that the European leadership acts largely detached from a nationally segmented membership base, which in turn does not identify with its European party.

What to do? Europeanisation inwards …

Thus, much remains to be done to make European party politics fit for the challenges of the coming years. From a strategic point of view, parties should start the necessary Europeanisation efforts at two key dimensions in their organisation.

Firstly, there is a need for internal integration, whereby internal party structures and elements are brought into line with the European level where it makes sense to do so. This includes:

  1. membership organisation: Rather than being a mere umbrella organisation, European parties should be seen as an additional organisational level of a federally structured multi-level party – ranging from the individual member at the grassroots level, through the local, regional, and national levels, to the European party;
  2. power to define policy positions: Both the European election manifesto and the political instructions that are necessary between elections (especially to the party’s political group in the European Parliament) must be defined by the European party level – with the appropriate participation of the national organisational units. This is the only way to ensure coherent action within the institutions and a uniform and comprehensible appearance to the electorate;
  3. leadership structures and networks: In addition to structures, it is people who provide continuity andcarry the party’s will to political action. Therefore, it is useful or even necessary that certain party functions and mandates are linked both vertically (between national and European level) and horizontally (between the party organisation and its parliamentary group) by being held by one and the same person (e.g. the European party and parliamentary group chair in one hand or the prominent representation of a national head of government or party leader in the board of the European party).

and outwards

Secondly, there is also a need for outward Europeanisation, which can help to create a homogeneous and coherent overall image of the European party and its group in the European Parliament. This must be achieved at the

  1. electoral level: For the European elections to be truly European, the candidates of the national parties must not only campaign with uniform political messages, but must also be recognisably associated with their respective European party. Campaigns with uniform content and visuals, transnational lists, as well as the lead candidate system are suitable instruments to achieve this;
  2. parliamentary level: Parties and political groups at European level need to develop a sense of belonging to a common organisation. If the political group in the European Parliament acts independently of its party, this runs counter to a coherent image and also undermines the opportunities for participation of grassroot members within the parties.

An antidote to the loss of relevance

There is no doubt that this involves a transfer of power and sovereignty from national to European parties. As a result, the parties have so far stuck to their national ways of thinking and acting. At first sight, Europeanisation seems to bring only disadvantages to national party elites: first and foremost, the erosion of their own power.

However, adapting to the conditions of the European political system would certainly offer advantages and opportunities to at least mitigate the trend towards party decline. It is no longer only small parties or parties that are structurally relegated to an opposition role that need transnational networks in order to participate in European politics. Even the formerly large mainstream parties are increasingly dependent on pooling their dwindling resources.

With EU policy decisions becoming more and more extensive and significant, parties need direct opportunities to influence them beyond their own (temporary) participation in national governments. Well-integrated European parties which are present in all relevant EU institutions provide the ideal framework for this.

Involving European-minded party members

In the future, greater Europeanisation could also allow parties to externalise costs to the European level. If the European parties were to play a much more important role in bringing the EU institutions closer to the citizens and thus making a significant contribution to European democracy, higher party funding from the EU would be justified. This could then reduce the burden on national parties in European policy matters.

At an internal level, stronger European parties would also offer new opportunities to actively involve European-minded members or interested citizens who might otherwise seek other areas of engagement. This too should help parties increase their ability to campaign.

It is up to the parties themselves

Given the complex structure of the European Union and the diffusion of power in its decision-making structures, parties will only be able to comprehensively shape decision-making processes if they have strong and reliable structures at all levels of the political system.

Another aspect that has so far limited the Europeanisation efforts of national parties may also be the fact that the full development of European party-political potential would require not only that parties adapt to the structures of the political system, but also that the political system itself be reformed in order to set the decisive parameters for the field of action of a party democracy. Ultimately, however, it is up to the parties themselves to decide to what extent they wish to increase their ability to shape policy – not only within the nation state but also beyond it.

Enrico Liedtke is a political scientist and currently works as an advisor for security policy at HAUS RISSEN – Gesellschaft für Politik und Wirtschaft e.V. in Hamburg.

This article is based on the essay “Zwischen Europäisierung und Verharrung. Entwicklungsperspektiven europäischer Parteiorganisationen”, which was published in Zeitschrift für Politik (3/2023).

Translation: Manuel Müller.
Picture: Flags in front of the European Parliament: By Eduard Delputte [Unsplash license], via Unsplash [cropped]; portrait Enrico Liedtke: B. Frommann [all rights reserved].

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