Political parties are everywhere somewhat out of fashion. They have fewer members; they generally fail to attract young people; their idealism seems tarnished by their constant trimming and jockeying; they are sullied by their efforts to gain funding; they seem to have failed to provide solutions to society’s ills. Mainstream democratic parties have lost ground to extremists with simplistic nostrums, and to single issue campaign groups.
But political parties remain essential to the democratic process. At their best they help to articulate and to a degree shape public opinion; they provide the framework for the orderly discussion and resolution of policy differences; they are the main agencies for the contesting of open elections which underpin our democracy and the accountability of power. On occasion they may catch the public mood and help lift our sights. They are still the principal vectors for public opinion.
And the success of Europe as a political project based on a functioning efficient democratic system in which its citizens are fully engaged requires political parties operating on a continental scale. The authors of Maastricht and Nice recognised their central role in European integration. When successive treaty declarations were followed up by a Council/Parliament regulation in 2003, the embryonic parties were given resources from the EU Budget, and staffing and hence a degree of operational autonomy vis-à-vis the parliamentary groups. A new dimension to their work was provided by the Council/EP regulation in 2007 allowing the Parties to set up political foundations.
But twenty years on from Maastricht, as ‘Notre Europe’s’ study of 2009 demonstrated (Etudes et Recherches No. 71), the parties still fall far short of being in a position to carry out fully their vital role as the link between the political institutions of the EU and public opinion - a role that they alone can fill: or to provide steerage for their respective parliamentary groups.
If, by the term ‘political party’ we mean democratic organisations of members, coming together on the basis of political affinity, drawing up programmes, selecting candidates for office, fighting elections, and ensuring that elected representatives uphold their commitments, then ‘European Political Parties’ tick almost none of the above-mentioned boxes.
They remain to a large extent closed, unrecognised clearing houses, operating
principally as structures facilitating the transaction by national political parties of necessary common business. In terms of public opinion they remain essentially empty shells. They are not primarily campaigning organisations. They are still to a certain extent - at least organisationally - in the thrall of the parliamentary groups at the European Parliament. And their policy formation is essentially a technical exercise with often insipid, lowest common denominators of the policies of the competent national parties the inevitable outcome.
Above all, ordinary party supporters, militants and members in the member states have little or no link with, no decision-making role in, and practically no sense of belonging to these European ‘parties’. The governing bodies of the European parties are essentially ‘confederal’ by nature; key decisions are mostly taken by consensus, even where majority voting is allowed; party activities tend to be about providing a European platform for parades of national party leaders giving them an extra opportunity to generate national publicity in an international context. On most issues, national party officials, usually international secretaries, call the shots.
If all the parties have taken some steps towards internal reform, as will be set out later, they have not yet realised their potential political vitality.
This is not to say that partisan politics play no role in Europe’s institutions and in EU decision-making. On the contrary, through the political groups at the European Parliament, decisions have become intensely politicised. These groups are one of the great success stories of European integration. Nearly all decisions now taken by the EU are the result of compromises to which the political groups of the Parliament will have subscribed and, in many cases, shaped. The groups are well-organised, give themselves the time and means to develop first common group decisions, and then compromises across groups. Some of the most complex but important legislative acts have been ultimately determined by compromises hammered out in the EP, rather than in the Council of Ministers. Recent academic study (see VoteWatch.eu for example) confirms an increasing trend for cohesion within the larger political groups, with percentages of around 90% which would be no disgrace in a national context.
But this trend in decision-making which emphasizes political choice rather than technological fudge, though welcome in itself, takes place in a vacuum which while being ultimately linked to public opinion, is almost completely invisible to it. Of course each MEP is accountable to his or her electors; will be reporting back home (notwithstanding the massive hurdles which lie in the way of communicating European issues effectively with citizens); and will be in constant touch with his or her national or regional party. But these efforts are undermined by the absence of extraparliamentary organisations, acting as a relay between citizens and elected representatives, and shaping the policies and programmes which MEPs then strive to implement.
It is true that the current situation gives MEPs in theory a very large freedom of manoeuvre - although this may be severely curtailed by the selection process for party candidates for election to the EP particularly where places on the list are within the gift of party leaders - but in the long run it gives to electors the impression that the MEPs are not really their representatives and that, consequentially, citizens are not represented in decision-making.
The paradox of an increasingly powerful European Parliament mobilising decreasing public support was cruelly but clearly demonstrated in the 2009 elections.
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