Does A European Party System Exist Politics

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Furthermore it is common sense that political parties play a momentously role in modern democracies as they form and articulate the political will of the citizens of a nation and represent their interests. At least they all should fulfill this function. Their significance is also acknowledged within the European Union where they exert already a certain influence in all European institutions. The European Council, the Council of Ministers as well as the Commission are mainly constituted of "senior party figures" (Hix, Lord 1997, p. 15).

However, political parties apparently do not dispose of the same resources and support than they do at national level. This is, for instance, very obvious when we take a look at the very low turnout rates in elections for European Parliament and opinion polls reflecting little identification with European parties. National party elites often neglect or avoid European issues during their campaigns in favor of domestic issues (Korte 2003, p. 74). Moreover the EU citizens see the EP elections largely as national contests or as a possibility to send a signal of disapproval to the national parliament.

This essay deals with the question, whether a genuine European party system exists, or respectively why it does not. Such a party system comprises Euro-parties, party groups in the EP, their coalitions and national delegations within the groups. To cover all the aspects would, however, go beyond the scope of this paper. Therefore, focus is put on the Euro-parties itself. First, the notion of party systems in general will be explored and then the legal framework of Euro-parties against the background of the reform process of the European Parliament will be pointed out shortly. Further on, I will analyze the existing party families and Euro-parties. In this respect the working-paper delivered by Stoiber will be of help. In the following chapter, the impact of European integration in regard to national parties and citizens is going to be set out. Finally, I shall draw a conclusion and give an outlook for a future European party system.

Party Systems in General and the Legal Framework of European Parties

When is it reasonable to speak of a European party system? Which features characterize the political-science concept of a party system in general? First of all, it is a system of government in a state where political parties are the dominant actors. Depending on the electoral system, a single, two or multiple parties have the chance to be elected and form the government. In modern democracies party systems are usually defined by two dimensions: party organization and competition (Hix, Lord 1997, p. 3). Parties' stability and their degree of organization in Western democracies is high since their institution is legally (often in the constitution) and in the political culture deep-seated. Besides the role of integrating the interests of the citizens, they furthermore guarantee for the functioning of democracy.

Different institutional and legal premises, however, are valid for the European case. The parties and the party groups within the EP have been slowly developing from the beginning of its days, starting with the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952. However, since the first direct elections of the European Parliament in 1979, the political organization and culture of European parties is strengthening (Corbett 1998, p. 54). Therefore, the period from 1979 until today is in the focus of this paper.

The formation of a European party system is, thus, linked with the structure and powers of the European Parliament. The latter has managed to widen its authorities set out in the treaties. In 1987, the Single European Act introduced the 'cooperation procedure', under which the European Parliament had two readings of some legislation. In 1993, the Maastricht Treaty replaced this procedure with the 'co-decision procedure', with a right of legislative veto for the European Parliament, and also granted the European Parliament a right to be consulted on the EU governments' choice for the Commission President. In 1999, the Amsterdam Treaty reformed and extended the co-decision procedure, giving the European Parliament equal legislative power with the Council in many areas, and introduced a veto power for the European Parliament in the selection of the Commission President (Hix, Noury, Roland 2002, p. 3). The Lisbon-Treaty will expand these competences once more. All this presents an upgrading of the EP in relation to the Commission and the Council of Ministers. But still, the competences of the EP are not comparable to those of national parliaments.

"The biggest difference is the lack of a European government accountable to the Parliament." Moreover, "the composition of the Commission" as executive body "is not based on the outcome of the Euro-elections." (Heidar, Koole 2000, p. 231)

The Party Article in the Treaty of Maastricht 138a represents the foundation for the European parties and ascribe them an important role in EU politics:

"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." [] 

The Treaty of Nice has supplemented Article 191 (formerly138a) of the EC Treaty with a legal base,

"allowing adoption, via the co-decision procedure, of a statute for European-level political parties governing, in particular, the criteria for their recognition and the rules governing their financing." [] 

The interesting debate on the report "on behalf of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs, on the proposal for a European Parliament and Council regulation on the statute and financing of European political parties" in 2003 can be illustrated by the statement of Mr. Leinen (PSE):

"[ ..] without European parties, there will be no European democracy. […] A corner-stone of greater transparency in European politics can become effective." [] 

Indeed, it came into effect when the EP agreed to the proposal on 19th June 2003 and parties dispose now of a fundament for financing. And not only that because the regulation includes also preconditions for political parties at European level to apply for the annual financing by the EU (Article 3): the party has to respect the principles set out in the treaties and the Charta of basic rights, it must have a political program and participate in EP elections. Moreover, it specifies the notion of an alliance of political parties (Article 2): a structured co-operation of at least two parties; and the notion of a political party at European level: a political party or alliance of political parties that fulfill the preconditions of Article 3. [] 

Furthermore the electoral system itself points at the development of parties, even though no uniform electoral law at EU level was ratified so far. This means that still in the 2009 elections different voting procedures were applied among the 27 member states. However, there is a development in the election procedures and it has to be mentioned that at least a proportional vote was introduced EU-wide in 2004. An important change was also the prohibition of dual mandates in the European and national parliament which brings along a further expertise and reduces loyalty and interest conflicts (Korte 2003, p. 64).

To sum up, it can be stated that in line with the greater powers of the EP, European parties achieve a better legal and institutional environment and tend to achieve a higher degree of organization.

This chapter dealt with the institutional aspects of the EP and the parties. The following part is about the political aspects, that is to say, the party families and Euro-parties.

European Party Families and the Formation of European Parties

According to Oudenhove, the fact that

"the three traditional currents in European politics, i.e. the Christian, Socialist and Liberal, had already reached the stage of organized co-operation in international matters", "lead to the formation and development of party groups" (Oudenhove 1965, p. 3)

in the Common Assembly and the Council of Europe already by 1953. Hix and Lord state that the Conservatives are the fourth dominant family since the intergovernmentalists de Gaulle and Churchill (Hix, Lord 1997, p. 12). That means that, first, party groups built up and transnational parties were to follow.

The European People's Party (EPP) was established by the Christian Democrats and the Conservatives in 1976. In the forthcoming of the first direct elections "it portrayed itself as the party of European Unity", that installed a federal party structure as well as held the first Congress in 1978 where they laid down their "federal aims" and advocated for "a fuller exploitation of the existing treaties" (Corbett 1998, p. 54). The party groupings of the Liberals (ELD), also committed to a European Union, adopted their "Program for Europe" at the Congress in 1977. The Confederation of Socialist Parties of the EC (CSP) was not able to agree on a common election manifesto due to different standpoints of their national party programs in regard to further integration but they saw direct elections also as a step forward. Besides these three families at European level, smaller parties' attitudes to integration, direct elections and development of the EP were diverse. The French Gaullists, for instance, supported the concept of "l'Europe des patries" (Europe of nations) as opposed to the "l'Europe des parties" (Europe of parties) favored by the Christian Democrats (EPP) (Hix, Lord 1997, p. 198).

Later on, the Socialists and Liberals turned their federations into real parties: the Party of European Socialists (PES) in 1992 and the European Liberal, Democratic and Reform Party (ELDR) in 1993. In the case of the Socialists, it is noteworthy that this was only achieved thanks to the campaign of the parliamentary group. The Greens are still organized in the European Federation of Green Parties (EFGP) from 1993 (Corbett 1998, p. 77). Even "looser" alliances are those of the Regionals, Communists and the Extreme Right. Altogether are they of a "low status" (Nugett 1999, p. 224). This structure has lead, according to Kreppel, to an "ideological polarization" and domination of the EPP and the PES who "were closely allied with the smaller groups to their left and right". In the late 1980s on, this changed into the "grand coalition" (Kreppel 2002, p. 215) of EPP and PES as a result of the institutional transformation of the EP "from a chamber of debate to a legislative body" due to the Single European Act in 1987. The outcome was a "new moderate party system founded on bipartisan cooperation" to the disadvantage of the smaller parties. Kreppel argues that "the legislative process of the EP (cooperation and co-decision procedures)" forced the EP and the party groups to "work together with the other institutions" and find compromises if they wanted to participate effectively in this process (Kreppel 2002, 152).

However, this does not mean that there are no significant ideological divides in the EP. Following the policy-orientated approach, homogeneity concerning the policy-dimensions among the national member parties of a Euro-party is essential for European politics determined by European Parties. However, this is not the case as the study about the 1994 elections of Stoiber reveals. He analyzed the homogeneity of European party families on the basis of two dimensions concluded by a factor analysis: the European-federalist and the socio-economic left-right-dimension. This implies that for the development of a European party system not only issues of European integration but also of the class-cleavage have to make up the European agenda (Stoiber 1997, p. 2). It resulted that the EPP, the Liberals and the regional parties are the most heterogeneous parties. The concerns of the regional parties cannot be depicted at either of these dimensions. The Liberals are constituted of leftist as well as economically liberal forces. The EPP includes Christian-social and purely conservative parties. Both comprise also Euro-skeptical parties which hamper common strategies. Closer in their ideology stands the Party of European Socialists and the most homogenous are the Greens (Stoiber 1997, p. 22). The latter should exploit this potential as they did when arranging the first unified European election campaign in 2004.

Stoiber also arranged the parties by clusters in a two-dimensional table finding out that only the rightist parties occupy a marked off space whereas the others scatter in up to three different party clusters at the same time. Underlying is the thesis that great differences exist in the perception of parties of the same party family in regard to Euro-politics' controversial issues. The results show that the development of transnational parties along the left-right-dimension is the most probable. The federalist-cleavage (integration vs. sovereignty) is weakly developed since the majority of the established families are pro-European and anti-Euro-parties are excluded (Stoiber 1997, p. 19). Hix, Noury and Roland also state that the formation of Euro-parties happens on the basis of the left-right dimension (Hix, Noury, Roland 2002, p. 8).

However, in the functioning and the voting procedure within the EP, not the parties but their organs, the parliamentary party groups, play an important role as they act quite independently during the legislative term (Heidar, Koole 2000, p. 244). The group formation and composition is, nevertheless, "highly fluid" (Nugett 1999, p. 228). The parties' political activity can, according to Heidar and Koole, be described as "triangular co-operation" consisting of the transnational alliances, the political groups and with national member parties being the third and "definitely the most important part of the structure". This is so because the "Euro-parties depend on the willingness of national member parties and EU institutions" to pursue their objectives. The Euro-parties hold congresses and install executive committees where the groups also take part and where policy goals, strategies and manifestos prior to Euro-elections are prepared. Heidar and Koole also argue that Euro-parties function more as

"umbrella organizations, providing a forum for co-ordination to like-minded national parties, than as real parties as we know them from national politics." (Heidar, Koole 2000, p. 245)

Furthermore, they dispose of few resources which they receive half by the groups and half by the national member parties. MEPs have helped sustainably, according to Corbett, to develop transnational political parties. The financial and human resources provided by the EP political groups are essential. The secretariats organize the meetings bringing national parties together and preparing first drafts (Corbett 1998, p. 76). From the mid-1980s, the EPP and the PES began to hold "pre-summits" prior to each European Council and the PES even submitted a policy initiative on employment to the Commission and the Council in 1993. Activities of party federations have become significant and far beyond the adoption of manifestos every five years (Corbett 1998, p. 78).

In summing up, it can be noted that Euro-parties are "second-rate parties" (Heidar, Koole 2000, p. 321) in regard to their weak resources and influence. Moreover it can be stated that the Euro-federations did not become a powerful transnational actor in the European Integration process.

National Parties and EU-Citizens in the Transnational Party System

National political parties are involved in EP-related activities in three main ways. First, most candidates for EP elections are chosen by their national parties. Second, EP election campaigns are essentially national campaigns. Third, in the EP itself national party groups exist within the political groups (Nugett 1999, p. 231).

Since 1979 virtually every political party "adapted its formal structure to give a role" (Corbett 1998, p. 71) to their elected MEPs in its organ. Thus, MEPs do exert, usually a "pro-integrationist" influence on their party's European policy by taking part in public debates, informal party discussions, publishing articles and briefing party spokesmen. Corbett also found that the number of party meetings with a European subject and meetings where MEPs were speakers has risen markedly. When it evolved that the dual mandate equals two full-time jobs, most MEPs quickly surrendered the national mandate. Their expertise and increasing role sometimes gives cause for "jealousies" by national party members; however, they find themselves more often in the position of

"explaining and justifying European policies to their national colleagues" (Corbett 1998, p. 76 f).

Meanwhile, national parties have increasingly understood to take advantage of the expertise of their MEPs as is proved in the national delegations established within the party groups where they exert a great influence on the MEPs (Kreppel 2000, p. 202).

"As the only directly elected EU institution, the Parliament is indeed directly accountable to all EU citizens." (Heidar, Koole 2000, p. 231)

Therefore, the Euro-parties should be of more importance to the citizens than reflected in the polls. The Eurobarometer of Spring 2009 states that 45% of the interviewees of the 27 Member States trust the EP, whereas 37% did not trust. It also should be noted that the trust in the parliament is declining since several years. But there is the interesting tendency that "the public in large has always" trusted more in the EP than in the Commission [] . Moreover, do low turnouts point at the lacking confidence of the citizens in the competences of the EP. Since 1979 a gradual decrease in the turnout is observed. For example, the historically lowest turnout in Germany was reached in the 2009 elections with a participation quote of 43,1% compared to 65,7% in 1979. This trend can also be observed in other European countries. This is understandable, because the EU-citizens usually elect a national party and its well-known program. However, this party is integrated in a federation or party at the European level whose political program and candidates are, indeed, mostly unknown to the average citizen. In addition, there is still no "uniform procedure in all Member states" concerning the elections as like designated already in Article 138 of the EEC Treaty (Nugett 1999, p. 220).

The achievements in the profile of the EP are not mediated to and acknowledged by the citizens who do mainly not follow the debates of the EP. Interaction between parliamentarians and citizens through Euro-parties as one of the main functions is too weak and the "gap between voters and representatives", hence, is increasing (Heidar, Koole 2000, p. 1). Above all, national topics are often set on the agenda by national parties and European issues are neglected so that one must speak of "Europe-wide elections" instead of "European elections" (Stoiber 1997, p. 3).

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