The European Union and Political Parties

Robert Ladrech. Handbook of Party Politics. Editor: Richard S Katz & William Crotty. 2006. Sage Publishing.


Political party activity in the European Union (EU) is represented in three interconnected dimensions. First, and foremost, is the national dimension in which national political parties are active. As regards the EU, it is the national party that selects candidates to stand in elections to the European Parliament (EP), and also exerts varying degrees of influence over its national delegation, for instance in the election of its leader. Second, there is the European Parliament itself. Its work is organized by parliamentary party groups, which, among other functions, select offices such as committee chairs, rapporteurs, etc. Apart from the four main party groups—social democrats, Christian democrats and conservatives, liberals, and greens—the formation of new party groups involves the input of national parties. Thirdly, there is the transnational dimension, the linking of national parties across the EU by party family in transnational party federations. As with the EP party groups, four transnational party federations exist, all having a level of organization that has evolved over the past 20 years or so. They are the European People’s Party (EPP), the Party of European Socialists (PES), the European Liberal, Democrat and Radical Party (ELDR), and the European Green Party. In 2004, many of the parties making up the far left EP party group—which includes most of the remaining communist parties in Western Europe—announced the formation of their own transnational party federation, the European Party of the Left. These transnational party federations will be explored below in greater depth, but it should be clear at the outset that among the three dimensions of party activity mentioned, the transnational dimension is the least developed of the three in terms of direct impact on EU policy-making and perceived relevance by ordinary national party members. Yet one of the key functions of these transnational party federations is to link and deepen the relationship between the EP party groups and national parties: in other words, to link the national and supranational dimensions.

The development of the EU over time has had consequences for party activity. The European integration process, in particular the enhancement in the powers of the EP, has directly influenced EP party groups and transnational party federations. For EP party groups, direct elections, beginning in 1979, initiated a slow process of change in candidate selection, as well as having a varying impact on national politics. For the transnational party federations, their creation in the mid- to late 1970s was predicated upon the belief that a more partisan politics at the European level would emerge due to direct EP elections, and some level of organization among similar parties was needed in preparation for this eventuality. Between 1979 and the present, transnational party federations have experienced some modest organizational development, and this has roughly paralleled major increases in the policy competence of the EU, especially in the realm of monetary union (the creation of a single currency). In July 2004, a Party Statute concerning European transnational party federations came into force, and represents a significant change in the relationship between the federations and the EP party groups and national parties. These changes affecting the party federations, as well as their role in EU politics will be explored in more detail. First we turn to the background and description of the major party federations.

The Transnational Party Federations

In anticipation of direct elections to the EP, three party-family-linked transnational party federations were established: the Christian democratic EPP, the social democratic Confederation of Socialist Parties of the European Community (CSPEC), and the liberal ELDR. Initially small secretariats, they eventually became closely linked with their respective party groups in the EP, to the extent that personnel working in their secretariats and funding derived from the party groups. Beginning in the early 1990s, the EPP and CSPEC began a review and eventual organizational enhancement of their respective party federations. Ostensibly, the catalyst for this attention was the 1992 Maastricht Treaty on Economic and Monetary Union, the EU initiative to establish a single currency by the end of the decade. For many in national party leaderships, this leap in the European integration process represented a very material challenge to domestic policy-making and politics. The notion of better coordination across national boundaries seemed much less of an abstract idea. The party federation already represented, in an embryonic state, an organizational mechanism whereby this cooperation and coordination, at least initially on an ideational level, could quickly commence. Indeed, Johansson (2002) argues that the EPP was a factor in the ability of Christian democrat prime ministers/party leaders to bring British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on board to support such an historic integrationist initiative as monetary union. Additionally, the Maastricht Treaty contained the first reference to the existence and role of transnational, or European, parties (Article 138a). It reads: ‘Political parties at the 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 rest of the 1990s witnessed an increase in activities of both of these main party federations in terms of bringing party leaders and others into contact and collaboration on EU directed policy ideas (the CSPEC, as part of its organizational evolution, changed its name to the Party of European Socialists in 1992). The EPP, PES and ELDR developed affiliated organizations, each of them having a youth wing. Before proceeding further, a brief sketch of the four current party federations is presented. Following this, an analysis of their role in the EU and relationship with their constituent national parties and party groups is detailed.

The European People’s Party

The EPP was established in 1976. This party federation was primarily composed of Christian democratic parties, from large countries such as Germany and Italy, and smaller ones such as Belgium and the Netherlands. These parties were already members of a larger pan-European organization, the European Union of Christian Democrats (EUCD). As for their position regarding European integration, these parties have a long tradition of supporting not only the integration process launched in the 1950s, with its primary focus on economic integration, but also political integration, even endorsing the creation of a federal European union. This stance is consistent with their founding beliefs in supranational authority, as witnessed by their acceptance of religious authority, and for the specifically Catholic parties, the authority of Rome. Thus ideological differences over the finality of European integration were not a divisive issue among the founding parties of the EPP.

Along with the PES, Liberals and Greens, the EPP drew financial support from its EP party group. Although, unlike the others, it did not have its offices in the same building as the group, it was nevertheless intimately tied to EP dynamics. For instance, some of its presidents had also held the same office in the group (e.g. Martens). Despite this link with the EP, the EPP, as with the other transnational party federations, is a tool of the party leaders. Consequently, in order to understand the strategy of the EPP over the course of the past thirty years, one must look to the dominance of its constituent parties and their preferences. In the case of the EPP, the German Christian Democratic Union (CDU), under the leadership of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, played a critical role in its evolution. The EPP could be said to have been an additional field of action for Kohl’s German foreign or European economic policy. Beginning to break out of the traditional formats of Christian social market economics in the 1980s, Kohl employed the meeting of EPP party leaders to support a more neo-liberal thrust in EU economic and then monetary policy. The export of this revision to traditional Christian democracy was also aimed at the new parties arising in the former Soviet-dominated countries of Eastern Europe after 1989. In this respect, the expansion of the EPP to take in conservative and liberal parties was a product of the attempt to influence and coordinate broad policy orientations among as large a pool of parties as possible. This same strategy was also shared by the EPP group in the EP The fruit of this expansion could be seen in the EP with the plurality gained in both the 1999 and 2004 elections to the EP.

Although EPP member parties range from Christian democratic to ones such as Forza Italia and the French neo-Gaullist UMP, the linkage between the modest secretariat of the EPP and its national constituent parties remains one of support for elite interaction. Despite having the option of individual membership, the EPP is not a concern of internal national party politics. As such, beyond the interests of national party leaders, the EPP, along with its EP group, is remote from national politics and exists primarily within the confines of EU-level political dynamics.

The Party of European Socialists

The transnational party federation of the EU’s social democratic parties, founded in 1974, was the Confederation of Socialist Parties of the European Community. The only one of the transnational party federations to have member parties in all EU member states, along with the EPP, CSPEC represented, at least in theory, the major alternative orientation towards a neo-liberal EU. However, unlike the EPP, ideological differences among left-of-center parties prevented the same degree of cohesiveness on matters of major European integration initiatives as was the case with the EPP. Until the mid- to late 1980s, the British Labour Party and the Danish Social Democratic Party opposed most integration proposals. Their eventual embrace—however conditional—of further European integration by the 1990s allowed a reexamination of the role of the CSPEC. In November 1992 the CSPEC transformed itself into the PES, and in so doing was charged by its national party leaders to assist in the development of better coordination of social democratic initiatives at the EU level, but also in programmatic development. Unlike the EPP, social democracy had been inextricably linked with national state action, and the reluctance to ‘give up’ control to a supranational authority was a cause of divisiveness among PES member party leaderships (although the degree of difference declined over the 1990s).

Links between the PES and its EP party group were characterized as one of dependence. Office space as well as financial support was the norm until the coming into force of the EU Statute on European Parties in 2004 (see below). Unlike the EPP, however, the presidency of the PES was kept very separate from the EP group leadership, none of its presidents ever having served as group president: Claes (Belgium) and Cook (UK), both foreign ministers, Scharping (Germany), defense minister, and Rasmussen (Denmark), a former prime minister.

The PES has for most of its existence opposed individual membership (though this is due more to the objections of a few member parties than a widely shared belief). Its links with its member parties beyond the party leadership are superficial. Most national party representatives to the PES are appointed rather than elected, and the fact that its manifesto for EP elections has served at times as the official document for national campaigns is widely unknown within parties. In its 2004 Congress, though, the PES elected a new president in its very first competitive election, between Rasmussen and Amato (Italy). Both men pledged to make the PES more relevant to national party members and raise the profile of the PES in general. It remains to be seen whether or not this attempt will succeed. Like the EPP, the PES has also established memberships in Eastern and Central Europe, some being completely new parties established after 1989, a few reformed former communist parties.

European Liberal, Democratic and Reform Party

The ELDR, formerly the Federation of Liberal and Democrat Parties, was founded in 1976. From the beginning, the ELDR experienced a much more heterogeneous ideological composition than the EPP or the PES. There is a noticeable variation along left-right issues as well as on the pro-integration/anti-integration axis. In addition to ideological variation, the ELDR is made up of relatively small national parties, reflected in the size of the ELDR group in the EP as well as in transnational coordination, where liberal parties in government are scarce. Along with the EPP and PES, the ELDR was established in anticipation of direct elections to the EP, and the possibility of a European party system developing. Also like the two other transnational party federations, organizational changes in the ELDR (leading to, among other things, the name change), occurred in the wake of the Maastricht Treaty, here the catalyst being more specifically Article 138a.

In addition to financial support from its EP group, the relations between the party and group have developed only to a modest degree. This is partly explained by the ideological variance within both group and party, and also the unbalanced relationship between the ELDR’s national party members and their strength in the EP. In particular, until 1999 when proportional representation was introduced for EP elections in the United Kingdom, the British Liberal Democrats were underrepresented in the EP, but were one of the largest delegations in the ELDR party (Sandström, 2002).

After the 2004 EP elections, a new centrist group in the EP was formed. This was composed of the existing ELDR group along with a breakaway French party from the EPP-ED group, the UDF, plus a handful of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from minor parties in Italy. In the autumn of 2004, plans were announced for a new transnational party, jointly presented by the UDF party leader Bayrou, Italian Margharita party leader Rutelli and former president of the European Commission Prodi. How this party related to the ELDR is unclear, although it certainly occupies a portion of the ideological space of the ELDR.

European Green Party/European Federation of Green Parties

Of the four transnational party federations, the European Greens were not present in the first directly elected European Parliament. An early form of transnational cooperation including more than just Green Parties, the ‘Coordination of Green and Radical Parties in Europe,’ was created in 1980. In anticipation of more financial and organizational support from the EP, a new transnational organization comprising only Green parties was founded in 1983, the European Green Coordination (EGC). It was not, however, until after the Green parties’ breakthrough in the EP elections of 1989 that serious thought of a transnational party federation approaching the organizational development of either the EPP, PES or ELDR was undertaken. Thus in 1993, the European Federation of Green Parties (EFGP) was established. A basic difference between the EFGP and the other transnational party federations is that non-EU European parties were allowed full membership; associate status was the norm for the other party federations.

Relations between the EFGP and the Green group in the EP have also diverged from those of the other three transnational party federations. No linkage between the EGC and the Green members of the EP (known as GRAEL -Green Alternative European Link) existed before 1989. Until 1992, better relations between the two components hardly resulted in more than exchange of information and seminar and conference interaction (Dietz, 2002). Closer cooperation since the EP election in 1994 has resulted in minor organizational changes wherein the Green group is more integrated in the party. Yet, compared to the other party federations, the Green group operates in a much more autonomous fashion, and although the number of parties in the Group has expanded due to EU enlargement, and thus the balance between parties in the Group and in the EP is more even, the ideological antipathy towards supranationalism on the part of some national Green parties precludes any substantial organizational progress towards the model of either the EPP or PES.

In the spring of 2004, the EFGP transformed itself into the European Green Party (although owing to the aforementioned ideological hostility, the name European Federation of Green Parties is retained). One substantial difference between the European Green Party and its predecessor was the creation of a common platform for the 2004 elections to the EP, used in all national Green party campaigns. It remains to be seen if a further adjustment in terms of closer relations between the group and party will take place.

Functions of Transnational Party Federations

Party-Group Relations

From the brief sketch above, it is clear that transnational party federations have evolved since their establishment in the mid-1970s. All four European parties have experienced organizational changes in terms of internal decision-making as well as relations with their respective EP party groups. Article 138a draws attention in the first instance to the role of European level parties ‘as a factor for integration within the Union.’ By attempting to join national party orientations with the party groups in the EP, a general notion of direction in terms of policy was ultimately hoped for. Organizational enhancements over the 1990s, for example employing qualified majority voting instead of unanimity on certain issues, were expected to make the transnational parties more effective in communicating their preferences to their respective EP groups. Problems have been encountered along the way, however. For the EPP, the relationship with the group was complicated by its tactical alliance with the British Conservative delegation. Not a member of the EPP party, they have consistently been at odds with one of the basic and founding features of the EPP, support for a stronger supranational dimension in the form of federal union. In fact, the EPP group was renamed the EPP-ED, with ED standing for European Democrats. Tension between the British Conservatives and more traditionally minded Christian democratic national delegations has been therefore a problematic feature of party-group relations.

The PES party-group relationship is the most unproblematic of all the main actors. In contrast to the others, ideological differences among the national member parties diminished over time, leading some commentators to note actual convergence. The British Labour Party and the PASOK of Greece are but two examples of this change. In terms of how this impacted matters at the European level, it is a contributing factor to explain the rise in voting discipline in the group. It also led to the ability to find a common ground in terms of policy pronouncements, supported by the group, as for instance was the case for an Employment Chapter in the 1997 Amsterdam Treaty. By and large, though, the party has not evolved into a dominant position vis-ă-vis the group. As with all the transnational parties, in reality steps to strengthen their organizational profiles have been opposed by one or more member national parties (to be discussed further below).

Although improved from the first decade of existence, the improvement of relations between the ELDR party and its group has been modest. This is explained by the continuing left-liberal vs. right-liberal split in party and group. Although in the second half of the 1999–2004 EP session the ELDR group president held the EP presidency in alliance with the EPP-ED, the skill with which he wielded influence helped the image of the Parliament more than it helped matters between the party and group.

Finally, the Greens, although also improving their party-group relations in recent years, are far from the level of integration, however modest, seen in the EPP and PES. Continued attachment to national sovereignty, a position energetically and explicitly held by some of the national member parties, prohibits increased organizational change that results in national group delegations’ autonomy becoming prescribed by others.

The situation, then, after 30 years of historic change in European integration, broadly speaking, is the continued centrality of national parties in the development and evolution of party activity at the European level. In the three-way relationship, national parties remain the ‘gatekeepers’ on transnational party activity, and continue to have a role, though in preliminary stages, in EP party group activity.

Elections and Campaigns

Article 138a also mentions the importance of ‘forming European awareness and a political will.’ Bearing in mind that the first three transnational party federations were established with direct elections to the EP in mind, it is not surprising then that one of their primary tasks was to help coordinate European Parliament election campaigns. Producing a common election manifesto was seen by promoters as a vital task in order to demonstrate a European perspective. Unfortunately, this proved much more difficult than was expected. Although the four party federations have had a common manifesto since 1979 (1989 for the Greens), they quite often had opt-outs by various parties, and, even more importantly, were usually ignored in the actual campaigns of the national member parties. Elections to the EP have been described as ‘second-order,’ and in most instances the competitive dynamics in each national arena has more to do with government-opposition politics than with issues of a European nature. In some countries, additional parties spring up solely to contest these elections, and at times breakaway political formations appear (this has been the case particularly for France). Time and effort are expended by the party federations in this activity (specifically their secretariats and manifesto working parties), yet at the end of the day national parties continue to jealously guard ‘their’ domestic political systems from European or transnational ‘intrusion.’

Party Leader Summits

Most of the activity of party federations, especially with the original three, involves national party elites. No one activity better illustrates this than the party leader summits. Party leaders, in many cases including prime ministers (other than the Greens), have met under the auspices of their respective party federations. Members of their party family in the European Commission also attend. Beginning in the early 1990s, these meetings became formalized, with meetings every 6 months on the eve of EU summits. Hix (1996) has argued that these party leader meetings are important instances of coordination by senior political figures, and contribute towards the actual negotiations in the EU summit itself. The impact of these meetings, which are dependent upon various media for their dissemination, is probably greater for the party federations in terms of strengthening the networks of party leaders and their assistants and advisors. Nevertheless, they do represent a public expression of party family solidarity, and at least on a symbolic level are useful. Party leader summits have, of course, more meaning for the EPP and PES, since they are the party federations that include most prime ministers, decreasing in importance for the ELDR, and non-existent for the Greens.

Coordination Activities: The Convention on the Future of Europe

In the spring and summer of 2002, a Convention on the Future of Europe was convened. The primary task of this Convention was to draft a constitution for the EU, essentially to consolidate the various treaties, streamline them, and make the whole more understandable for Europe’s citizens. The Convention was made up of MEPs, national parliamentarians, representatives from member state governments, and an assortment of representatives from the European Commission and various interest groups and non-governmental organizations. As a group, MEPs undoubtedly had more expertise in the relevant issues than did their national counterparts, and indeed, sitting in party group formation they contributed in a critical manner to the work of the Convention. Costa (2004) notes, though, that the party federations played a key role in structuring the positions of the groups. In the case of the EPP, the party had already approved a constitutional document, and the PES, although without such a specific contribution, presented a ‘Priorities for Europe’ document that assisted in the coordination process.

Statute on European Parties

Article 138a, and its successor in the Amsterdam Treaty, Article 191, did little more than state a general desire for European-level parties to have a role in the European integration process. The efforts of the party federation presidents to give a more concrete and legal foundation to their organizations met with some success when the European Council summit in Nice 2000 approved a Statute on European Parties that achieved many of their aims. This statute came into effect in July 2004, and has significant implications for the linkage role of party federations, in the short term and in the longer term. In the short term, the financial, administrative, and (in all cases except the EPP) office space dependence of the party federations on their respective party group comes to an end. The PES, ELDR and European Green Party have relocated their offices out of the EP Furthermore, direct subsidy from the group to the party has ended. Party federations now draw funding from a pool of money granted by the European Commission, as well as attracting a percentage of ‘own’ finance, stipulated to be at least 20% of their operating budget. The cost of office space and the relative decline in financing has meant that the range of activities by the party federations has been curtailed. Increased contributions by national member parties are unlikely, as they are themselves in continual search for funds. Thus one dimension in the linkage between party federations and party groups has changed substantially, in the short term to the detriment of the party federations.

In the longer term, the new circumstances in which the party federations find themselves promote a more independent position than they have experienced to date. The president of the PES, elected in 2004, suggested that one possible solution to the funding requirement would be to ask national party members—that is, individuals—to contribute. Admittedly, this would only work if the PES had a higher profile within the national parties, and to this end Rasmussen pledged himself ready to engage. The Statute on European Parties has plunged the party federations into a new and more uncertain environment, and it remains to be seen how they will adapt.


European transnational party federations were created in the anticipation that the European integration process, with the advent of direct elections to the European Parliament, may evolve toward a form of parliamentary government. Accordingly, political parties would have their place, in the work of the EP itself and perhaps, depending on the direction of the integration process, in the promotion of candidates in competitive elections to the presidency of the European Commission. After thirty years of existence, the party federations have experienced only modest organizational growth, and their linkage function between the supranational and national dimensions remains extremely modest. On the other hand, the EU’s development during the same period, although significant, and in terms of monetary union historic, has not been such to resemble a parliamentary system, no matter how much increased influence the EP has itself achieved. Coupled with national party/government hesitancy—if not explicit rejection—to cede real influence to organizations that may at some point in the future work against themselves, party federations are in a weak position forcefully to implement the aspirations in Article 138a. They remain important sites for the cooperation and occasional coordination of national political elites, a way of reducing their transaction costs when attempting to act on a European level. The implementation of the European Constitution, and the evolution in the manner in which European Commission presidents are chosen, are medium-term events that may have consequences for party federations as they continue to find a role for themselves.