Europe has spent the past 50 years earnestly constructing a single political identity. A single economic zone has been created, a single currency instituted, and a European Union Minister of Foreign Affairs drafted into the yet-to-be ratified constitution. So as progress is being made towards a Europe-wide system of governance, how well are citizens’ views being taken into consideration to guide that governance? How good are national political parties at ‘europeanising’ their platforms? Well, not very, according to a collaborative research project funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council and undertaken by social scientists there and in Germany. The project has surveyed both traditionally Eurosceptic countries and those more sympathetic to the EU, and found that in both political parties rarely consider EU affairs a priority for their constituents.
Professor Thomas Poguntke from Ruhr-Universitat Bochum in Germany, along with a team from Keele University in the UK, recently concluded a three-year-long study that investigated political party structures in 15 Member States, and their findings suggest that political parties still view EU affairs as a topic of foreign policy and not something that falls within their areas of interest. The study, funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council, is the first of its kind to look at the Europeanisation of national political parties.
|Research shows that EU affairs hold little sway over national elections.
© Andrew Dunn
National parties’ lack of interest in EU politics has oblivious ramifications on how decisions are made in Brussels. Free from the usual political constraints imposed by political parties, Prof. Poguntke argues that EU-level politicians can often legislate with few repercussions. ‘The lack of real interest in European affairs at party level gives those engaged in EU decision-making substantial room for manoeuvre in negotiations,’ he says going on to suggest that ‘these decision-makers are not being held fully accountable for their actions at EU level’.
The reasons behind why traditional parties appear to be less interested in EU affairs may be more financial than ideological. The research suggests that because parties have a limited budget, they have yet to create positions dedicated solely to EU-relevant topics. Other explanations put forth by the research concerns the EU’s weight at the ballot box. Prof. Poguntke and his team came across little evidence to suggest that European issues impact a party’s chances of being elected, and therefore there is little incentive for them to take them up. Domestic issues continue to dominate local elections leaving little room for the EU in candidates’ campaigns.
For their comparative study, the research team selected case studies from six Member States: Austria, Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden. Researchers studied party documents and conducted over 150 interviews with candidates and staff. They also sent questionnaires to parties in all 15 pre-2004 enlargement Member States of the EU.