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National Party Politics - A Cold House For Europeans?

Major new research across the EU has found that, even after 50 years of European integration, national party politics remains a relatively cold house for those interested in European affairs. A team of international researchers, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), spent more than three years reviewing party structures in 15 EU Member States.

Their findings in six nations analysed to date, show parties give only limited resources to EU issues, they still treat EU affairs as a matter of foreign policy and EU specialists, including MEPs, tend to be left in the cold when it comes to internal power-politics.

According to Professor Thomas Poguntke and his collaborators from Keele University, the research also questions the role of party ‘elites’ in EU decision-making, particularly those holding Ministerial positions.

“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 process whereby parties adapt to change brought about by EU integration is described as ‘europeanisation’. According to the study, national political parties are not fully engaging in this process for reasons which are both economic and political.

Parties are reticent to create new positions devoted to EU affairs because funds are scarce and they tend to rely on the public purse for these activities. The lack of influence of EU specialists and the increased empowerment of party elites is explained, according to the study, by the fact that decision-making in EU arenas continues to be viewed as a foreign policy matter by most party activists. Also, European integration has not substantially affected the party’s chances of electoral success. Domestic issues continue to dominate electoral contests in most cases and party leaderships continue to maintain a domestic focus in their electoral promises.

While these findings may not surprise those studying British political party structures, the research found similarities in party dynamics in case studies carried out in Austria, France, Germany, Spain and Sweden as well as Britain. The research therefore has important implications for the internal functioning of parties EU-wide and for questions of democratic control, accountability, representation and legitimacy, both at national and EU level.

Annika Howard | alfa
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