The transnational party jungle

Article published on Oct. 25, 2002
community published
Article published on Oct. 25, 2002

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

When looking at the discussions of the last years of new terms like globalisation, digitalisation and individualisation, it is evident that we are coming up with more and more of these terms and that now even school children know them. Democracy and its institutions are threatened with movement towards supranationalisation which is an especially big problem for the European Union.
Member States lose their competence and influence to the bureaucrats in Brussels.


When looking at the discussions of the last years of new terms like globalisation, digitalisation and individualisation, it is evident that we are coming up with more and more of these terms and that now even school children know them. Democracy and its institutions are threatened with movement towards supranationalisation which is an especially big problem for the European Union. Member States lose their competence and influence to the bureaucrats in Brussels.

But still, parties in London, Berlin, Paris or Warsaw have an important function. They form and elect the governments in their countries, candidates of the parties run for the parliament. Parties aggregate ideas from all over Europe, figure out what people want and try to transfer these ideas into political movement, political action. Parties in western democracies play an important role; without those parties no government can be elected, no government can be controlled, no political decision can be taken. So there's still a need for them.

To transform those thoughts to the European or world level it is normal to ask why don't we form transnational parties who fill the democratic deficit. Why don't we install transnational parties who aggregate the thoughts, desires and wills of all European or World citizens to transform them conclusively into united European or World action? Or are European parties transnational parties?

What is a Transnational Party? - A Definition

To understand the following explanations we have to define what we understand when we talk of a transnational party. From the first view this term seems to be fantastical, a term which only says that a party is transnational. But still this is an important characteristic. What does transnational mean? It means that parties do not only focus on domestic politics, but also focus on the 'international political market'. Parties run on the transnational or supranational level for elections, recruit élites and try to articulate and aggregate the will of the people.

In this sense we can assume that European parties like the PSE or EVD or EFA are transnational parties. In more detail we can say that European parties are families of parties, because they are a units of, for example, all social democratic parties in Europe. English social democrats are members as well as the Spanish or the German social democrats. Finally, this essay assumes that transnational parties are European parties.

What makes a party a party?

The European Union consists of 15 member States, and each member State has its own parliamentary system with it own individual characteristics. In England there is a simple two party system, with two dominant parties who form the government now as they have for hundreds of years. And on the other hand we have multiparty systems like those in Sweden, France and especially Italy, where more than two parties fight for the favor of the voters. Researchers have identified five main functions that political parties fulfil in parliaments:

· The identifications of goals: Parties have an ideology and a programme. They try to develop strategies and alternatives.

· The mobilisation and socialisation of the general public within the system, particularly at elections.

· The articulation and aggregation of social interests. Parties present (similarly to interest groups) interests, they articulate interests; but they bundle (aggregate) these interests in the political will process.

· élite recruitment and government functions.

These functions apply for all European parties in all member States. So the main question when we are talking about transnational parties is now do transnational parties fit with these functions? Can they have the same functions or do we have transnational parties which are more similar to the poltical parties of the United States? Let's go into more detail and try to find out if transnational parties function like national parties in considering the functions one by one.

The first point: In western democracies parties always do have programmes in which they mostly describe their view of the future. In these programmes they say what kind of world they would like to have. In other words their ideology is described in such programmes. Parties try to work on guiding strategies and inform the people about developing strategies for the future and alternative action possibilities. To write down such a programme takes a lot of time, because different party wings want to contribute their views. Especially for the larger parties this process is difficult, because their wings have grown up historically. Considering the social democrats for example, they traditionally have two completely opposed wings. The most crucial point when discussing the programme and the strategy for the next campaign is the labour market policy. Because the people want to guarantee from the policy thay they become the new government. People mostly think rationally, so they do not pay much attention to programmes. They want to know what advantages they can expect from that party if it wins the election. And traditionally the different social democratic wings have different views about the right labour market policy.

But on the other side a programme binds party members together. All this to say that writing a programme is a long and difficult process which has to run through party institutions and groups. Positions, sharp opinions, opposite meanings and views from all sides come together. And the duty of each party leader is to bind those different elements together. At the end a big compromise is the result. Each party wing has contributed to the process and is satisfied with the position. And of course this result is, so to say, the common ideology of that party. The result of this discussion process or ideology has one main purpose: it differentiates the party members with their special views from other parties. Ideology shows the differences between the parties.

So, we can conclude that the process of writing a programme is to differentiate the party from those it is opposed to, to draw out the main battle trenches. This again binds the members together and sharpens their view as comparted to their opposition's. Behavior within parties is largely determined by the prevailing counter party. The ideal scenario is a solid party united behind the programme and the goal of the party. This is the main prerequisite to run into a electoral campaign.

And so we come to the second point, the mobilisation and socialisation of the general public. No-one else acts as much as the parties to mobilise the public when it comes to elections. Therefore parties use their programmes and try to combine a programme with a candidate. This is of course a part of the strategy.

Parties and their candidates want to recruit people for political activity and political participation. During a federal election other candidates are running on a minor level for political and local responsibility at the same time. Therefore parties definitely need to recruit followers. But these people who are running to become the mayor of a city or village do not just appear. They have to be trained at different party levels, they have to learn the political business. And candidates have to be associated with the programme of the party they belong to. So one purpose is to build up long-term settings and examples to show the future of the society and the welfare of the country or the municipality and to get these future plans associated with individual personalities. Regional strongholds play an important part in mobilisation, because here voters pay more attention to their surroundings. It is quite obvious that one candidate by himself cannot organize a whole campaign - he needs assistance, help and support from the outside. Often candidates can win old friends for that job. And he needs the feeling that people do believe in him.

This point is related to the third point of the definition. Parties articulate and aggregate social interests. Now, you critically can ask what is the difference between parties and interest groups, because interest groups as well as parties articulate the interests of a special part of society. Modern societal systems are segmented and fragmented, many singular interests are competing against each other. And only opinions which have a strong reputation have a chance to win public access. In earlier societies some of these functions were performed by the different classes or estates, or the bureaucracy.

But parties do no only have to represent one single aspect, one single opinion such as, for example, non- governmental organizations like the WWF or Greenpeace. This is the duty of the major parties who want to be called "political parties". They want to represent and stand for social democracy as well for neo-liberal labour market policy. Their political establishment wants to be the agent of the higher classes as well as the lower ones. Parties can only stress general interests in their propaganda or even develop a tendency to see itself as the "natural party of government".

We have spoken already about this. What parties do which is exceptional is to recruit political personnel, the so called political élites. These are the peopole presiding at the top of each party organization. These are members of parliament, ministers, permanent secretaries, party leaders and so on. It is with these people that the party will be associated in the public eye. On the other side they fulfil an important function. Politicians whether in the national parliament or on the local or federal level, it does not matter, form the government. Political personnel have a governmental function, in electing and controlling the government. It could also mean to vote a member of the government out of his/her office. The correct term for this procedure is a vote of no confidence. Parties act as transmission belts, they create connections between the personnel and institutional organs, otherwise seperated, of the executive, the legislative, and the people.


The final question is do parties on the European level matter? The best way to answer that question is to look at the explanations given so far in this article. We defined parties through their function in the political system. To stay in line with the definition, I would say that each point has to fulfilled for a transnational party to be truly a 'party'. I do not want to deny the fact that the definition of parties I have given is a result of a normative concept of democracy. This concept entails that parties should be representatively democratic and not bureaucratic. They should be oriented to lead the government, at to form it or to get into opposition. But how is true is this now? Do transnational European parties have these characteristics given by Weber, Beyme and others? And is it correct to speak about transnational parties?

European Parties do have a common ideology and a common programme which all the members stand for. This programme differentiates them from other European party families. This sharpens the view for the own members. European parties do have a programme in which they extend their views of the future of society.

Secondly, European transnational parties do mobilise and socialise the general public. They do touch the interests of the European citizens. One good example of this is that most national laws are directives or regulations given by the European Union. Brussels governs more and more the member States. Some regulations and directives come from the initiative of the European parliament. And the parliament is nothing more than elected representatives of the people. And for each election to the European parliament representatives and parties organize a campaign, so they mobilise voters and try to convince them with different strategies.

In theory members of the parliament and the parties they belong to aggregate and articulate the interests of the people on the European level. The social democratic party for instance tries to aggregate the ideas, meanings, opinions about politics and policy of their party family subsidiaries. Abstractly you can say that parties are the mouthpiece of the people. Here as well I would answer the question affirmatively.

Now we come to the crucial fourth point. Do European parties recruit political élites? And even more importantly are they responsible for the forming a government? My answer will be in two halves. European parties definitely recruit political élites. Each European party has a leader, and each parliamentary group of the European parliament has a leader. On the other hand European parties do not train and recruit political personnel for being in the government as a secretary or minister. Political parties in the EU-parliament do not form and elect the European government, because this does not exist. European parties do not form the government, they do not send their political personnel into high political offices. You could even say the opposite is true. Parties on the European level are disguised as interest associations, because they miss this one important function which is to form, govern and control the government which is elected by the parliament. As we know the "government" of the EU is the Commission and the Council. And they are not elected by the parliament but by the national governments. Each European commissioner is appointed to office by the head of the government of the member State he/she belongs to. The same applies with the president of the Commission. He too is elected by the heads of the governments of the European member States. In these last years the parliament has fought for more participation in the European political process and they have won some rights concerning control of the Commission. Now each Commissioner has to be acknowledged by the parliament, they only have less influence on the fate of the Commission. Because of the fact that members of the EU-parliament are never forced to take responsibility in a government or elsewhere, the EU-parliament is a calm and silent institution, maybe a bureaucratic institution. And maybe this bureaucratic institution is at the same time the last station for careerists. The EU-parliament does not have any promotion prospects, it is very tough to get a step higher.

So European parties miss this main function. And for this reason they are simply interest associations, interest associations of the people, but also of companies, other interest groups, scientific staff, bureaucracies and so on. But they are not parties in the original sense. European Parties are parties of clients, but not parties with a large amount of members.

Or you could say, as according to the American party system, that European parties are congressional parties. You can characterise these parties with the attribute "constituent" . A constituent party's priority is to effect the structure, composition and the function way of the political system. However a responsive party, the second type Lowi describes, is one responsible to their voters through a programme which leads to political acts. A responsive party develops coherent models for solving problems with the obligation to make them the law if they are given the chance to form a government.

Now just two final comments. The main reason that European parties cannot be described as parties in the conventional sense is that national parties like the Labour Party in England or Democratia Christiana in Italy are so called parties for the people. They still have a strong membership and a lot of people are members of these parties. This means a strong base for the parties, because these members are mostly loyal voters, staunch supporters at election time. Party leaders can almost count unconditionally on this base when it comes to federal elections. Where do these staunch supporters come from? In theory these supporters have grown up in a special milieu, let's say the working milieu in big industrial areas. These workers have been socialised with the problems of the working class, they were members of the same sports clubs and so on. So they had almost the same social and political education and experiences which distinguish them from other milieus. This base is what is evidently missing for the European parties, because they do not have this staunch support base. And so they do not have special milieu where they recruit there political personnel from.