Parties and Elections in the European Union

Parties and elections at EU level: a troublesome relationship

The development of political parties at the European Union (EU) level is closely intertwined with the history of the European Parliament’s (EP) elections. Academics and practitioners have discussed this relationship for more than three decades, i.e., at least since the first direct EP elections in 1979. Initially, the focus was not on parties, but essentially on elections. Since inception, these were deemed to be “different” from national-level parliamentary elections and significantly more problematic, mostly because of unsatisfactory electoral participation levels and of the “second order” (Reif and Schmitt, 1980) nature and relevance of EP elections and campaigns in the Member States (MS). However, it was assumed that elections could only be beneficial for the development of an EU-level party system, and, ultimately, for EU democracy.

Subsequently, the debate extended to the EP party groups, seen as crucial elements of the developing party system at the European level. While a high level of cohesiveness (see, among a host of others: Attinà, 1990; Kreppel, 2002) and other indicators of institutionalization were hailed as undeniable demonstrations of the positive effects of the institutional dynamics of an elected EP on the EU-level party system, the direct impact of EP elections per se appeared to be less clear and not necessarily positive (Bardi, 2002). The fragmentation of the electoral arena that permits the survival at the European level of practically every relevant, and sometimes, even not-so relevant, component of most national party systems and the continuing expansion of the EU could be seen as negatively affecting the reorganization of the existing EP party groups after each election. Moreover, differences in the electoral systems and in their effects on MS party systems at the two levels can cause additional distortions. These difficulties can be magnified by the already mentioned second-order nature of EP elections. Normally, electors use second-order elections to express political positions they hope will be responded to in the first-order arena; but it is also plausible that political parties consider them as ideal opportunities to test the electors’ reactions to new electoral strategies. EP elections are often perceived as being even less important than most sub-national (the prototypical second-order) elections; unlike most second-order elections, they involve the whole national electorate and allow for the development of uniform nationwide electoral strategies. They thus provide ideal opportunities for nationally motivated electoral experiments, and sometimes reflect party and electorate behavior that is dysfunctional for the EU party system. The cumulative consequence of these factors is a slowing down of the consolidation of and internal integration of the Euro parties as such processes advance in the course of each EP term, but retreat somewhat with each election.

The positive and negative elements outlined above shaped the debate on parties and elections at the EU level for the first three decades of the directly elected EP. The emphasis shifted across time from the consolidation of parties and the development of a quasi-consociational arrangement among the major EP party groups to the feared dilution of the ideological character and identity of the party groups that could have resulted from the massive enlargement that expanded the EU by an unprecedented 12 new MS in the first decade of the new century, but no new relevant themes were introduced until the last two elections. In fact, although it was hoped that Regulation (EC) No 2004/2003 and its follow-ups that regulate the status and financing of political parties at the European level would help consolidate Euro parties and integrate their organizational components, a properly developed Euro-level party system is still lacking (Bardi et al. 2010). Besides the endemic lack of salience and powers suffered by the EU’s supranational institutions, especially the EP, this is due to the lack of a genuine politicization of the EU level of government, as national dynamics still prevail in EU decision-making.

The 2014 EP elections: new challenges and new parties

In recent years, and in particular, in the period surrounding the last 2014 EP elections, the difficulties encountered by scholars and other observers in disentangling the complex relationship between elections and political parties at the EU level have acquired a more clearly political nature. What seems to be at stake is not so much the consolidation of the EU party system and the institutionalization of its party components, but rather, the very political, pro- or anti-European, nature of Euro parties. To be sure, we have witnessed a (re)-emergence of various strains of Eurosceptic parties in many MS, also as a result of the sustained economic and financial crisis that has been affecting Western democracies. Such tendencies take on very diverse connotations in different MS, but they certainly have the potential to affect the party system at the EU level as well. The sustained financial/economic crisis that has characterized with a global reach most of the last decade has profoundly changed perceptions of the EU. On one hand, it has stimulated demands for greater democratic control of EU institutions, and consequently, for more legitimacy of decisions made at the EU level. Conversely, the harshness experienced by some MS because of the effects of such decisions has contributed to the strengthening of traditional Euroscepticism and to the emergence of a new kind that has been termed Horizontal Euroscepticism (Bardi, 2014). Decisions made at the European level are increasingly being perceived as impositions from few, strong states on many weaker ones, even if made in full respect of the Treaties, and, procedurally, of MS sovereignties. Next to traditional Euroscepticism based on resentment aimed vertically at EU institutions and directives, we thus witness the emergence of sentiments that are aimed horizontally against individual, supposedly domineering, MS and not necessarily at European integration. Although the distinction between traditional and horizontal Euroscepticism may appear to be subtle, it does have some important implications. For example, traditional Eurosceptic parties such as UKIP or the Front National aim at undermining the very existence of the EU through attacks on EU principles and institutions, but the opposition of other parties such as Syriza seems to be aimed more at the way other MS influence EU policies than at the EU per se. Also, the Five Star Movement’s anti-Euro stance is more critical of what they see as the negative consequences of monetary integration with stronger economies such as Germany on Italy’s ability to respond to the economic crisis than criticism of EU principles and institutions. Although, at present, the specific impact and significance of these two different types of Euroscepticism may be difficult to identify and assess, it seems plausible that in the long run, horizontal Euroscepticism may acquire a different ideological connotation on the left–right axis. This would be more likely if the issues that currently cause reciprocal anti-MS resentment should become more politicized at the EU level.

The 2014 EP elections: outcome and effect on the Euro parties
and their system

Be it as it may, for the reasons that were outlined in the previous section, it was anticipated that the cumulative effect of the Eurosceptic vote in many MS would significantly affect the Euro parties and their system, even if it is recognized that it cannot be easily separated in the analysis from the protest or warning vote typically cast by electors in second-order elections against the parties that are in power at the national level. Moreover, another important development was expected as a result of the decision by the five major Euro parties to designate the EC Commission presidential candidates.1 Although it is perhaps too soon to come to a conclusion on the basis of a single election’s experience, this move was considered to be a first important step in the Euro-politicization of EP elections.2 For all these reasons, the 2014 EP elections represent a good opportunity to take stock of the Euro parties and their system, in terms of the structure, ideological make-up, and politicization.

The overall outcome of the elections was very well summarized as one of “stability amid change” by one of the early commentators of the elections (Kroh 2014). From a merely structural viewpoint, the 2014 EP elections produced significant amounts of change. The main indicators of party system institutionalization, the number of effective parties (NEP) and the cumulative strength of the three core EP groups, retreated considerably. The 2014 NEP score, 5.4, was even worse than the one, 5.3, observed for the second-elected EP—the most fragmented ever up to this point. It should be noted that the NEP score was as low as 4.2 in 1999 and hovered around 4.5 for most of the EP’s elected history. Similarly, the three core EP groups’ cumulative seat share, 63.8% in 2014, fell below two-thirds of the total for the first time since 1984, when it was 62.4%. These undeniable and apparently negative structural changes need to be interpreted in terms of their political causes and consequences as well of the development of a viable party system at the EU level.

Widespread protest and more specifically, Eurosceptic votes in many EU MS were undeniably at the root of the structural changes described above. On one hand, this could be interpreted as a negative development for the strengthening of EU parties and their system, as the consolidation of the core EP groups, considered as the pillars of the Euro party system, suffered a setback.3 Conversely, the strengthening of divergent forces and the creation of a real opposition within the EP, might signal the beginning of a politicization of the EU political system, and therefore be seen as a positive occurrence. The real significance of this apparent dilemma can perhaps be understood through an analysis of the appointment of the Commission’s president—the event that was considered to have the potential for favoring politicization. But in the end, the habitual convergence of the three core groups prevailed once again, for a time with the additional support of the Greens and of the United Left. Immediately after the elections results were known, it was clear that it was of paramount importance for all the five Euro parties to have the most voted of their candidates, Jean-Claude Juncker, elected President of the Commission and not to allow the MS to designate an alternative candidate. Paradoxically, the emergence of an openly anti-European party group (Farage’s and Grillo’s Europe of Freedom and Democracy) and the increasingly Eurosceptic connotation of the European Conservatives and Reformists group, rather than favoring the EP’s adversarial politicization, stimulated the retrenchment of the EP party system’s core. The conflict at the EU level is still between the MS’ intergovernmental approach to EU decision-making and the Euro parties’ attempt to build a supranational political space. The latter objective appears to be impossible to reach without major institutional reforms capable of giving the EP more powers over the EU executive and of redressing the balance between intergovernmental and supranational decision-making at the EU level. In fact, even the attempt to politicize the appointment of the Commission’s President and the strengthening of opposition groups within the EP as a result of the 2014 vote have made a difference. Given the current political climate at the MS and EU level and the consequent unlikelihood of major institutional reforms being launched or even proposed, the full institutionalization of Euro parties and the creation of a truly competitive party system at the EU level are still a long way to come.


1 The five EP party groups in question were: the European People’s Party (EPP), the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (PASD), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats from Europe (ALDE), the Greens, and the United Left (GUE/NGL). The first three consitute the so-called Europarty system’s core.

2 The 2009, and even more so, the 2014 EP elections witnessed the launching of Voting Advice Applications. This other development, at least for the time being, has more of an academic than of a political/institutional relevance, and cannot be treated in detail here. It has, however, attracted considerable attention and shown a potential ability to impact on voters’ choices. See also these links: [1]; [2]; [3].

3 The three core EP groups cumulatively lost more than 70 seats between 2009 and 2014. Even if such loss was partially due to a reduction of the total EP size (reduced from 766 to 751), it still amounts to more than 10% of their total strength.


  • Attinà, Fulvio (1990), “The Voting Behaviour of the European Parliament Members and the Problem of Europarties”, European Journal of Political Research, 18(3), pp. 557-579.
  • Bardi, Luciano (2002), “Parties and Party Systems in the European Union”, in Luther K. R., Muller- Rommel F., Political Parties in a Changing Europe: Political and Analytical Challenges, Oxford, Oxford University Press, pp. 293-322.
  • Bardi Luciano., Bressanelli Edoardo, Calossi Enrico, Gagatek Wojciech, Mair Peter, Pizzimenti Eugenio (2010), How to Create a Transnational Party System. Report for the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the European Parliament.
  • Bardi Luciano (2014), “Political parties, responsiveness, and responsibility in multi-level democracy: the challenge of horizontal Euroscepticism” in European Political Science, 13, pp. 352-364.
  • Kroh, Chris (2014), “Stability amid change: Impact of the 2014 European Parliament elections at the European level”, Electoral Studies, 36, pp. 204-209.
  • Kreppel A. (2002), “The European Parliament and the Supranational Party System”, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Reif K., Schmitt H. (1980), “Nine second-order national elections -A conceptual framework for the analysis of European election results”, in European Journal of Political Research, 8, pp. 3-44.

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