The founding fathers of the European Union would hardly envisage that party politics would play such an increasingly important role as it does in the today’s EU. Political parties at European level, commonly known as Europarties, emerged as Europe-wide umbrella organizations of national political parties operating transnationally as well as within the EU institutions, in particular forming political groups in the European Parliament. Now, their potential to influence and frame not just the political system within the EU, but far beyond its borders is becoming increasingly evident.
The renowned ‘party’ Article 138a (now Article 191) in the Treaty of Maastricht gave Europarties formal recognition and a clear-cut role, characterizing them as “important factor for integration” and affirming their capacity to “express the political will of the citizens”. Later, Europarties was strengthened further, and allowed to create think-tanks (Eurofoundations) funded by the EU acquiring additional analytical and policy-designing capacity. Europarties possess legal status and are qualified for funding from the EU budget (although such moneys cannot be transferred to their constituent national parties), with the new regulation to enter in force in 2017, further formalising (and bureaucratising) their functioning. Against the background of apparently weakening influence of classical national parties, Europarties seem to be gaining influence, becoming an important factor of European consolidation.
The current situation motivates national parties within EU borders to form or join Europarties to increase their pan-European outreach but also to serve their internal political agenda. In their turn, Europarties are interested in growing and incorporating new members in order to increase their representation and influence, which may however have a by-effect of lack of ideological or policy-based consolidation within Europarties, especially the bigger ones. Now, apart from the growing importance played by Europarties in European politics, they are trying to extend their influence beyond the EU borders, and new rivalries are forming in international arena. Lately, Europarties started to affiliate national parties from non-EU states for a number of strategic reasons, but most importantly to acquire international influence and expertise and thus capacity to influence EU’s foreign policies, but also to spread own worldview and values beyond EU borders. Of course, if the EU expands further, some of such affiliated parties may immediately become ready-made European parties strengthening the positions of the mother coalitions.
Currently there are 13 recognized (and therefore funded from the EU budget) Europarties operating at the EU level. The biggest ones are the European People’s Party (EPP), the Party of European Socialists (PES), the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the European Green Party, Party of the European Left and the Alliance of Conservatives and Reformists (AECR). Recently, all these Europarties increased their representation in the East by affiliating like-minded national parties, though the forms of partnership vary from institutional and conceptual perspective. EPP and PES grant full membership solely to the parties based in the EU, whereas non-EU parties are given an observer status, with no formal leverages to influence Europarty politics. In contrast, ALDE, with weaker representation in the Europarliament, does not apply such differentiation and grants non-EU parties full-pledged membership.
Undeservedly there has been little academic attention toward the actual potential of Europarties to impact domestic political systems in non-EU countries. However, even those Europarties that wield modest influence within the EU political system may have larger sway on politics in pro-Western non-EU countries, in particular the post-Soviet countries such as Ukraine or Georgia. Here political systems are recovering from legacies of the totalitarian past and possess relatively weak, unconsolidated and opportunistic political parties of highly personalist nature, with frustrated populations that lack understanding of political processes and feel suspicion toward democratic institutions. These latter parties need assistance (but frequently also motivation) to transform to value-based entities with democratic internal structure, strong ideologies and agendas. Europarties have kind of transformative mission of assisting these countries to overcome political instability and prepare them for Europeanisation and further European integration through institutional capacity-building programmes and other forms of assistance.
Such cross-party cooperation is mutually beneficial, and driven by pragmatic interests on both sides. Europe faces ideological challenges as in many countries of the world where the wave of democratisation have been reversed, creating increasingly insecure and unfriendly environment to its East, particularly with resurgence of Russia’s new assertiveness and the hotbeds of instability around it. Supporting emerging democracies through cross-party cooperation can be one of the viable ways of supporting positive change wherever possible.
Political parties of the former Soviet space are in their turn eager to increase their political clout within own countries, and partnership with Europarties is an important source on international and internal legitimacy for them, in addition to valuable technical assistance, and opportunities to learn and indirectly participate in European politics. One should however keep in mind that becoming an affiliate of a Europarty would not automatically ingrain such parties with European values and standards, as decades of Soviet rule have left the capacity to skilfully imitate democratic procedures and institutions while following different agendas; promoting positive change and internalising European values takes time and effort.
In achieving this transformative mission, the current practice of quasi-formal partnership is not enough. New models of cooperation should be explored by Europarties, by expanding the network of allies in the non-EU countries, putting more effort into supporting reform in affiliated parties while closely monitoring their real progress. Equally important is focusing on strategic communication beyond party politics, reaching out to wider public and promoting more political pluralism, awareness and understanding of political processes among the population. Political transformation is deemed for failure without proper acceptance of European values by the citizens who should also regain trust toward actual political process.
Increasing effectiveness of cross-party partnerships of Europarties need more scrutiny of the existing channels, models and procedures that to date have created modest outcomes. There is a need for wider political debate on what should be the short- and long-term goals of such partnerships, what should be the mandates of Europarties and whether such processes should be better regulated by respective documents. While the importance of cross-party partnership is obvious, to date there is less understanding of the need to analyse and learn from the past lessons. Europarties, by transcending the EU borders, are not serving their own political goals but are on a very important mission by promoting democracy, rule of law, and security along Europe’s borders and beyond. This requires more resources, time, and effort than is currently realised by decision-makers at different political levels in Europe.