The Future of European Union Political Parties
almost everywhere are held in low public esteem. International opinion polls across Europe reveal a startling decline in public confidence in their national democratic systems irrespective of the political orientation of specific governments.1 The recent EU referenda have provided an irresistible opportunity for voters to pass judgement on deeply unpopular administrations—in many cases over domestic issues quite unrelated to the treaty or even the European Union in general. Why should voters feel disenchanted with the institutions of their national political lives? One explanation stresses the apprehension felt by large sectors of public opinion at the apparent impotence of national governments in the face of globalisation. In this perspective, even governments in some of the larger EU Member States are seen to be increasingly marginal actors in the dramas played out when global economic pressures lead to painful adjustment being made to national economies, patterns of employment and traditional social and welfare policies. Constricted in the choices they might wish to make, political parties feel obliged to fight elections in an ever-diminishing political place in the electoral middle ground. There is a consequent perception that mainstream political parties are being pushed into more or less the same ideological telephone box. Only populist parties on the fringes of the political system seem likely to benefit from this trend over time. These developments may explain why membership of political parties and—in many countries—voter participation in elections is in decline. This is not a universal trend in all Member States, for reasons which should be more closely examined and understood. But unless electorates feel that their votes make a tangible difference in terms of political outcomes, they do risk becoming increasingly detached from the democratic process.
Although global competitive pressures on Member States may narrow the range of alternative policies that governments believe possible to pursue at national level, choice has not entirely disappeared—as can be seen in the diversity of socio-economic models within the EU. But when they act in concert, the same 25 (or more) EU Member States can surely exploit a greater range of policy options than would be available to them at a purely national level. The global marketplace will always impose some restrictions on the choices available to its participants, although it also provides important new economic opportunities. But the sheer size and relative self-sufficiency of a Union of 25 or more EU states must generate wider policy options in pursuit of European economic, social and sustainability objectives. At present the focus of most policy-makers and decision takers in EU Member States remains trapped within the shrinking horizons of purely national debates. Voters have not been given any reasons for thinking that—by acting together at the European level—it may be possible to achieve objectives that otherwise remain illusory at the national level. In the absence of a sense of democratic purpose behind the development of European integration, it is hardly surprising that public attitudes to the EU have become more cynical. The limits communication
The sense of alienation between voters and their national politicians is reinforced by the conviction that decision-making at the EU level is itself too remote, too esoteric, too technocratic and too elitist. Many citizens believe they are denied the information they need to adequately understand (let alone pass judgement on) what is being done in their name by their governments and by the EU institutions.
Eurbarometer: http://europa.eu.int/comm/public_opinion/archives/eb/eb63_en.pdf (p. 25).
European View_Transnational parties and european democracy