The title of this article has positive connotations. It infers that European parties are doing very well and, by taking a few fresh ideas into the 2019 European elections, will be able to do even better. This article will present the current situation of the European political parties and assess the main areas in which improvements can be made to further integration. It is not surprising that this is one of those topics on which researchers have widely divergent opinions.

Do we really need parties in the EU?

The EU has evolved into a fully-fledged political system with public opinion, institutions, regulation, and ordinary and extraordinary decision-making procedures. It deals with critical issues, not always visible to the majority of the citizens. These include areas such as agricultural policy, regional development funding instruments, monetary policy, economic policy coordination, the regulation of the internal market and the establishment of the rules governing trade with the rest of the world, among others. Although today’s EU is the product of a gradual evolution from the original treaties of the 1950s, much of its current structure is the result of the Maastricht Treaty. The last five years and the enduring financial and sovereign debt crises in the eurozone have further advanced European integration, through the introduction of new institutions and policies to address the design limitations of the monetary union (Sklias and Maris 2013).

The history of the European political parties and of the pro-European movement are mutually bound together (Pridham and Pridham 1981). After several years of sluggish progress on integration in the 1960s due to French reluctance, the 1970s saw significant steps being taken in the European project through the preparation for and introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament (EP). The commencement of the preparatory steps for these elections gave impetus to the creation of European federations.

Each European party has its own history. Christian Democracy was the leading post-war political movement. Inspired by federalist and pro-integration ideals, it gave birth to the European People’s Party (EPP) in 1976 (Kalyvas 1995). Social Democracy originated from the Socialist International and, despite early reluctance regarding integration, produced the Confederation of the Socialist Parties of the European Community in 1974 (Moschonas 2002). Finally, the international liberal movement created the European Liberal Democrats, also in 1976.

The 1990s brought renewed optimism regarding the European parties, which flourished after the inclusion of Article 138a in the Maastricht Treaty (Hix and Lord 1997), and again after the signing of the Amsterdam Treaty (1997) and the Treaty of Nice (2000). The implementation of the ‘Party regulation’ in 2004 gave impetus to the creation of new Europarties, mainly by Eurosceptic forces, as it set down the criteria that had to be met for these organisations to be recognised and subsequently funded. Despite the fact that the Treaty of Lisbon, signed in 2007 and ratified in 2009, provided space for more integration, the ongoing crisis has pushed the institutional design of the EU in search of a new equilibrium. Diachronically, the EU, through enlargement and deepening, has been completely overhauled. Today, the Union of 28 member states, compared to the Union of 9 in the mid-1970s, has institutions and bodies which are much larger and thus require more coordination. On this basis, the answer to the question is yes, political parties on the European level are needed, at least more so than in the past.

The institutional asymmetry

The discussion about the contribution and role of the existing European parties is ongoing; however, the majority of reviewers are not enthusiastic about their performance (Bartolini 2012; Priestly 2011; Van Hecke 2010; Peglis 2011a; Johansson 2009; Hanley 2008; Mair 2006; Hix 2007; Raunio 2006). This author’s view is that, taking into consideration their historical path of development and despite the huge steps taken towards integration in several policy domains by the EU, the European political parties have not followed a similar path of development. There is an asymmetry between the development of the EU and that of the European parties, which still operate under conditions that were more relevant to the earlier stages of European integration. Two indicators of this will be explored below: institutional impact and public reference to the Europarties.

The presence of the three oldest party groups in the core institutions, and the impact that they have on the decision-making processes of the EU, varies widely. The European parties have a proven record of working well in the EP (Kreppel 2002), with their success lying in the formal character of their cooperation in organised groups. The European party groups have institutionalised their roles gradually since 1953 and the origins of the EP, in parallel with its growth in size and, most importantly, in competences. The same cannot be said of their roles in the other major institutions: the Commission, the Council and the European Council. The Council of the European Union and the European Council are key institutions in the EU’s decision-making process. European party activity is observed in these institutions, but it has not been formalised. Tallberg and Johansson (2008, 16) note, ‘[n]egotiations along party divides are relatively rare in the European Council, where issue-specific, interest-based coalitions instead constitute the most prevalent form of actor alignment.’ In contrast, of the EPP’s pre–European Council meetings, Jansen and Van Hecke (2011, 151) observe: ‘These meetings also sometimes afforded an insight into the strengths and weaknesses of their own countries’ negotiating positions, which was especially useful to members of the European Council. In any event, both government leaders and opposition leaders benefited from exchanges at the EPP Summit.’ The key characteristic here is the ‘informal character’ of the activities of the bigger European parties, which take place in ministerial meetings for several portfolios and in council of ministers and summit meetings prior to the European Council at the level of affiliated party leaders and heads of state. These meetings have a long history, dating back to the 1970s for the party summits and the 1980s for the ministerial meetings. However, little has changed in these bodies in recent decades as far as the content and contribution to the decision-making process is concerned. What they mainly provide is a space for additional consultations among the affiliated officers of the respective European party prior to the beginning of the normal session of the Council or the European Council. However, in the ordinary decision-making processes of these institutions ideological affiliation is not the key factor. National agendas prevail and coalition building is based on converging interests among different member states. In general there is little empirical evidence regarding the contribution of these meetings to the decision-making process of the EU and virtually no research has been carried out into the matter. The minutes of these meetings are not public and this might be one reason why little is known about their role. However, the three largest European parties, which account for the majority of the representatives in the Council and the European Council, self-define their presence in these institutions as a ‘network’, rather than a party. There is no reference to such meetings having any formal role in the decision-making process.

The presence and the activities of the European parties are less visible in the European Commission, where there is also a lack of empirical evidence as to the depth of the work being performed. Affiliated commissioners coordinate their role with their respective European party. This is done mainly in a ‘business-as-usual’ format, through the attendance of the affiliated commissioners at the most important Europarty organs, such as ministerial meetings and pre-summit leaders meetings. Often termed the ‘European government’, the Commission, Council and European Council have been transformed since the 1970s. From 9 members in the late 1970s for the Council and the European Council and 13 commissioners, today each institution has 28 members, increasing the need for coordination. Despite their diverse presence in the Union’s core institutions, the European parties’ impact on the process of decision-making across them, albeit visible, could be improved substantially. In spite of the gradual development of the EU since the 1950s there has not been a parallel development in the programme content and processes of the European party groups. Member states are still the key players today, promoting their own interests in the interinstitutional processes of legislation and policy implementation. The ongoing financial crisis has strengthened intergovernmentalism.

The second issue is the absence of any public reference to the Europarties. Even after the successful introduction of the Lisbon Treaty clause regarding the nomination of the president of the European Commission, from the results of the 2014 European elections it does not seem as if the European parties have improved their political footprint among the European electorate, aside from during the few weeks directly before the elections. This is despite the fact that the political agenda in all the member states has been dramatically Europeanised. The EU is on the news every day as a result of the wide variety of political issues that inspire reaction on the European level. This reaction though is mainly driven by the member states at the intergovernmental level, rather than by the European parties. As a result, last year’s European elections were not affected by this profound Europeanisation of political agendas. European voters still perceive the European elections as national elections of secondary importance (Reif and Schmitt 1980), mainly because, contrary to national elections, they do not produce a tangible political outcome. The day after the European elections nothing is expected of the European parties in terms of policy implementation or governance in Europe. The above comments regarding the status quo of the European parties should not be received as pessimism regarding their role. On the contrary, the size, structure and policy content of the EU today is such that only through an increased and more formalised role for the European political parties can we expect the work and the decisions taken to become more efficient and more democratic. The formalisation of the horizontal work of the European parties in the decision-making processes and institutions of the EU will contribute in the medium term to a better functioning Union. With this in mind, outlined below are four practical ideas to increase the output of the European parties and improve the functioning of the EU. Only the last proposal requires a treaty change.

Europarties need to strengthen their programmatic framework

The first implementation, in 2014, of the nomination of a presidential candidate for the Commission by the European parties was relatively successful, despite the fact that it could already have been implemented in the 2009 European elections. The Lisbon Treaty was agreed and signed in December 2007, one and a half years before the 2009 European elections. Its ratification though was slow and stressful and was not concluded until December 2009. Technically, therefore, it was not in effect during the 2009 European elections. However, the clause governing the public appointment of a candidate for the Commission presidency could be exercised by European parties even in the pre-Lisbon but towards-Lisbon status quo. The European Council would have been uncomfortable if it had not ‘take[n] into account the elections to the European Parliament’ (Peglis 2011a). The EPP’s decision to back Barroso for a second termFootnote 1 was made in the pre-Lisbon institutional and political context. Even so, neither the European socialists (Party of European Socialists/Socialists and Democrats) nor the liberals (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) were able to reach a consensus over a candidate.

It is, therefore, necessary to take the next step of strengthening the content of the nomination—the policy programme—in readiness for the 2019 European elections. To achieve this, the European parties could internally contemplate a tighter procedure and timeline that aims to coordinate the policies of the national member parties, the European party, the party group in the EP and, ultimately, the candidate president of the Commission into one single programme for the next five years. As an example, in the run up to the 2014 European elections the EPP adopted the ‘Action Programme 2014–2019’, and held a final round of debate and a vote in the plenary session of the EPP Congress in Dublin in March 2014. The EPP Group participated to an extent in the several months of preparation of this document by the relevant EPP working group. Although the document was endorsed after the CongressFootnote 2 by the EPP Group, in autumn 2014 the new EPP Group adopted the ‘A Reform Agenda for Europe’s Future - EPP Group Priorities 2014–2019’ document, published in November 2014. This document should have been a development of the Action Programme adopted by the EPP Congress, but it is not. In the two months of campaigning, the EPP candidate for Commission president, Jean-Claude Junker, endorsed the EPP Action Programme and actually elaborated on certain chapters such as the energy union, the digital agenda and the investment plan, and added additional catchy proposals to build publicity. However, since his election as president of the Commission, the implementation of this programme has been enriched by the agendas of the other members of the European Commission. This is despite the fact that the role of the Commission president has been strengthened by the Lisbon Treaty: the president is now the agenda-setter for the European Commission and not just first among equals. This change should facilitate the implementation of the agenda that has been presented to the public and provide the basis for increasing the party’s accountability. This is a good reason to encourage tighter implementation of the European party programme, updated over time, and increased commitment and active participation from all the relevant parties. Therefore, it is clear that this first implementation of the election of the Commission president based on the political content of the candidates’ programmes, similarly to how this is done at the national level, can be improved in the future.

Europarties should contemplate the introduction of the role of ‘chief whip’ to improve interinstitutional coordination

European parties need to introduce mechanisms that follow the everyday decision-making process of the Union to make sure that their affiliated groups and members in the Parliament, the Council, the Commission and the European Council have as uniform a position as possible and can maximise their impact on the output of the EU. The balance of power between the members of the Commission and the national ministers, not to mention prime ministers, participating in the Council of Ministers, does not favour the European parties, which do not have any formal mandate to provide a ‘chief whip’ in the core institutions. The term ‘chief whip’ refers to a mechanism for each European party that would ensure that their representatives in the European Commission, the Council and the European Council keep to their party’s positions on different issues. The balance between ‘party discipline’ and representing national interests is a delicate one, but wherever European parties consolidate their positions on different issues, these positions should be implemented across the European institutions by their network of officers. The effectiveness of the chief whip, even at the national level, is not based upon any formal authority among, for instance, members of parliament. In the same way, at the European level such a role would reinforce the depth of the work and coordination efforts that each European party and its national members have to put in to affect the decision-making process. It would reinforce the strength of the party and ultimately ensure that it was more coherent in terms of policymaking. The coordination of the European party representatives in the different institutions is a key factor in increasing efficiency due to the interinstitutional nature of the EU’s decision-making process. Being successful in the EP and getting a policy paper voted through means little if this success is not endorsed by the Council and the Commission.

Europarties should talk to the people

Since their beginnings, Europarties have had a proven record in creating political documents. However, today they need to evolve this ‘talent’ by developing new policy ideas that will build up their public profiles. The documents of the Europarties usually score highly when bridging the gap between the different views of the member parties but score poorly with regard to putting forward new ideas on the European level, where their competences lie. New policy ideas usually come from member states or the core institutions. Through fresh policy proposals the parties could develop profiles that are of interest to the public. Such policies might include, for example, a proposal for a European supplementary pension that would introduce voluntary contributions to efficiently build up a new pension system, or the introduction of the ‘European company’, which would enjoy some benefits vis-à-vis nationally registered companies. In general, European parties should look into taking new ideas that affect ordinary people to the European level. In fact European parties do contemplate positions through resolutions and policy papers but knowledge of this rarely reaches the broader public. Policy initiatives today in the EU are credited to the Commission or Council members rather than to the European parties.

Changing how the commissioners are nominated

After the 2019 European elections, the European Council will propose the next president of the Commission after taking into account the candidate proposed by the winning European party. The members of the Commission, however, will be appointed by the Council in accordance with the older procedure outlined in Article 17 Paragraph 7 of the Treaty of the European Union. This means that the European elections will have no effect on these appointments. This is explained by the fact that historically the European elections were not associated with the appointment of the European Commission, whose appointment was a competence of the national governments (Wonka 2008). The proposal is that the authority to appoint a member of the Commission be shifted from the government of the day to the national party that ranks first in the European elections (Peglis 2011a; b). This would strengthen the European dimension of the elections, as the citizens would take this into account more than the election of the president of the Commission, as it would determine who they send to Brussels to become their European commissioner.

The aim of this proposal is to strengthen the association of the European elections not just with the election of the members of the EP and the appointment of the president of the European Commission, but with the appointment of the designated commissioner from each country. National parties would put forward their proposed candidate for the College of the Commission as part of their campaign and would appeal to the electorate on this basis. The party that received the highest number of votes would be eligible to appoint its candidate for the Commission, rather than this being a competence of the government of the day. The pattern of implementation could be similar to the clause in the Lisbon Treaty for the appointment of the president of the European Commission. The legal provision could refer to the nomination of the commissioner designate from each country ‘taking into account the results of the European elections’. Such a legal provision, at a Treaty level, addresses the constitutional and legal barriers that would arise at the national level. The clause would be more political as there could be no legal or even a constitutional amendment at the national level, thus ensuring that only the government of the day would have the authority to nominate a candidate for Commissioner. Member countries would be invited to follow its provisions. If they did not they would risk their candidate commissioner not being approved. The EP has a proven record on this front. Equally, if each national party were to name its candidate for commissioner, people would be less likely to vote based on national or reactionary criteria as, apart from electing the members of the EP, their vote would also decide who was appointed to the European Commission.

In contrast to the European institutions, European elections have evolved to become an incubator for populist political parties. The combination of a national ballot in the era of nationwide media and the absence of any actual consequences on the day after the election, has relaxed the voting criteria, which is the opposite of what is needed at the European level. Populist or single-issue parties that have little to say about the real issues in Europe have been strengthened as a result. Populist parties have flourished not only due to their anti-systemic nature and media tactics, but also because voting for them in the European elections poses no risk for the voter. From this perspective the change we propose would increase voters’ rationality when making their decision. The key paradigm today for the European elections is voting with national criteria in mind, thus rewarding or punishing the incumbent government. This indicates that the European question has not been strengthened diachronically, despite the obvious Europeanisation of the decision-making process. Furthermore, today, voting for party A or party B in the European elections basically equates to selecting candidates for the EP. If the selection of the national member of the European Commission was added to this it would strongly increase the attention paid by the voters to the real issue of the elections, that is, ‘who goes to Brussels’. Selecting a few people from each party who will become a marginal part of a several-hundred-member-strong institution has much less of an impact than selecting who will be the one and only national representative in the 28-member European Commission. By having both issues decided at the ballot box we can expect a significant increase in the rationality behind the voters’ decision-making processes. The authority and the legitimacy of the national government would not be challenged by this proposal and would continue to be reflected in the make-up of the Council and the European Council. The Commission is the supranational institution and it is only right that it be linked with the results of the European elections. This proposal would also further strengthen the independence of the commissioners from their national governments as their appointment would be linked with the outcome of the European elections.


The way the EU works has changed a lot in the past four decades. Particularly with the launch of the co-decision procedure and its gradual extension to almost all areas of decision-making, the cooperation of all the core institutions is critical to the output of the Union. This is very different from the situation in the 1970s or 1980s, when the Commission and the Council were legislating independently of the EP, which was mainly a discussion forum. With the Lisbon Treaty, and especially with the ongoing financial crisis in Europe, the debate about the core European institutions remaining immune from and outside of continuous political confrontation is relatively outdated. The EU is a federal union of states with a high degree of unification in some domains but not in others. The discussion and the decisions that need to be taken to continue the process of unification should be carried out in an ideological and political way that complements the intergovernmental character of the EU which already exists in the Council and the European Council. This would offer opportunities and benefits for those political organisations that can coordinate and consolidate their representation in the core institutions across the EU. Although a complicated exercise, this is the direction in which the European parties should look to make a difference to policymaking in the EU.