When Institutions Matter: The EU and the Identity of Social Democracy

By Moschonas, Gerassimos | Renewal, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

When Institutions Matter: The EU and the Identity of Social Democracy


Moschonas, Gerassimos, Renewal


Parties have historically developed, among other things, in the wake of major institutional changes such as the parliamentarisation of formerly authoritarian states or the advent of universal suffrage. So, today, the unprecedented character of the European Union has a significant impact on party phenomena and party conflict.

How does the European framework, particularly its institutional aspects, influence the role and dynamics of political parties (and partisan families)? What are its consequences for the programmatic development and, more generally, the physiognomy and tradition, of social democracy?

A conservative system with little room for partisan logics

Historically, one of the important activities of political parties was the harmonisation of relations between different institutions within political systems. The partisan character of institutional harmonisation and government/administration was a specific trait of politics in Europe and contributed to the transition from classical parliamentarianism to party democracy (Bartolini, 2005b).

The new governmental set-up in Europe is marked by a basic institutional asymmetry. In the twenty-seven states, the system of party government remains dominant and the national political power of parties, albeit reduced, is still considerable. By contrast, at the EU level, parties are not the principal units of decision-making and their European political power has not really been asserted. If partisan treatment of problems is common in European institutions, notably in the Council and the Parliament, the EU in general lacks coherent party leadership. No partisan family simultaneously controls the European Council, the Commission, and the European Parliament and no political family is likely to do so in the future. There is no unique, cohesive and undisputed partisan policy maker in this polycentric polity. As a consequence, the European system is a system without a party coordinator. In particular, Euro-parties exert neither the function of government (a central aspect of which is institutional and policy harmonisation) nor that of political representation (1). 'In its deepest characteristics, the European community model rejects the classical form of the political party' (Magnette, 2001, 63).

Given this fundamental institutional divergence (party government at national level and its practical absence at a specifically European level), the parties can no longer ensure the cohesion of power centres and are no longer identified, as they used to be, with public authority; or, to be more precise: if they take responsibility for the cohesion of power centres at a national level, they do not ensure this cohesion in the system as a whole (for the 'Brussels complex', which is not governed directly by parties, now represents a crucial component in the network of European executives).

Weakened institutional leaders, though nevertheless still leaders at a national level, but without a clearly defined role at the EU level, political parties have lost a significant part of their erstwhile influence and authority. Actually, in the framework of European multi-level governance, the 'asymmetrical dynamic' of party government, by short-circuiting the unity of the decision-making process, reduces the managerial and governmental efficacy (problem-solving capacity) of political parties. And this is a not insignificant development. As Arthur Schlesinger has written, 'politics in the end is the art of solving substantive problems' (Schlesinger, 1986).

The EU is furthermore a profoundly conservative system, in the sense that it 'protects' the units (the states) that make it up and does not easily revisit institutional and political decisions it has taken. Changes and adaptations in the EU invariably occur on the margins, without a fundamental challenge to initial options and ways of operating. The whole community culture is based on the idea that no institution is ruled by a clear-cut majority logic or a stable coalition (decisions being the result of an ongoing process of compromise, in which partisan logics play a limited role) (Costa, 2004, 282). …

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When Institutions Matter: The EU and the Identity of Social Democracy
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