The Europeanisation of Left Political Parties: Limits to Adaptation and Consensus

By Holmes, Michael; Lightfoot, Simon | Capital & Class, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

The Europeanisation of Left Political Parties: Limits to Adaptation and Consensus


Holmes, Michael, Lightfoot, Simon, Capital & Class


The process of European integration impacts upon all parties of the left. This article focuses on how social-democratic, communist and green parties have responded to the challenge of Europeanisation. It shows that all parties engage extensively with the EU at a practical level, via elections, European parliamentary groups and European parties. There is also evidence of increasing policy adaptation and the adoption of more pro-European programmes, though this is not quite as extensive. However, ideological disputes over the nature of the EU as it is currently constructed and party competition have hindered the development of a broad left vision for the EU's future.

Introduction: The Europeanisation of political parties

The process of European integration has inspired very mixed reactions from the left. For some, the EU is a neoliberal capitalist club that restricts the policy options of left-oriented governments by binding them into neoliberal policies (see Baimbridge et al. in this issue; Gill, 1998; Storey, 2006; van Apeldoorn, 2002). However, others on the left have hailed European integration as the most appropriate means for the left to realise its goals (see Blackburn, 2005; Strange, 2006; Wilde, 1994). One of the aims of this article is to explore the way in which the different party families of the left have responded to European integration, and to discover how their interrelationships have coloured their responses to integration. The article examines how the three main left-leaning groups in the European parliament (EP)-the social democrats, the communists and the greens-have responded to the challenge of European integration. Are we seeing the birth of a new consensus on Europe among the parties of the left?

A key framework for this analysis is that of 'Europeanisation'-'a process in which Europe, and especially the European Union, become an increasingly more relevant and important part of political reference for the actors at the level of the member states' (Hanf & Soetendorp, 1998: i). Clearly, political parties are among those actors influenced by the EU and integration. Europeanisation has affected political parties in three important ways.

First of all, it has practical implications. Parties have been faced with a new political arena, and have adapted their internal organisational structures to facilitate engagement with European institutions (Ladrech, 2002). They have debated European issues in their national parliaments, participated in European elections, and in virtually every instance have taken up any seats they have won in the European parliament. Participation in European elections and the EP has in turn meant that parties have become increasingly involved with European parties and an emerging European party system.

The second way in which Europeanisation affects political parties is in relation to policy choice. Europeanisation has led to changes in party programmes. Partly, this has simply been in terms of EU membership placing new issues and demands on the political agenda. But there is also evidence of programmes and policies with increased Eu-related contents, and these can be discerned at three different levels. At the most basic level, we might find support within a party for individual policies of the EU; at a normative level, a party might be in favour of integration; and finally, there might be party support for institutional participation in the EU. Given these different levels and the breadth of policies undertaken by the EU, this is an aspect of Europeanisation in which significant amounts of variation can be expected. Parties might have policies supportive of the normative ideal of integration, but argue that they are opposed to what the EU is actually doing. Alternatively, parties might be critical of the idea of integration, but supportive of selected policies.

But parties do not make policy decisions in isolation.Their decisions depend, in part, on the positions adopted by rival parties. …

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