Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Politics

Still "Euro-Party Systems"? - Representativeness of Political Parties on the Eu-Dimension in Denmark and Sweden

Academic journal article Journal of Comparative Politics

Still "Euro-Party Systems"? - Representativeness of Political Parties on the Eu-Dimension in Denmark and Sweden

Article excerpt


Within comparative politics significant attention has been devoted to the "democratic chain of accountability and delegation".3 One of the central relationships within this chain is the electoral connection, whereby voters (as principals), through free and fair elections have the possibility to indirectly hold parties and representatives (their agents) to account. Apart from the formal mechanisms that allow voters to retain well-performing representatives in office, or to "throw out the rascals", such an electoral connection entails a degree of opinion congruence, at least on issues and policies that are deemed salient. This implies that voters need to have at least some understanding of parties' or candidates' positions and policy alternatives if they are to make a meaningful decision, more precisely if they are to select the party or candidate that is closest to their preferences, as the standard Downsian (rational choice) theory posits.

There is a broad consensus in the literature that voters in European parliamentary democracies have a pretty good understanding of the traditional Left-Right dimension, e.g. they are able to place both themselves and the parties along this single dimension with a relatively high degree of stability. A vast body of empirical evidence has been uncovered showing that parties represent their voters quite well along the Left-Right dimension, whatever the main underlying conflict in the context of the given political system may be.4 In Sweden (though less so in Denmark) the explanatory power of class-based voting, and therefore the traditional economic LeftRight dimension has remained strong, even in a broader European comparison.5

In the case of the Member States of the European Union (EU), the problem of representation is exacerbated by the process of deepening European integration, whereby an increasing number of policy competences are being transferred to the European level. On the one hand, this would lead us to assume that the relevance of the EU-level in the eyes of the voters would correspondingly increase. Furthermore, in line with the parallel significant expansion of the competences of the European Parliament (EP), one would assume that this too would increase the stakes for political parties, which field candidates at the EP-elections every five years.6 Since the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are elected directly by the citizens of the EU, to an overwhelming extent from among the candidates of the same political parties that also contest national elections, we could expect that it is in the best interest of both the voters and the political parties that they provide adequate policy alternatives, and therefore represent the preferences of their constituents also on European issues.

However, reality is not quite as simple as that. For one, genuinely European issues rarely feature prominently in the political discourse of the Ell's Member States (with the exception of thematic referenda, crises directly related to the ELI, etc.), especially when it comes to national elections. For a number of reasons, both voters and parties attach far less importance to EPelections than to national contests, which decide the fates of governments. Furthermore, with but a few exceptions, both the parties as well as the campaign topics are generally the same at national and European elections, and therefore the government-opposition dynamic might prevail even at EPelections. Consequently EP-elections can more often than not be regarded as "second-order national elections".7 In any case, neither parties, nor their voters seem to prioritise EU-related issues, whether at EP- or national elections, and conflicts directly relating to European integration are only taken up by a small minority of parties. In other words, the EU-issue has only to a very limited extent been politicised.8

Several studies have concluded that opinion congruence between parties and voters on EU-related issues is rather weak (or, from a normative perspective, too weak), first of all because voters are insufficiently informed, or outright ignorant when it comes to the question of European integration (as opposed to key domestic policies), but also due to the fact that parties in most cases are strategically counter-interested in politicising the EU-issue, and therefore fail to provide adequately differentiated policy alternatives. …

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