by Gilles Pittoors
Although an increasing number of political decisions are taken at the European Union (EU) level, national politics remains the prime arena for democratic debate. This deprives the EU of a key source of democratic legitimacy, while showing how national politics are increasingly ‘ruling the void‘. In my article for JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, I argue that national political parties can provide a solution to both challenges by organisationally linking the national and European levels.
The importance of national-European linkages
Without linkages with the European level in terms of communication and exchange, national political parties are blindly navigating a highly complex multilevel political system, and thus cannot hope to meaningfully impact EU decision-making. In turn, without party organisations providing the connection with citizens, uploading national preferences to the EU, and downloading the European dimension to national debates, the EU lacks a key source of democratic legitimacy.
Organisationally linking the national and European levels is thus a crucial part of national parties’ role in the EU. Research in this area traditionally focuses on the question of control of national parties over their EU-level agents. Yet, if one accepts that parties’ linkages with the European level, beyond varying in practical terms, can also serve much broader purposes, from exchanging information across levels to legislative coordination, it becomes clear that these linkages should be studied as part of a wider multilevel organisational strategy. The questions I answer are therefore twofold. On the one hand, what exactly are these practices and purposes? On the other hand, how can we capture a party’s broader organisational strategy?
To answer these questions, I develop a framework to capture and understand parties as multilevel organisations bridging the domestic and European levels. Designed with the specific of aim of tracing variation between parties, the framework integrates Hix and Lord’s organigram of the party in the EU with the federal concept of ‘vertical integration’ of political parties (Figure 1). As such, it focuses attention away from a general principal-agent approach , and towards the cross-level interactive dynamics within a party in the EU context.
To test this framework, I conducted and compared qualitative case studies of fifteen different parties in Flanders (Belgium), the Netherlands and Denmark. Based on an analysis of party statutes and 64 semi-structured interviews with party elites, these case studies allowed me to put some empirical meat on the framework’s theoretical bones. Importantly, they showed how parties differentiate between an ‘internal’ dimension (linkages with parties’ own EU-level agents, such as MEPs) and an ‘external’ dimension (linkages with a transnational partisan network, such as European party federations). Concurrently, comparison uncovered a fundamental divide between parties regarding the institutionalisation of internal linkages (informal versus formal), and their commitment to external linkages (opt-in versus opt-out attitudes).
Four ideal types of multilevel party
Putting these patterns across parties together led to the inductive identification of four distinct ideal types of multilevel party organisation: Federation, Integration, Consolidation and Separation — or the ‘FICS’ model (Table 1).
First, federated parties systematically invest in external linkages, firmly locking themselves in their transnational network, while maintaining light-touch contacts with their MEPs and other EU-level agents, whose activities are monitored on an ad hoc basis. These parties stress the importance of building broad European coalitions, and do not mind their ministers and MEPs having a high degree of autonomy to forge the necessary alliances and compromises. As such, a stratified situation is created where national and European activities are effectively decoupled: the party is pursuing domestic and European political goals simultaneously but independently. Linkages hence serve the purpose of cross-level socialisation and information exchange, but not of substantive coordination on concrete policies.
Second, integrated parties engage strongly with both internally and externally through (semi-)formal formats, with linkages aiming to ensure cross-level exchanges on a regular basis and in a systematic way, involving a wide range of actors. These parties not only pursue far-reaching collaboration within their broader transnational network, but also internally aim for frequent and structured interactions across levels. A striking pattern is their use of intermediaries, such as liaison officers and cross-level working groups, fostering synergy between domestic and European politics.
Third, consolidated parties are driven by an overriding concern with cross-level cohesion. They keep close track of what their people at the European level are doing, while largely disregarding their transnational network. At the core of this organisational strategy is a desire to pursue their domestic programme at all levels, for which it is considered crucial to maintain and consolidate cross-level unity as much as possible. Accordingly, while emphasising their independence from external (transnational) pressures, consolidated parties deem informal contacts insufficient. Linkages are meant to serve substantive coordination on policy positions across level, ensuring that MEPs and ministers toe the party line.
Finally, separated parties do not engage across levels either internally or externally, effectively separating their national and European activities. There are no formal structures in place to systematically follow up on what their agents are doing, and there are only weak organisational ties with transnational partisan networks. These parties are almost entirely directed at domestic politics and people dealing with European affairs constitute a semi-autonomous group within the party. Importantly, their approach is not about the dominance of the domestic over the European (as with consolidated parties) or about the decoupling of these two levels (as with federated parties), but about the irrelevance or even rejection of the EU as a genuine political level.
This ‘FICS’ model aptly captures individual parties’ organisational practices, as well as their strategic outlook on engaging with the EU, thereby providing researchers with an original and grounded ideal-typical benchmark for understanding national parties as multilevel partisan organisations in the EU’s political system. Its qualitative empirical foundation allows the model to be used to make sense of real-life party behaviour and the different ways in which interaction between the national and European levels of political parties is given shape. It hence provides researchers with useful new tools to study an otherwise highly complex and idiosyncratic topic, as well as an analytical foundation for new hypotheses. The study’s findings hint at ‘genetic’ and ‘territorial‘ effects, bringing a party’s history and national context into the analysis, although these are working hypotheses.
Still, given its exploratory and qualitative nature, the scope of this study was necessarily limited. Future researchers are invited to not only develop its working hypotheses and expand the number of case studies, but also to consider including temporal variation to confront these findings with new evidence. This could help fine-tune the model and framework, and further increase our understanding of (the evolution of) parties as multilevel organisations in the EU.
Gilles is lecturer in European Politics and Society at the University of Groningen, and postdoctoral fellow at Ghent University. He holds a PhD in Political Science obtained at Ghent University in 2021. His research interests include the Europeanisation of politics, the democratisation of the EU, and transnational partisanship.