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An Answer to the ‘Democratic Deficit’? Thinking about European Party Democracy

September 27, 2019


Niko Switek

Dr. Niko Switek is DAAD visiting assistant professor in the Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies and the Department of Political Science at the University of Washington. Dr. Switek works on political parties, coalition politics and European integration. In this blog post he describes a fall 2019 trip to Brussels (Belgium), where he traveled with support from the Jackson School’s International Policy Institute. In Brussels Dr. Switek conducted interviews with representatives of the parties on European level (‘Europarties’), as part of a research project aiming to assess the effect the introduction of leading candidates (‘Spitzenkandidaten’) in 2014 had on the role and strength of these parties.

The European Union (EU) combines elements of an international organization as well as a democratic state. While in some policy areas a consensus between member states has to be brokered, an increasing number of issues is decided by a (qualified) majority- ultimately overruling national sovereignty. Despite these democratic qualities many EU citizens perceive the EU and its institutions to be far away and they struggle to see their relevance. This is one reason why elections to the European parliament – the only body directly elected by European voters – are seen as second order elections, exhibiting low and decreasing turnout. To counter this trend, to raise the competitiveness of the elections and to make politics on European level more accessible, for the first time in the European elections 2014 the Europarties presented leading candidates. They were supposed to function as a face for the party platform and for the campaign. The candidates competed for the office of president of the European Commission. After the election, the European Parliament elected Jean-Claude Juncker, the candidate of the Christian democratic European Peoples Party (EPP), into this office. Did this put the EU on a road to a true democracy? Does this change party competition on European level? And how does this alter the role and strength of the Europarties vis a vis the EU institutions?

These questions are at the center of a research project by Niko Switek and Kristina Weissenbach. To assess the institutionalization of the Europarties, that is to judge the unity and cohesion of the parties as a result of the introduction of the leading candidates, they collected social media data for the campaigns in 2014 and 2019. In addition, it is essential to also get an inside perspective on intra-party decision making and the coordination of the European-wide campaigns. Through support from the Carnegie Opportunity Fund managed by the Jackson School’s International Policy Institute, Niko Switek could travel to Brussels in the fall 2019 and conduct interviews with representatives from the party headquarters.

The interviews gained even more relevance, as just a few weeks beforehand the European Parliament had elected Ursula von der Leyen, previously defense minister in Germany, as new head of the European commission – despite her not being one of the leading candidates. Is the Spitzenkandidaten-model therefore dead? Does this indicate a stalling of European integration or even a rollback? While the interviews have to be transcribed and systematically evaluated and interpreted as well as contrasted with the quantitative data, it is rather clear that the parties will fight to retain this model, even if they agree, that certain reforms and modifications are necessary. Furthermore, all of the respondents agreed that online platforms like Twitter or Facebook have become an indispensable tool to manage the heterogenous election sphere of 28 (soon to be 27) EU member states. Coordinating the online activities, offering workshops to member parties and integrating the different national campaigns is the core competence of the European party headquarters and they did develop new strengths in this field. How the nomination of the leading candidates and the process of drafting an election manifesto is intertwined seems to considerably differ by party, and this probably depends on the influence of the Europarty in the network of national member parties and the EU institutions.

Recent Eurobarometer public opinion polling shows a clear effect of the leading candidates, as since 2014 the number of respondents saying their voice counts in the EU rose significantly and for the first time in 2019 more respondents agreed than disagreed. We can therefore assume, that candidates are here to stay and the Europarties will gain further visibility and relevance, slowly but surely realizing party competition similar to the one on national level. Without a doubt they remain a crucial element to study if we want to understand potential paths of development for the European Union.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.