Why are there no international political parties

Parties in Germany

Heinrich Pehle

To person

Prof. Dr. Heinrich Pehle is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Political Science at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg. His main research interests include the political system of the Federal Republic of Germany and the Europeanization of institutions, decision-making processes and political fields.

The advancing European integration does not leave the parties untouched either. The EU brings new issues and other needs for cooperation. And in the European Parliament, the parties have mandates. But what influence does "Europe" have on the parties, how does it change the national party systems? What is the role of the European Parliament in the work of the parties?

European election campaign 2014. The election campaigns for the European elections are often staged by the election campaign managers as test or even "memo elections". (& copy picture-alliance)

"Europeanization" is to be understood as a socio-political process that, driven by the speed and scope of European integration, creates pressure on national institutions and actors to adapt. Political structures in the member states of the European Union (EU) have been and are being adapted to the logic and content of European decision-making in response to the ongoing transfer of powers from the nation state to the EU (Sturm / Pehle 2012: 14). The parties, as the actors who dominate the processes of political decision-making, are of course not excluded from this development. Oskar Niedermayer (1996: 84) tried to bring this up to the concept early on when he spoke of the "Europeanization of the party landscape".

The first thing to clarify is whether and to what extent European integration has brought about a change in the national party system. Second, the organizational aspect is of interest. The focus is on the amalgamation of national parties to form European political parties. The third aspect is content-related and focuses on the positions on European integration in the programs of the individual parties. Directly connected with this is the importance of the subject of "Europe" for party political competition, specifically for election campaigns in national and European elections.

Hardly any influence on national party systems

To what extent has European integration influenced the format of the national party systems? For a long time, there has been a persistent resistance to developments at European level in the member states of the EU. In the period from 1979 to 1999, there were only three newly founded parties in the EU whose emergence could be traced back directly to the European integration process (Mair 2000: 30f.). These were all parties that were or are striving to organize the EU opponents in the respective member states.

One of these three parties was founded in January 1994 in Germany by a former head of cabinet at the EC Commission and FDP member, Manfred Brunner. The "Bund Freier Bürger" (BfB), whose program was largely exhausted in a criticism of the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the common European currency, won 1.1 percent of the votes in the 1994 European elections. In the Bundestag election of 1998, his share of the second vote was only 0.2 percent. One year after Brunner left the party, the BfB disbanded in 2000.

After no further new political parties with a programmatic focus on the European Union were founded in the following years, the finding that "Europe" left the German party system as a whole largely unaffected continued to apply.

Was the 2014 European elections a turnaround?

In recent years, however, the European integration process has emerged more clearly as a line of conflict in the national party systems.

The most prominent example was provided by the British UK Independence Party (UKIP), which advocated the United Kingdom (UK) leaving the EU. In the 2014 European elections, with 28 percent of the vote in the UK and 24 seats in the European Parliament, it became the strongest British force there and, since a by-election to the lower house in October 2014, has also been able to refer to its first national MP. Since the referendum on Brexit, which was successful from the point of view of the EU skeptics, i.e. the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union, UKIP, deprived of its real purpose, has continuously lost in importance. In the general election of 2015, she received 12.6 percent of the vote (which, however, was only enough for one mandate due to the British electoral system), but in the early elections of 2017 it was only 1.8 percent.

The development of the "Alternative for Germany" (AfD) party founded by EU skeptics in Germany was almost diametrically opposed. The main theme of this party, which was founded on February 6, 2013, was the fundamental criticism of the European monetary system, the dissolution of which and thus the "orderly termination of the EURO experiment" the party demands to this day. In view of the position that is critical of Islam and the negative attitude towards the immigration and asylum policy of the federal government in the basic program adopted on May 1, 2016, this postulate has taken a back seat. In view of the party's demand "to return the EU to an economic and interest group of sovereign, loosely connected individual states in its original sense", there can be no doubt that "Europe" has become a controversial issue that has significantly helped to structure the German political landscape .

In the 2013 federal election, the AfD received 4.7 percent of the second vote, so it just failed to pass the five percent threshold, but was successful in the 2014 European elections with 7.1 percent of the votes and originally seven MPs. The increasing radicalization of the party induced its founder, Bernd Lucke, to leave the party together with four other MEPs and to found a new party, ALFA. This group, which later renamed itself "Liberal-Conservative Reformers", remained politically insignificant.

The AfD developed quite differently: further successes in the state elections in Saxony, Brandenburg and Thuringia in 2014 were followed by corresponding results in Hamburg and Bremen in 2015 and in Saxony-Anhalt, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate in 2016. The entry of the party in total 14 state parliaments up to the time of the federal elections in September 2017 already indicated that the AfD had a good chance of establishing itself permanently in the German party system at the federal level. The federal election of September 2017 confirmed this forecast. With 12.6 percent of the valid second votes, the party won 92 seats, making it the third strongest force in parliament and the strongest opposition faction after the formation of the grand coalition.

The European elections of 2019 will show to what extent the successes of Euro-critical parties in Germany and the other member states of the European Union are lasting. This is countered by the fact that criticism of the common currency, the euro, has become much less pronounced in almost all member states. However, this is clearly overshadowed by the polarized debate both about the respective member state refugee, asylum and integration policies as well as about their reshaping by the European Union. In connection with a general anti-European populism that is rampant in all member states of the EU to varying degrees, the debate about the Europeanization of the member state party systems has received a completely new focus since 2016/2017. But what about their counterparts on a pan-European level? Can we rightly speak of a European party system at all?

Why are there European parties?

The so-called "European Political Parties" in the EU Treaty found their origins in the run-up to the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. At that time, the party federations of Social Democrats, Conservatives and Liberals were founded. Organizationally, they were further developed into more solid structures - European parties - and found imitators in the green and left-wing party spectrum. In the Maastricht Treaty of 1993, the European parties were explicitly recognized for the first time and have been part of the European Treaties ever since.

According to Article 10 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU), the European parties should "contribute to the development of a European political consciousness and to the expression of the will of the citizens of the Union". However, they can only fulfill this function through mediation, because their common and central characteristic is still that they are not organized as personal corporations. So its members are parties themselves. The European Political Parties have been designed to enable a programmatic bundling of their member parties. From the outset, their function should therefore not be to contribute directly to the decision-making process of the population, like the national parties, and certainly not to compete for votes at the national level. Only national parties compete for seats in the European Parliament in the individual member states of the EU. This was not changed by the fact that the European political parties nominated top candidates for the office of President of the European Commission for the first time in the run-up to the 2014 European elections. The reasons why the European parties do not stand as such in the European elections are not only to be found in their particular membership structure. They also lie in their natural distance from the electorate in the individual member states and in the programmatic heterogeneity of their national member parties, some of which even compete with one another in European elections.

The German parties are also partly represented in European parties: the two Union parties CDU and CSU are members of the "European People's Party - Christian Democrats" (EPP-CD), the SPD belongs to the "Social Democratic Party of Europe" (SPE) and Alliance 90 / The Greens of the "European Green Party" (EGP). The "European Left Party" counts Die Linke from Germany among its members and the "Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe" (ALDE) counts the FDP. The AfD, on the other hand, is not represented in a European party organization.

Where does the decision-making take place?

It is still true that the European Political Parties exist, but basically have not yet contributed to communicating European politics to the citizens. Why were they anchored in the European treaty? Probably the most important motivation for their recognition under contract law was to legitimize their financing from funds of the EU budget (Tsatsos / Deinzer 1998: 19). For this purpose, the "party article" in the German Basic Law (Article 21 GG) and the justification for party financing developed in Germany by the Federal Constitutional Court served as a model. However, this model could only be realized through the adoption of the "party statute" of the European Union. Since the European elections in 2004, this statute has governed the financing of the European political parties from the budget of the European Union.

To justify state or public party funding, two interrelated arguments are essentially used. They are based on the premise that, even in representative democracy, the people must be able to influence political decisions at any time, i.e. also in the time between elections. This means that the political parties should not only appear as competitors in the parliamentary elections, but should also participate permanently in the decision-making process of the people. The financing of the European political parties from funds from the EU budget can therefore only be justified with difficulty, because European party politics in the true sense still takes place almost exclusively in the respective national party organizations. You have the task of contributing directly to the Europe-related political decision-making of the citizens.

Basic consensus among the parties, lack of interest on the part of voters

But what significance does the topic of "Europe" have in the activities of the political parties in the Federal Republic? In addition to the statements on European integration in the general party programs, the main criteria for this test are the accents set by the parties in the European elections during the election campaign. This shows that the German party system largely lacks European political concepts that can be allocated to party politics and differ in terms of content. In Germany, apart from the AfD, there is a broad consensus of fundamental approval of European integration on the central issues of European policy, at least among the parties represented in the Bundestag. In principle, it also includes Die Linke, albeit with considerable cutbacks. This was made clear, for example, by the fact that in 2010 her parliamentary group unanimously rejected the ratification law for the Lisbon Treaty. The European political programs of the German parties differ - again apart from the AfD - otherwise only in policy-specific details. The problem is not just that the political parties have only developed a few fundamental alternatives to the content of European politics. It is at least as important that they fail to convey the relevance of the subject of "Europe" to the electorate with the intensity it deserves. What are the reasons for this failure?

Analyzes of the Elections Research Group on the European elections in 1999, 2004 and 2009 showed, among other things, that only about a quarter of all eligible voters in Germany were interested in European policy issues. In 2014, this value had risen to 40 percent, but this was not associated with any appreciation of the elections to the European Parliament. The turnout in Germany in the European elections fell in 1999 compared to 1994 by 14.8 percent to 45.2 percent. In 2004 it reached the historic low of 43.0 percent, which was confirmed in 2009 with 43.3 percent. Although voter turnout rose to 48.1 percent in 2014, it was still more than significantly below that in the federal elections. In addition, questions of European policy are only of subordinate importance for the decision of most voters in European elections. More than half (54 percent) of those who took part in the 2014 election stated that federal politics was the decisive factor in their decision (Forschungsgruppe Wahlen 2014).

European elections are national "subsidiary elections"

Those responsible for election campaigns in the political parties hardly react to this opinion. Instead of intensifying the program work at this point, they have always treated Europe and the European Union as marginal issues. The European elections are perceived by both sides - parties and voters - as "second order elections", which are about "less" than national parliamentary elections. The election campaigns are still primarily oriented towards national issues and campaign managers like to stage them as test or even "memo elections".

The fact that the tradition of "abuse" of the European elections by the parties for national purposes (Decker 2000: 605) is maintained is also shown by the fact that their treasurers work towards "restraint" in the European election campaign in order to achieve a financial plus for to earn the party coffers. This results from the fact that the votes in the European elections are awarded in the same way as the regulations for the Bundestag and Landtag elections as part of the state partial financing of the political parties. For European election campaigns, it has always been the case that the parties' budgets are less than half of those for federal election campaigns.

The fact that the European elections are given significantly less weight by voters and parties than national parliamentary elections may be surprising in view of the successive upgrading of the European Parliament in the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Lisbon. But in this respect the parties' "reluctance" is more rational than it may appear at first glance, because the fact that the European Parliament has now been able to emancipate itself from the Council does not mean at the same time that the parties represented in its parliamentary groups have the same opportunities to shape themselves Dimensions have increased. There are two main reasons for this.

A lot of effort, hardly any profit

First, the political and ideological heterogeneity of the political groups in the European Parliament decisively limits the implementation of the priorities of national parties.In addition to the compulsion to agree on the lowest common denominator within the individual parliamentary groups, there is, secondly, the fact that parliament can only assert itself in the ordinary legislative procedure if it is able to mobilize an absolute majority of its members (Art. 294 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU)).

Because in the previous history of the European Union no parliamentary group alone had an absolute majority, in the past there was often a "grand coalition" of the groups of the European People's Party (EPP) and the Social Democratic Party of Europe (PES), which was not uncommon was also supported by the Liberal Group (ALDE). From this perspective, the lack of factual political profiling of the national parties in the European election campaign appears as a reflex of the cross-party coercion in the European Parliament.

If one compares the starting conditions for the European elections in the individual member states, one more factor is revealed for the German parties and their potential voters, which has a negative impact on the election campaign: Due to the disproportionate distribution of mandates in the European Parliament among the member states, the German parties have relatively little to be gained at a comparatively high cost. The German parties are competing for a total of 96 seats allocated to the Federal Republic in the European Parliament; one MP thus represents more than 800,000 residents. For comparison: In Austria, for example, the density of representation is almost twice as high. The six MPs from Luxembourg represent an average of just under 68,000 inhabitants.

Conclusion: narrow limits of Europeanization

The political premiums that the parties receive after successful European election campaigns are therefore quite modest from the point of view mentioned so far. And they appear even less if the real weight distribution between the institutions of the European Union is taken into account. National parties that really want to shape the policies of the European Union still have other destinations than the European Parliament: the European Council, in which the heads of state and government are represented, and the Council of the European Union (Council of Ministers). The parties do not get to the actual "switching points of power" within the European Union through the European elections, but through participation in government mediated through the elections to the German Bundestag.

If one takes seriously the finding that the European Council - and thus the heads of state and government represented there - now has a key function in the decision-making of the European Union, then this statement can be exaggerated to the effect that the party that the Chancellor or the Chancellor, has the greatest possible influence on EU politics. Because the decision-making system of the European Union actually only rewards those parties that are successful in national competition, there are limits to their radical Europeanization in the sense defined at the outset, as it characterizes the system of organized interests.


  • Decker, Frank (2000): Democracy and Democratization Beyond the Nation State. The example of the European Union, in: Zeitschrift für Politikwissenschaft 10 (2), pp. 585-629.
  • Research group Wahlen (2014): http://www.forschungsgruppe.de/Wahlen/Wahlanalysen/europawahl 2014
  • Mair, Peter (2000): The Limited Impact of Europe on National Party Systems, in: West European Politics 23 (4), pp. 27-51.
  • Niedermayer, Oskar (1996): European party mergers, in: Lexikon der Politik Volume 5. The European Union, Munich, pp. 84-90.
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