Toward domestication: the politicisation of Europe in the member states

In the past twenty years, most of the comparative literature has tried to demonstrate the existence of cross-national patterns of EU politicisation in the member states. It has been shown that radical parties tend to be Eurosceptical everywhere and the left has broadly emerged as slightly more pro-European than the right (although the opposite is true in some countries and in some other countries left and right tend to hold balanced views). What is the situation now, after so many steps have been taken to deepen and widen integration and after major external factors – above all, the economic crisis – have challenged the capacity of the EU to create gains for its member states?

To address these questions, an original analysis was carried by a group of scholars in ten EU member states resulting in the publication of the edited collection Party Attitudes Towards the EU in the Member States. Parties for Europe, Parties against Europe (http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9780415622318/). The volume shows that the EU is increasingly politicised under the impact of national specific factors, hence it has become another face of domestic politics. Only rarely, does the EU represent a dimension of political contestation independent of the main issue dimensions at work in the member states. More often, country-specific factors, such as calculations for purposes of domestic party competition (including coalition-making, inter-party distancing or convergence, citizens’ attitudes and voter-targeting) and  national economic interests (for example, net recipient countries tend to reduce opposition to the EU), prove very influential in shaping a space of contestation of the EU. Although with different intensities, parties in the South European member states are the keenest to delegate policy competencies to the EU, those in the new member states are reluctant towards most solutions that involve deeper integration, while party attitudes in other countries – such as France, Germany and Great Britain – are rather unique.

Thus, evidence shows that the EU has gradually become embedded into the political scene of the member states and this could be considered an aspect of their Europeanisation. However, the presence of Europe in the national political space has not necessarily led to converge of the national party systems. On the contrary, as the politicisation of Europe largely follows national lines, we find attitude differentiation across countries that is dependent on the diversity of the national contexts, even more recently as the impact of the crisis has made the EU even more divided. For this reason, it becomes increasingly difficult to classify party attitudes toward the EU according to criteria that travel well across countries. Commonalities in those attitudes across countries have become rarer; a whole plethora of attitudes has actually emerged with parties choosing their favourite integration model from a rich European menu. It is difficult to find parties that reject the very idea of the EU process, this is a sign of how entrenched Europe has become within their repertoire. However, it is equally difficult to find Euro-federalists who advocate a deepening of integration in all fields: parties with a linear supportive stance are a minority; while the large majority is made of parties with a continuum of stances and whose support (or opposition) to the EU varies in intensity across the different aspects of the integration project.

At the same time, the research that was carried out in the volume shows that a main common trait with respect to the politicisation of Europe concerns its level of salience. The EU issue displays greater salience where parties diverge, but lower salience where the EU constitutes a valence issue of involving either an optimistic or pessimistic approach. Indeed, the authors found that, not only did parties de-politicise Europe when they converge optimistically on the EU process, but also when they agreed on its negative qualities. In order to mark their distance from each other and to appeal to voters, parties mainly politicise those issues that they diverge on and the European issue is no exception to this. Again, this is a sign of that growing domestication of the EU issue that in the end tends to respond to the same rules of party competition as most other issues. The limited impact of parties on the EU institutional architecture and processes makes them unable to overturn EU decisions once in office. So, parties tend not to propose real alternatives to the current trajectory of the EU given that they would not be able to put them into effect anyway. Parties politicise issues and make them salient if they see electoral advantage in doing so, but beyond broad criticism, it is very difficult for parties to fulfill pledges that imply a change at the EU level. This can explain why, beyond the relevance of the EU in the life of the member states and of their citizens, it has proved difficult for parties to make Europe a salient issue for political competition.

However, radical parties have now changed this tendency. These parties are not responsible for pledge fulfillment, as they are usually kept out of government, and this irresponsibility has allowed them to bring broad Euroscepticism to the centre of their discourse without being held accountable for this policy. This has made the Europe issue more salient overall. It is interesting to note that those parties that have made Europe a more salient issue are exactly those that oppose the EU the most. Under these circumstances, mainstream parties now have a possibility to demarcate themselves from the radical parties and to compete with them over the European issue that, as a consequence, could benefit in terms of increased salience. It is easy to predict, however, that greater salience of the EU issue in the member states will result in inward national competition more than in a genuine cross-national pattern of politicisation of the EU.

Nicolò Conti

Nicolò Conti (nicolo.conti@unitelma.it) is Associate professor of Political Science at the Unitelma Sapienza University of Rome and the editor of Party Attitudes Towards the EU in the Member States (Routledge, 2013).

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