European Union Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series

by John McCormick

Chapter 15: Parties and Interest Groups

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The EEC was designed and long run by bureaucrats and politicians, who referred little – if at all – to public opinion. But as the reach of integration expanded, so more Europeans became interested in expressing their views. For some this was a positive interest, driven by a belief that European institutions deserved, even demanded, their attention and input. For others it was a critical interest, driven by concerns that the European institutions were undemocratic, too powerful, and a threat to national sovereignty. For both groups, political parties and interest groups have been key channels of engagement.

While political parties are at the heart of political life in the member states, we have yet to see transnational political parties fighting European election campaigns on European issues. Instead, elections to the European Parliament are contested by national political parties running in separate national contests. MEPs organize themselves into European party groups, or clusters of national parties based on alliances among like-minded legislators. But change is in the air, generated by the growth of a network of European party organizations through which national parties work together and coordinate policy.

If parties have not yet fully exploited what Europe has to offer, interest groups have made more progress. National groups have paid more attention to Brussels, opening European offices and building transnational networks designed to capitalize on the strength of their numbers. They have been encouraged by the Commission, which uses groups as a source of expertise and to report on the implementation of EU law by the member states. The input of groups, even if they promote the interests of their members rather than working for the broader European interest, has helped strengthen the legitimacy and responsiveness of the EU decision-making system.
  • MEPs organize themselves into like-minded political groups, which must have at least 25 members from at least one-quarter of member states.
  • Groups have developed more consistency and cohesion with time, the most stability being found among the socialists, the liberals, and the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP). The socialists had the biggest bloc of seats in the EP until 1999, since when the EPP has had the biggest bloc. But no one political group has yet won a majority.
  • Political groups have common ideologies and policy preferences, and their own leadership structures and operating rules, but do not campaign across member states during EP elections. There are no formal links between the political make-up of Parliament and the European Commission.
  • The consistency of political groups has been encouraged by the creation of several Europarties that bring together like-minded parties in different EU member states.
  • National interest groups have increasingly turned their attention to the EU, with a particular focus on influencing the Commission, the Council of Ministers, and the European Parliament.
  • Group activity has helped offset the relative weakness of party activity at the European level, and groups have exploited the shortage of staff in the Commission to play a key role in the drafting and the implementation of law and policy.
  • Business and labour groups have long been the most active at the EU level, but the number of special interest groups and Brussels-based think tanks has grown.
  • Lobbying is a growth industry in Brussels, although the opportunities have so far been fewer than those available at the national level, and the rules looser.