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林宜亭:Left-Right Politics in the EU

Christine I. Lin

Integration, as Aspinwell puts it, is a process that binding rules lead to a reducion or a potential reduction in state power.  Actors in various levels are involved in the process, and whether their political backgrounds make a difference of their preferences in the integration is often asked.   This essay will first review the actors’ behaviours in European integration under the scope the cleavage theory.  Further, it examies whether the Euoprean institute representing its people, and does the European parliament reflects the left-right policy in European politics? Lastly, it looks into how does the Euro Crisis influence on left-right policy on the EU level.    The left-right policy dimension serves one of the indicators in European integration as Knutsen words “ the  language of left and right helps citizens as well as elites to orient themselves in a complex political landscape”.

Cleavage Theory and the Europan Politics


Cleavage theory claims that the positions of political parties reflect the divisions in social structure and the ideologies that provoke and express those group divisions[1].   According to Marks et al., cleavage theory explains the electoral behaviour of EU citizens in supporting European Integration on the basis of party family, which is way stronger than their country location in determinging positioning of national political parties[2].  Parties are organised with a set of embedded ideologies, and they have long term agenda which gives rise to their essentil and indelible associations with particular issues and policies[3].  Consequently, the categorisation of party families forms comparable coherent cluster along the lfet-right dimension in party positioning on European integration[4].  Also, the party family offers a more accurate representation of the variation among parties in the middle of the left-right scale of political background[5], which are the predominant actors in the EU politics.  Although various of new issues emerge alongside with the EU integration process, Marks et al. consider that party positioning is rooted in the basic social divisions, this also gives rise to the ideological commitments that condition the response of political parties to new issues[6].


Cleavage theory explains the party positions during the integration process, and to draw a line of the political spectrum requires categorising political ideologies, as it serves as a good indicator of position in the integration[7].  Aspinwell points out that in the EU integration process, the correlation between government ideological position and support for policy changes was evident.  And as EU integration involves larges in the creation of binding rules that lead to a reduction or potential reduction in state power, there also exists a strong relationship between ideology and support for institutional strengthen at the supranational level[8].  But what the cleavage theory application on national government level differs from political party level is that national governments tend to position less extreme.  EU politics is oftentimes about compromising, and this political feature makes national governments more difficult to pose outside the central spectrum on the EU level out of the consequences they might bear.


Aspinwell also points out the issue of forming political alliance in the European parliament out of the wide spectrum of the participants[9].  Political parties elected by their national citizens entre the European parliament and form coalitions based on their political ideologies, it generally turns out that the German Social Democrats alleges with their Dutch and other fellow EU counterparts, and so do the Christian Democrats and Greens.  The coalition is a convenient way for the European parliament to function more effectively and efficiently, but it does not eliminate the differences within the groups.  For example, the Dutch Christian Democrats might not necessarily agree with all the agenda setting and positioning with their German counterparts, nor do the Dutch people voting for the Dutch Christian Democrats in the European election.  This situation leads to a democracy deficit because EU citizens feel disproportionally represented, and further distant EU with its people.


European Parliament: Democratic Deficit and the Second Order Election


Democratic deficit is the commonly criticised character of the European politics; in particular, EU citizens generally have very little understanding on the European Parliament, averagely less than their local parliaments.  Since the direct election in 1979, the voting rate has been constantly deescalating, and the latest election in 2009 bears a voting rate of 43%[10], the European election clearly become the second order election in the eyes of EU citizens[11].


One of the factors comprising this situation is the elitism in the European integration process, considering the integration process is in more of a de fond en comble rather than bottom-up direction.  There was only very limited space for the European citizens to participate, rather, they were mostly informed about the new policies and passively accepting the results.  This lack of participation deviates the understanding of the European integration among European elites and the average citizens, even the introduction of a direct election cannot awake the enthusiasm of general participation.  What’s more, the focus of the European elections were largely set to be the mid-term national elections by national opposition parties[12], the elections were not so much about how the voters want to be represented in Brussels and Strasburg, but how they grade their incumbent governments.  It’s not the first time that the European election being considered as a second order election, Reif and Schmitt made this point back in 1980 right after the first European parliament popular election[13].


Ironically, the lowest voting rate came along with the European parliament with the most power within its competence ever, with the Treaty of Lisbon came into effect, other than foreign affair and security issues, approximately 60 to 80 percent of the EU law and regulations will be based on the bills passed in the European parliament[14].  With the enlargement of its competence, the European parliament was designed to serve as the Union institute representing its people as well as the organ enhancing the legitimacy of the EU governance.  For these reasons, the turnout of the election underrepresents the importance of the European parliament and relatively deepens the democratic deficit on the EU level.

Although studies shown that the cleavage theory best explains the actors’ behaviour during European integration process[15], particularly parties spread out on the left-right political spectrum directly representing EU citizens are presented in the European parliament.  Still, to answer the question of whether left-right policy matter on EU level, it is inevitable to direct the spotlight back to the competence of the European parliament.  Additionally, the Euro Crisis reschedule the agenda priority in the EU, and it appears that the European parliament will have less role to play in this Crisis than the Commission, Council and even the Summitry.


Perspectives After the Euro Crisis

From result of the 2009 European election, the two biggest party coalitions in the European parliament the S&D[16] lost 2.8% and the EPP[17] lost 2.8% and 0.7% of their supports.  In countries where the economy is hit by severe recession, the ruling parties faced huge frustration, for example the Hungarian incumbent Socialist party only had 17 percent of the vote whilst its central-right opponent had 56 percent[18], the defeat of the incumbent party did not only occur in Hungary, it happened in Latvia, Greece, Bulgaria and Ireland as well[19].  The unsatisfied performance of the incumbent parties gave the small extreme parties more space, and those small peripheral parties tend to oppose integration[20].   Most of the minor parties take very skeptical view on European integration[21] and they are not concerned of posing extreme position on the relevant issues, since they consider this is how they are different from the mainstream central right and left parties[22].

Extreme right parties opposing immigration and European integration gain success in the UK, Austria, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, and Slovakia, for example, PVV in the Netherlands[23] gain four seats in the European parliament with 17 percent of the vote[24].  The success of PVV in the 2009 European election even out won the party’s supporting rate on the national level, it is not surprising that PVV’s loud voice of withdrawing from the EU and stop paying for the in-debt EU states appealed to certain percentage of the Dutch population.  But the question is, are those extreme viewpoints practical under the current Crisis?  Firstly, it seems the chance of those extreme parties barring European integration agendas in the European parliament is very slim; secondly, it is way easier to say than actually quit, and this sensation appears to be impractical and very unwise in front of the consequences that any EU state might face upon withdrawing from the Union.


Free market has always been the most fundamental spirit of the EU, and most right wing parties favour a free market with less governmental interferences but depends more on the adjustment of the market itself.  However the Euro Crisis hits the EU states seriously, and exposes the problems originated from insufficient control and monitoring on the free market and currency on the EU level.  As the regulations concerning the free market and currency are the monopoly competence of the EU, it was urged that the Union should involve more in these issues.   To put this situation on a very rough spectrum, the Euro Crisis shows that the EU needs a Union with free market spirit but more government involvement, in other words, a Union with a “right” spirit and “left” management.


It is also noticeable that how important is the left-right politics comes to play under the Crisis on the institutional level.  Considering that the European parliament is not where most decisions concerning the resolution of the Crisis are concluded; hence this gives the left-right very little importance in the institutes where states compromise with each other under the consensus of a continuous integration.   What’s more, on EU’s multi-level governance, diverse opinions originated from different state interests rather than the position of political actors on the left-right spectrum in the Euro Crisis.




The cleavage theory indeed provides a very illustrative explanation to the European integration process; nonetheless, whether the political parties are in favour or against the European integration might have been more important previously, but not so much at the moment.  The left-right dimensions have fewer roles to play in the current and upcoming EU integration because Europe has reached a certain level of maturity, and all the governments of EU member states, mostly central-right or central-left, know that it is irreversible.  The majority of the European governments, as well as the MEPs might have different priority and opinions based on their political background, but oftentimes they don’t dispute each other out of their political background, rather, they just have different national interests.


[1] Alan Zuckerman, “New Approaches to Political Cleavage: A Theoretical Introduction”, Comparative Political Studies, No. 15, Vol. 2, pp. 131-144.

[2] Marks et al., ”National Political Parties and European Integration”, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 591.

[3] Klingemann et al., Parties, Policies ,and Democray, Boulder: Westview Press, 1994,pp. 24.

[4] Supra at 2, pp. 592.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid, pp. 586, 592.

[7] Mark Aspinwall, “Preferring Europe: Ideology and National Preferences on European Integration”, European Union Politics, Vol. 3, No. 1, 2002, pp. 105.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid, pp. 106.

[11] Herman Lelieveldt and Sebastiaan Princen, The Politics of the European Union, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, pp. 118-120.

[12] Simon Hix, Viewpoint: A truly European vote?, available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/8025749.stm, last visited 20120319.

[13] Karlheinz Reif and Hermann Schmitt, “Nine Second-Order National Elections: A Conceptual Framework for the Analysis of European Election Results”, European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 8, No. 1, 1980, pp. 3-5.

[14] Phil Syrpis, “The Treaty of Lisbon”, Industrial Law Journal, No. 37, 2008, pp.222.

[15] See: Mark Aspinwall, “Preferring Europe: Ideology and National Preferences on European Integration”, European Union Politics, Vol. 3, No. 1. Marks et al., “National Political Parties and European Integration”, American Journal of Political Science, Vol. 46, No. 3.

[16] Group of the Progressive Alliance of Social and Democrats in the European Parliament.

[17] Group of the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats)

[19] Ibid.

[20] Supra at 2, pp. 586.

[21] Simon Hix and Christopher Lord, Political Parties in the European Union, New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997, pp. 67-73.

[22] Pual Taggart, “A Touchstone of Dissent: Euroscepticism in Contemporary Western European Political System”, European Journal of Political Research, Vol. 33, No. 3,1998, pp. 384.

[23] Partij voor de Vrijheid, hereinafter referred as PVV.

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