"European Political Parties"


An assault on democracy


Steve McGiffen reports on the latest move to undermine democratic norms within the EU.


In June of last year the European Parliament (EP) and Council of Ministers wrote into EU law  the “Regulation concerning the financing of European political parties”.  The Regulation permits political parties to form cross-border alliances which may then apply for funding. Such a grouping must be represented in at least a quarter of the member states, which from May will mean eight. Constituent parties must sit in either the national or a regional parliament, or send members to the EP, and have received at least 3% of the vote. It must also stand candidates in Euro-elections. Any party conforming to these rules becomes eligible for a share of the €8.4m available from July 1, 2004, a figure which could be increased in future years.


Even before we begin to look at the political conditions for eligibility, the undemocratic nature of this Regulation is clear. It favours bigger parties and those already enjoying parliamentary representation. It discriminates against parties with an exclusively national orientation. And it excludes any which boycott elections to the EP, whatever their strength at home.


Despite this, a number of left parties have opted to go along with the measure. In Berlin last month, the Party of Democratic Socialists (PDS) met with ten other left parties to found the new European Left Party. With the PDS, the French Communist Party (PCF), Italy’s Communist Refoundation, and the Spanish United Left (IU) were the most numerically important of the parties present. Also participating were the Greek pro-EU left party Synapismos, Communist parties from Austria and Slovakia, and a party from Luxembourg.


It is indisputable that European integration has made international co-operation between progressive forces imperative. Funds, moreover, are always welcome. However, although the European Left programme looks attractive enough, with the emphasis on peace, redistribution of wealth, human rights, fair trade, the environment, and racial and gender equality, the decision to accept the EU’s tainted, strings-attached money is opportunistic and dangerous.  


The political conditions attached to the Regulation represent a disturbing narrowing of what is seen as legitimate dissent. To qualify, a “European political party” is obliged “to observe, in particular in its programme and in its activities, the principles on which the European Union is founded, namely the principles of liberty, democracy, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and the rule of law.” 


Now, although we might not agree that these are in reality much to do with the EU’s founding principles, on the surface they appear unobjectionable. The problem, of course, is that each is open to interpretation. For some on the right, a “free market economy” is an essential feature of “democracy”. For me, on the other hand, the most fundamental of rights are those to adequate food and fresh water, the right to fulfilling work and the right to organise. These priorities are not, however, universally held. They are not, for example, the priorities of the so-called European People’s Party (EPP), the centre-right group which is the European Parliament’s biggest, and which, with the social-democratic Party of European Socialists (PES), makes up 75% of the current EP membership. And guess who will decide whether you qualify for funds? Right first time: like the Lord, the European Parliament giveth and taketh away.


Concern over this latest EU assault on democracy is not confined to the left. The Regulation’s legality has been challenged in a case brought to the ECJ by 23 Euro-MPs from five of the EP’s political groups. Their submission asserts that the rules for European Political Parties are discriminatory, that they are contrary to the European Convention on Human Rights, which guarantees “freedom of thought and conscience”, and that, amongst other breaches of Treaty on  European Union, they represent an unauthorised transfer of power to the EU. 


Under these circumstances, constant reassurances that the system will not be used against Euro-critical parties ring hollow. As UKIP Euro-MP Nigel Farage points out, “the avowed aim of the measure is to ‘promote European integration’. This poses a particular problem if the name of your political organisation is the United Kingdom Independence Party!”


Apart from the possibility of deliberate political censorship, smaller parties will clearly suffer. As Herman Schmidt of the Swedish Vänster (Left) Party explains, “within the United Left Group (GUE-NGL) in the European Parliament many of us have rejected the possibility of a left European Political Party. There is deep concern amongst all of the Nordic parties, the Dutch Socialist Party, and Portuguese and Greek Communists. These parties have wide differences but we have in common that we are all EU-critical and relatively small. And big, pro-EU parties will decide who gets the money.” In addition to the parties Schmidt names, the Czech Communists (CPBM), who will enter the European Parliament in June, have rejected participation.


The GUE-NGL itself has 49 members, including MEPs from most of the “European Left Party” participants and every Euro-MP to the left of the social democrats and greens. Despite differences its members work together around common areas of concern. The new “Europarty”  will drive a wedge through this loose but useful grouping, undermining the possibility of real co-operation and drawing its participants further into the elitist, technocratic pseudo-democracy at the heart of the EU and its real guiding principles.


Steve McGiffen is editor of spectrezine and represents the Socialist Party of the Netherlands on the secretariat of the United Left Group (GUE-NGL) in the European Parliament. He is the author of The European Union: A Critical Guide (Pluto Press, 2001) and Globalisation (Pocket Essentials, 2002). This article was written for the Morning Star , where it first appeared.