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How Euro-parties imperil democracy in the Eastern Partnership countries

The Europarties’ engagement with non-EU parties from the Eastern Partnership countries failed to transform the party system in those states. Relying to a great extent on trustworthy personal relations with the party leaders, the Europarties contributed to further legitimisation of non-EU party structures. In this way, the Europarties acquiesced to personality-oriented party politics that are embedded in clientelistic relationships and oligarchic business circles.

November 14, 2017 - Maria Shagina - Analysis

Image by European People's Party

Brussels´ idea of wider Europe claims that the scope of the EU impact is not necessarily limited to the EU member states, but also takes place beyond the EU borders. One of the channels of the EU impact is cooperation between Europarties and non-EU parties. Through institutionalised programmes of mutual visits, joint seminars, training, and political consulting, the Europarties teach the non-EU party elite their rules and norms. Through this cooperation, parties from Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine become socialised into the EU rules and practices.

Finding like-minded parties

Despite the lack of EU membership perspective, Georgian, Moldovan and Ukrainian parties willingly affiliate with the Europarties. In the last decade, the Europarties increased their representation in Eastern Europe.

The European People´s Party (EPP) has the widest and strongest representation through its cooperation with the Ukrainian Fatherland party, Rukh, UDAR, the Georgian United National Movement (UNM) and the Moldovan Liberal Democratic Party (PLDM). In 2015, Petro Poroshenko´s Solidarnist and Arseniy Yatsenyuk´s People´s Front applied for EPP membership, while in 2017, David Bakradze´s European Georgia – Movement for Liberty was accepted as an observer. The Moldovan Christian Democratic People’s Party and Ukrainian People´s Union “Our Ukraine” were also members of the EPP family until 2012 and 2013, respectively.

By comparison, the Party of European Socialists (PES) and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) have weaker representation in the region. Due to difficulties in finding credible partners, the PES cooperates only with the Moldovan Democrats and very recently with the Georgian Dream. In the past, the Ukrainian Party of Regions tried to establish cooperation with the European Socialists. The ALDE has established affiliations with the Georgian Republicans and Free Democrats, the Moldovan Liberal Party, and the Ukrainian European party. In 2016, Anatoliy Hrytsenko´s Civic Position also joined the European Liberals. Finally, the European Left (EL) has a strong partner in Moldova — the Party of Communists, and the Alliance for European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) cooperates with marginal right-wing parties from Georgia — the Christian-Democratic Movement and the Conservative Party.

Selection process

To become an observer member, a domestic party has to send an official application to the Europarty. It is reviewed whether applicant party´s norms and values defined in the statute are congruent with norms and values of the Europarty. In the next step, the Europarty organises a fact-finding mission to the country to explore its political landscape. During the mission, the Europarty’s representatives meet with party members, NGOs, experts, and journalists. On this basis, an assessment of the political situation is made, after which the Europarty’s presidency decides whether to accept an applicant party.

Despite its formal procedure, the selection process is rather defined by its informal criteria. Being aware of dealing with immature and unfledged political parties, the Europarties employ a different approach in the non-EU countries. Instead of searching for classical conservative, socialist, or liberal parties, the Europarties are more interested in an applicant party’s sustainability and viability, its democratic credentials and pro-European stance.

Established mutual trust is an important factor, which fosters the application process. Knowing party leaders personally creates transparent and loyal settings which help the Europarties to assess an applicant party’s credibility. For example, the acceptance of “Our Ukraine” was done without any fact-finding mission and was based on Viktor Yushchenko´s back then good standing in the EU.

Local partners could also accelerate the admission process. As politicians in Brussels are not always aware of developments in the countries, they usually rely on their partners’ recommendations and evaluations. Prior to sending the mission, the Europarty checks the relevance of applications with their local partners. In particular, the German party foundations operate as interlockers and mediators, who advised the Europarties on domestic affairs. For instance, prior to the formal application of UDAR, the Ukrainian Konrad-Adenauer Stiftung (KAS) office organised a visit to the German Christian Democratic Union’s headquarter in Berlin. During this visit, UDAR´s representatives had an opportunity to gain informal contacts with the EPP President Martens and the German EPP members. Afterwards, when initial contacts were established, it was KAS again who pushed the dialogue further and helped in organising mutual events. In this way, already prior to the application submission, UDAR gained broad support — mainly through the CDU — within the EPP, which explains its fast-tracked application. The party was granted an observer membership in less than a year.

Promoting their ideological commitments and European values, the Europarties are interested in stable and credible partners. Having had negative experiences with fluid post-communist party systems, the Europarties prefer to exclude cooperation with unreliable partners that might disappear after one term. Because of that, the Europarties often look at election results before making any decisions on acceptance. Usually, this happens in a case where mutual trust between the Europarty and applicant party is lacking. In Georgia, the EPP was cautious to proceed further with the Christian Democratic Movement’s application before the parliamentary election results in 2012. Together with European Democrats of Georgia, the party won a marginal 2.05 per cent of the vote, which halted the application’s further review. Similarly, the New Right Party’s application was held under review prior to the election results in 2008. The EPP planned to make a final decision on the application after the party’s ability to enter the parliament.

Finally, the decision of acceptance could be influenced by other sister parties from the same country. After negative experiences with Eastern European parties, it has become an informal rule for the Europarty to obtain approval from already affiliated parties regarding new applicants. It aims to avoid obstructive behaviour between sister parties and to help consolidate democratic forces. For example, the Georgian Christian Democratic Movement’s and the New Rights Party’s applications were placed on a slow track because of the UNM’s objection towards both applications. The UNM’s non-approval of other potential sister parties in the EPP kept the applicants in the waiting room despite the fulfilment of the EPP’s general requirements.

Prestige and political weight

Prestige and status penetrate the relationships between the Europarties and non-EU parties. By establishing a prestigious affiliation on the EU level, the non-EU parties acquire domestic legitimacy and international recognition. During election campaigns, domestic parties obtain electoral and political support from their European partners, while informal settings of mutual visits provide an excellent opportunity for domestic parties to lobby for in favour of further European integration. The cooperation also gives inexperienced parties the necessary expertise in capacity-building. For the Europarties, having a broad network of non-EU parties means a chance to promote their norms and values outside Europe, and to obtain channels for access and influence in domestic policy-making. Expanding their networks, the Europarties can also substantiate their influential position in the European Parliament.

Political weight is of crucial importance for both parties, too. For the Europarties, it is prestigious to have sustainable parties with strong political weight, preferably in the government. Being once leading forces of countries’ revolutions, the UNM, the Fatherland party, and PLDM are the EPP sister parties.

For the non-EU parties, the strong position of the Europarties in the EP is important to prove their great power status at home. Interested in lobbying for European integration and acquiring domestic legitimacy, domestic parties usually prefer cooperation with powerful Europarties. By a wide margin, the EPP is the most desirable party family for the non-EU parties; seven out of 18 existing and previous affiliations from the countries belong to the EPP. The Europarty’s strategic importance in the process of European integration and its influential position in the EP bestowed it with prestige, power, and attraction. 

Having a strong political weight, gives a domestic party a certain leverage during the application process. Despite its leftist leaning, the Fatherland party was incorporated in the EPP family as a credible party. Similarly to the EPP, the PES’ affiliations are not of a perfect match. For example, the PES established links with Democratic Party and Georgian Dream ruled by de facto oligarchs Vlad Plahotniuc and Bidzina Ivanishvili as well as had some informal dialogue with the Party of Regions. In contrast, the minor parties are limited in their bargaining power. This situation forces them sometimes to favour their second-best decision. The long-lasting UNM’s objection to support the Christian-Democratic Movement’s application to the EPP caused the party’s shift to the AECR.

Together with lax formal requirements, the Europarties’ preference for government parties created enough room for maneuver for applicant parties to avoid compliance. The Europarties’ employed expansionist strategy diluted their core principles and they started embracing different ideological profiles. This widening of the Europarties’ profiles has become practical for post-communist parties that are poorly defined in ideological terms. Embracing eclectic positions, post-communist parties could place themselves within the European party families regardless of their patchy or contradictory matches.

In case of the Fatherland party, the EPP tried not to emphasise ideological discrepancies, but justified the party’s affiliation via the common position on European values and principles. The EPP representatives pointed out the interest in a viable pro-European political force rather than in a highly compatible but marginal Christian democratic party. The irrelevance of party ideology for non-EU parties made swift ideological adjustments possible. Having low “goodness of fit” prior to the membership, the parties adjusted their party profiles to the EPP’s requirements on paper. During the application process, Fatherland, and UNM swiftly adjusted their ideological foundations during the application process by shifting from centre-left and liberal positions to centre-right one. Prior to their EPP affiliation, the Fatherland party had informal talks with the Social International and the PES, while UNM informally contacted ALDE and started cooperation with the German and the Dutch liberal party foundations.

Perils for democratic consolidation

The Europarties’ engagement with the non-EU parties unleashed rather ambiguous effects on democratisation and consolidation. The Europarties failed to transform the party system and surprisingly contributed to its ossification in various ways. Firstly, in the selection process, due to the Europarties’ keen interest in viable or government forces, the status quo was solidified and legitimised. Relying to a great extent on trustworthy personal relations with the party leaders, the Europarties contributed to further legitimisation of non-EU party structures. In this way, the Europarties de facto acquiesced to personality-oriented party politics that are embedded in clientelistic relationships and oligarchic business circles.

Secondly, during the cooperation, the Europarties chose not to interfere in the parties’ internal affairs and directed their activities towards the external side of party-building. Selecting a low, short-term target, the Europarties directed their activities towards areas such as electoral campaigning and leadership skills. Those activities could provide fast, harmless positive results without demolishing the whole party system. The effect of those workshops and trainings sessions remained, however, on the personal level. Due to excessive personalisation and structural rigidity of party structures any positive effects in youth and women’s branches were halted by the mother party. The fine-tuning and window-dressing activities supported by the Europarties contributed to the preservation of the status quo and solidified the hierarchical party structure even further.

The Europarties’ engagement in the three countries failed to consolidate the democratic forces. On the contrary, the Europarties’ endorsement of cooperation with like-minded parties fuelled rather more rivalry than mutual support. In fact, the Europarties’ extensive political support for a party leader led to further exacerbation of inter-party relationships domestically. Since the affiliation with the Europarties was utilised by parties as a badge of approval and recognition, the Europarties’ preference for a particular sister party was met with hostility and distrust. For instance, being very sensitive to the EPP’s support to Tymoshenko, “Our Ukraine” ceased its cooperation with the EPP, avoiding any participation in the Europarty’s events. Critiques of Yushchenko’s unwillingness to build a coalition with Tymoshenko have led to more tense relations. Similarly, the extensive and often biased support for Mikheil Saakhashvili and Vlad Filat unleashed more partisan rivalry, revealing the sensitivity and vulnerability of party leaders to the Europarty’s criticism and support.

Finally, the Europarties’ established policy of showing public support but hiding public shaming proved to be counterproductive for democratisation of the party systems. Desperately searching for “success stories”, the Europarties try to avoid negative storylines of the parties they had already accepted. By revealing the undemocratic turn of their welcomed parties, the Europarties would question their own ability to assess their like-minded partners correctly. This would undermine their credibility and their role as democracy promoters. By avoiding public criticism of their like-minded partners, the Europarties created an illusion for the domestic population that all deeds of their partners were rightful and flawless. By practicing “teaching” of their sister parties behind closed doors, the Europarties in fact did a disservice to the fragile democratic regimes. Due to the lack of public shaming, the party leaders from Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine misused the affiliation to buttress their domestic legitimacy. The Europarties’ failure or unwillingness to acknowledge sister parties’ wrongdoings damages their reputation and that of the EU in the Eastern Partnership countries.

Maria Shagina holds a PhD degree in Political Science from the University of Lucerne and University of Zurich. Previously, she was a visiting research fellow at the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. Her new book Joining A Prestigious Club explores the impact of the cooperation between Europarties and domestic parties on party development in the Eastern Partnership countries. The book reveals the ways in which cooperation with Europarties has paradoxically contributed to the ossification of the status quo and impaired the development as well as the consolidation of democracy in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

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