While European studies are interdisciplinary area studies, European politics is the political science subfield of European studies. It is a broad field with blurred boundaries, which encompasses research on the determinants and the consequences of institutions, politics, and policies in European countries. It seems fair to say that the bulk of research in European politics and society focuses on west European democracies, while the study of central and eastern Europe has only more recently received rapidly increasing attention, with the democratization of this region and the Easter n enlargement of the European Union. This article aims at providing an overview of the major strands of research in the following areas of European politics and society: state and nation-building, comparative European government, parties and party systems, and European political economy and welfare states.
The Emergence of Democratic Nation-States in Europe
States, nation-states, and—eventually—modern democracies have their roots in western Europe, and much of the literature on the development of states and nations in all parts of the world draws on comparison with the European experience.
According to political scientist Charles Tilly, state formation was strongly driven by the military concerns of political entrepreneurs eager to secure their territories and by the availability of economic and political resources in particular geographical and economic contexts. Given this variation of contexts, of institutional precedents, and of the sequences of state formation, European states developed in a variety of forms. Hence, the gist of the standard works on state formation, notably the contributions of sociologists Michael Mann and Thomas Ertman, is that modern states—based on territorial centralization, infrastructural power, and modern bureaucracies—were not a product of intentional design but a highly contingent and variable outcome of particular historical contexts and sequences. This raises important implications for research on subsequent state formation processes in all parts of the world because one cannot necessarily assume the transferability of insights from the European experience.
Most Western states transformed into nation-states in the nineteenth century, adding an ideological fundament to the institutions of the state. In the famous terms of Benedict Anderson (2006), a scholar of nationalism, nations can be defined as “imagined communities,” and nationalism entails the idea that nations are entitled to political autonomy. By means of historical research and comparison, the literature in this field debates the questions of whether nations have perennial roots or are genuinely modern and whether the idea of the nation emanates from the people itself or from elite discourse. There is no agreement between perennialist and modernist interpretations of nations, but it is clear that the institution of the nation-state is a genuinely modern, European invention. Institutionalist works on central and eastern Europe by sociologist Rogers Brubaker have demonstrated how institutions of citizenship contributed to the saliency and persistence of nations as relevant political categories.
Aside from state formation and nation building, democratization is the third important strand of historical studies on the political development of European states. The main goal of work on this topic is to identify the factors accounting for democratic stability as opposed to democratic breakdown, given that Europe’s dark twentieth century was deeply marked by the eruption of dictatorship and authoritarianism. As with state and nation-building, democratic stability appears to be the result of a complex historical configuration of factors. Barrington Moore proposed a model of different paths to democracy and dictatorship, with the democratic path depending on a balance of power between crown, nobility, and bourgeoisie in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and an early development of commercialized agriculture and markets. More recently, the works of political scientists Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Evelyne Huber, and John Stephens have shown that a strong but not radicalized working-class movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was also an important driver of stable democratization.
Comparative European Government
Building on the largely historical political science literature on state formation and institutional development, a different strand of European politics research analyzes the determinants and the effects of varying government institutions. The field of comparative government is, of course, not focused on Europe exclusively, but the plurality and variation of democratic institutions on this continent (which otherwise shares many context conditions) makes it an obvious empirical candidate for comparative research.
European democracies vary to a great extent in their core institutions, such as the electoral system, parliamentary regimes, federalist versus unitary governance, direct versus representative democracy, and the possibility of constitutional review. Political scientist Arend Lijphart argued that the variation in these characteristics can be analyzed in a limited number of patterns, proportional representation tending to go together with, for example, coalition governments, federalism, and corporatism. On this basis, national democratic regimes have been categorized according to the extent to which they concentrate or disperse decision-making power. The concentration of power is particularly strong in the United Kingdom (and its former colonies outside Europe) and to some extent in France, whereas most of the other European countries, such as the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Italy, and the Nordic countries distribute power across institutions and share it between different actors (government and opposition parties, trade unions and business association, courts, central banks, and substrate governments).When discussing the sources of this institutional variation, the literature appeals mostly to a sociological explanation: most European societies are characterized by a plurality of social cleavages, that is, cultural, linguistic, ethnic, or political divides, that required some form of power sharing to allow for stable democratic government.
A very large literature deals with the effects of power sharing versus power concentration on policy outputs and policy change. The veto points and veto players literature represents an attempt to conceptualize these institutional effects in a most parsimonious way: the more actors’ agreement is needed for a reform to pass, that is, the higher the number of veto players, the higher is the expected policy stability in a country. This approach was most forcefully developed by the rational choice political scientist George Tsebelis. Thereby, the veto player approach adopts a one-dimensional concept of policy change simply in terms of change versus stability. Other scholars have attempted to substantiate predictions about the effect of institutional variations. One example is Bingham Powell’s work on the responsiveness of proportional versus majoritarian regimes. Powell shows that proportional elections tend to produce policies that are closer to the preferences of the median voter. A second example is the link between power-sharing institutions and generous welfare states. Proportional democracies tend to spend and redistribute more than majoritarian ones. While this empirical correlation has been known for a long time, the jury is still out on competing explanations, at least two of them institutional. Michael Laver and W. Ben Hunt argue that coalition governments in proportional democracies tend to increase spending through log-rolling processes, whereas Torben Iversen and David Soskice argue that proportional representation electoral systems increase the chances of center-left governing coalitions, this leading to more generous social spending.
Political Parties and Party System Change in Europe
Political parties are the key actors in representative democracies, and the study of the development and transformation of European party systems is an important aspect of European politics and society research. Political parties developed in all western European countries with and because of the extension of the franchise. Works by political scientists Richard Katz, Peter Mair, and Daniele Caramani show how early “cadre parties,” representing the interests of particular, privileged social elites, were followed by “mass parties,” which mobilized broad ranges of voters in increasingly homogeneous national party systems.
The western European party systems that have emerged with full democratization are similar with regard to left parties but differ when it comes to the right. While left labor parties emerged in all countries, Christian Democratic parties appeared only in certain countries of continental Europe (such as Austria, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and the Netherlands). Liberal parties remained marginal in most countries and became important in only a few of them, such as Switzerland or the United Kingdom. And agrarian parties developed mainly in the Nordic countries of Scandinavia. Moreover, the size and relative importance of the different parties varies strongly in cross-national comparison. The most prominent explanation of this variation was developed by political scientists Seymour Martin Lipset, Stein Rokkan, and Stefano Bartolini and Peter Mair, referring to the specific patterns and sequences of social cleavage politics in the different countries. Cultural and territorial cleavages were not equally salient in all countries, thereby fostering variation on the right, whereas the class cleavage emerged in all countries and gave rise to the mobilization of the left. Hence, the salience and temporal sequence of cleavage politics explains the variation in national party systems.
After the introduction of universal suffrage in the first half of the twentieth century, party systems froze, meaning that the number, type, and relative strength of the political parties of national party systems stabilized. This freezing process can be explained by the fact that with universal suffrage, the electorate became fully mobilized voters developing strong and stable party identification. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the transition to a postindustrial society fundamentally changed the sociostructural underpinnings of party politics, leading first to new social movements and then to a sustained unfreezing of European party systems. Political scientists such as Herbert Kitschelt, Hanspeter Kriesi, and Simon Bornschier showed that the emergence of Green parties on the left, the transformation of Social Democratic parties from workingclass to middle-class parties, and the appearance of new rightwing populist challengers in many European countries are the main results of this ongoing transformation.
With the democratization of central and eastern Europe, the transferability of the analytical insights gained from research on the old party systems to the new democracies has become a major question. However, research by Herbert Kitschelt and other political scientists shows that party systems in these countries are not fully stabilized and nationalized yet, and the political parties seem to align along dimensions of political competition that differ from the ones found in western Europe.
European Political Economy and Welfare States
The study of European production regimes, industrial relations, welfare states, and economic policies is an important and thriving subfield of European politics and society. After the Second World War (1939–1945), all western European states introduced market regulation and social protection to steer economic development and to shield their populations from the major risks of income loss such as illness, unemployment, accident, old age, or disability. Thereby, European economies developed a model of regulated capitalism, which turned out to be highly successful in the postwar period with regard to economic prosperity, low social inequality, and generalized social welfare.
With regard to economic governance in the postwar period, European economies differed in the extent to which governments intervened directly in the economy as opposed to coordinating economic regulation with the representatives of business and labor by means of corporatist institutions. Countries like France relied on a strongly centralized, unilateral, and state-led model of economic regulation, characterized by bureaucratic planning of industrial policy, state ownership of major industries, and little societal strife. By contrast, countries with weaker bureaucratic capacity and more strongly organized societies, such as Germany and Sweden, and the small open economies of Europe developed institutions of tripartite economic steering, which include the representatives of the state, labor, and capital on an equal basis. An important work on corporatism, regulatory states, and varieties of capitalism by political scientists including Philippe C. Schmitter, Gerhard Lehmbruch, Peter Katzenstein, J. Rogers Hollingsworth, Robert Boyer, Peter A. Hall, and David Soskice analyzed and explained these different institutional systems of economic governance. However, despite the national differences in economic regulation, a major commonality of European economies in the golden age from 1945 to the mid-1970s was strong economic growth and productivity.
In the postwar era, all western European countries developed encompassing welfare states, which, however, differed substantially in their generosity and effects. It was the pathbreaking research by sociologist Gösta Esping-Andersen (1990) that showed that welfare states can be divided broadly into three “worlds of welfare capitalism.” In Scandinavian welfare states, benefits are relatively high, universal, and tax financed. In addition, these countries provide a wide range of welfare services, which contrasts with the welfare states of continental Europe that are based on more stratified, income and employment-related financial transfers. The United Kingdom differs from both models since it belongs to a more liberal Anglo-Saxon group of welfare states with lower, means-tested benefits. This characterization of the “three worlds of welfare capitalism” is largely accepted, but the literature holds diverging explanations of why welfare states, and their differences, came about. One strand of literature, represented mainly by Gösta Esping-Andersen and Kees van Kersbergen, argues that welfare states are the product of power configurations: they are generous and egalitarian in the Nordic countries, where Social Democracy was strongest, whereas Christian Democracy left its imprints on the continental welfare states and the dominance of the market-liberal right accounts for the minimal welfare state in the United Kingdom. The main alternative explanation by Peter A. Hall and David Soskice builds not on power and conflict but on institutional and functional complementarity with the economic production regime: generous social security schemes emerged in coordinated, corporatist market economies because they underlay and sustained the modes of production and the labor markets in these countries.
Since the end of the golden age and with the emergence of a postindustrial society in western Europe, market coordination, corporatism, and welfare states have come to face growing challenges. During the 1980s and 1990s, direct state intervention was reduced in all European economies, and many formerly public markets, such as the network industries, were liberalized and partly privatized, not least as a result of European Union regulations. So the main question in the literature on European economic and social policies became whether the European model of regulated capitalism and generous welfare states was sustainable in times of austerity and globalization or whether all European economies would converge on a more market-liberal model. So far, however, the results of major research projects on this question led by political scientists such as Herbert Kitschelt, Peter Lange, John Stephens, Fritz W. Scharpf, and Vivien A. Schmidt show that the cross-national differences have largely persisted, which either may be the result of institutional inertia and path dependence or may reflect that even under changing structural conditions, different models of (welfare) capitalism continue to be viable and efficient. With the global crisis of financial markets and economies that started in 2008, some observers even ask whether the European social model may see an unexpected revival in and outside Europe.
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