Politicians who run for office need loads of campaign cash. The candidates in this year’s presidential campaign are busy raising money from corporate America. Critics warn that this makes politicians dependent on big business, because the politicians are obliged to do something in return once they get elected. Some liberals are proposing to outlaw corporate donations and replace them by state subsidies. They cite Europe as the example to follow.
In anti-capitalist Europe, the state is the largest benefactor of politicians. In Germany and the Netherlands, political parties receive a third of their income from government subsidies. In Scandinavian countries such as Norway, state funding accounts for three quarters of the parties’ income. In France, Spain and Belgium, an even higher proportion is state funded. In Belgium it is illegal for politicians and parties to accept donations from companies, while private individuals may only give a maximum of $725 per year to politicians.
European political parties receive state subsidies in accordance with the number of votes they gain. In Europe too, however, he who pays the piper calls the tune. Europe’s politicians have to obey the state.
Two years ago, authorities in the Netherlands stopped funding the SGP, a fundamentalist Calvinist party, because it does not put forward women candidates for election. The SGP, which happens to be Holland’s oldest political party, believes politics is a man’s business, not a woman’s. Most of the Dutch voters do not agree. The party has only two of the 150 seats in the Dutch Parliament.
In September 2005, a court in The Hague barred the SGP from receiving the amount of subsidies to which it was entitled in accordance with the number of its voters because the party is a sexist organization which discriminates against women. Ayaan Hirsi Ali, currently a Resident Fellow of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington but in 2005 still a member of the Dutch Parliament, applauded the decision to deprive the SGP of its income. Ms. Hirsi Ali said that any political party discriminating against women or homosexuals should be deprived of funding.
Last month the Dutch Supreme Court overruled the 2005 verdict. The Supreme Court stated that all political parties should be treated equally, no matter what their opinions are. The case will now go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasburg, which is likely to overrule the Dutch Supreme Court and uphold the ban on state subsidies for the SGP.
In Belgium the governing parties have initiated proceedings to defund the Vlaams Belang. The VB is Belgium’s largest opposition party. It strives for the dismemberment of Belgium and the independence of Flanders, Belgium’s Dutch-speaking northern half, and is opposed to non-European immigration. Some, including Ms. Hirsi Ali when she visited Belgium two years ago, argue that the party is a racist organization and hence has no right to exist, let alone receive government subsidies. Others, such as Prof. Marc Uyttendaele, the legal advisor of the Belgian government, argue that a state cannot be forced to subsidize its mortal enemies.
In a country like Belgium, where private donations above $725 are illegal, depriving a party of state subsidies is a way to kill the opposition. Belgium’s example seems to have inspired the European Union authorities in Brussels.
In 2004 the European Parliament (EP) decided that only parties which form transnational alliances with likeminded parties in other European countries and which “accept the fundamental European values” are entitled to receive government funds. So far the EP decision has only been used to bar so-called “racist” parties from government subsidies. The EP decision can, however, also be used to deny subsidies to so-called “Eurosceptic” parties. The latter, which oppose further European political integration and defend the national sovereignty of the EU member states, are considered to be enemies of “Europe,” i.e. of the EU project.
Last December representatives of the four major groups in the EP – the Christian-Democrats, Socialists, Liberals and Greens – proposed to restrict EU subsidies to their groups only. As the Eurocrats argue: Why should the EU subsidize its enemies? The “Eurosceptics” saw this coming. Three years ago they launched a legal challenge against the decision to establish state-funded European political parties. When the EU Court, which sees it as its role to support deeper European integration, turned down their complaint a “Eurosceptic” EP member from Poland observed: “This is exactly how the communists maintained themselves in power in my country. They didn’t ban elections – we had elections every four years. They just banned their opponents from contesting the elections.”
Democracy means that citizens are allowed to vote for whomever they please. If Americans fear that one of their candidates will be too servile to big business they can vote for someone else. In Europe, however, the state has begun to disqualify parties because of their opinions, so the citizens can only vote for the politicians whom the state pleases.
This piece was originally published in The Washington Times on January 2, 2008 .