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European political parties: what kind of animals are they?

In view of the forthcoming European Parliament elections and the deep sleep in which EU politics seems to be, a big hope to revitalize the debate lies on the role that the European Political parties can play in the next months.

For the first time in the short history of EU politics the European Political parties will be allowed to campaign, will have a budget and the political foundations will be able to play a role.

However, the European political parties continue to be strange animals; firstly, they are made up of national parties, not individual members, secondly they don’t have lists of candidates, every constituency has its own lists, thirdly they are not the main actors in the campaigns, which happen at national level, fourthly they normally don’t have a common program and when they do, it can not be implemented because the winning party has no possibility to execute it because the elections are only about legislative lower chamber with no impact on the executive, fifthly even if they win the elections they have no take in the direction of the EU and if they had a take, the current system doesn’t held them accountable for that…

This is even more bizarre when we think that the European Parliament is representing the citizens whilst the European parties’ political line can not be changed by the citizens but by the national parties.

In order to analyze the challenges for the European political parties it helps to bring into the analysis the other strange animal of European politics; what some people think is a kind of European ghost and others see as a sleeping beauty: the European demos.

It is clear that for the fathers of Europe the “European awareness” –as it is called in the Maastricht treaty- or the concept of the “European people” was vital for the future of the European Union. And the European Parliament was created as a personification of this European demos which the only European institution directly elected by the citizens was supposed to shape.

In this process of overcoming the national mindsets and construction of the European demos the European parties were thought to play an important role. Yet, I believe their contribution to the European project is still a blank page to be written soon.

The campaigns for European Parliament elections have always been run at national level, run with national arguments and where very little is discussed about European issues.

However, we know well that the big majority of national laws start at EU level, with the EP playing a major role. In fact if we look at the amount of copy-pasting of EU law into law of other non-EU countries we could claim that these are among the most important elections in the world.

Then, why such low turnout?

Is it that people don’t get it?

Is it that national parties are incapable to explain the importance of these elections?

It is probably a bit of everything. I believe the European parties can help bridge this gap by bringing the flesh to the European bone. Bringing excitement to the EP elections. Connecting the EP elections with the allocation of the European power.

Typical of any elections campaigns are “faces”, “promises”, “expectations”, “excitement”, “HOPE”! In the US elections last month we saw the importance of the personification of hope. Who will personalize the European “hope”?

The EU is the biggest donour of development aid in the world, we have the most progressive environmental legislation, our quality of life is envied all over… The European dream is a lot more real than the American dream! Now, where is the marketing? Who embodies these assets? Who can legitimately explain to Europeans and to world citizens what the EU does and why it is important?

It is necessary to link the EP elections with a political idea for the EU, able to be implemented and held accountable every 5 years, and this European ideal should be linked to a face, to a person embodying the hope.

In order to have a competition of European figures we badly need the contribution of the European Parties. If they are not willing to play the political game and continue to be held hostage of the interests of the national parties, the European project will progressively lose legitimacy.

Hence the fundamental question is: the continued decrease in turnout for EP elections is a structural problem or is it rather a temporary tendency that will pass?

If we believe that the problem is structural we have to substantially steer the direction of the boat if we want to avoid seeing the project sink. The European political parties play a vital role in this new direction the EU has to take to democratize the composition of its executive.

Therefore, it is not that the European Parties are strange animals because this is their nature; rather the opposite, they are strange because they are unfinished creatures!

If European democracy is meant to exist it is necessary that the European Parties continue its transformation into solid political movements, working with democratic structures and electing the leadership that will embody their vision for the EU and will defend it in the public arena. Then the European citizens can have something substantial to decide on and participation will go up.

If this doesn’t happen we will continue to expect the citizens to give the right answer to the wrong question. And some times the best answer to a wrong question is silence: people don’t turn up to vote… The citizens want to decide about power! about the person who will embody their hopes for the future. The European Parliament elections are important but time has come for the European parties to grow up and live up to what the citizens expect from them: a choice between political programs and political leadership.


  1. Didn’t the demos thing originally consist of free-born, native male Athenians, of age?

    Instead of constructing a slightly updated ‘demos’ concept in order to find it inapplicable, couldn’t political scientists look at the practicalities?

    The two elements needed are citizenship, which we have, and full political rights, which we don’t have.

    In other words, we need real EU reform, as you argue.

    If the political parties at European level fail to launch candidates for the post of Commission President and convincing reform platforms, they deserve losing out to the protest movements and the obstructionists.

  2. Ralf,
    The original meaning of demos in ancient greek more than identifying people, it meant “public sphere”. It is true that at that time it meant free-born, native male athenians but the concept as “public space to discuss and decide” can still be applied today.
    And it is in this European public sphere that we need european political parties to represent their ideas for the EU, and I claim that this can better be done if they present candidates for president of the European Commission.
    Otherwise, as you correctly argue in your blog the EP campaign can become a plebsicit about the EU more than elections to the EP.
    Do you think that Libertas will do us a favour presenting a candidate for president of the Commission? This might force the real european political parties to finally grow up…

  3. Libertas has set itself up as a one-issue party with the aim of providing an EU-wide referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. So it’ll probably be a “broad church” movement/party and not really suited or willing to put forward a Commission President candidate.

    The party groups have disappointed so far in doing their job. It’s very hard to be optimistic about future change, but you never know what could happen.

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