The EU abounds with unknown bodies and institutions – and a very special species among them are the European political parties. When asked about the chairpersons of these parties, even post-grads in European Studies will only be able to come up with the names of the parliamentary speakers of the respective groups. Some of them, at least, will have come across the names Martin Schulz or Dany Cohn-Bendit in the context of EU politics. On the other hand, names such as Sergei Stanishev, the present chairman of the Party of European Socialists (PES), or Philippe Lambert, chairman of the European Green Party, will only be known to insiders. Only very few are familiar with the names of the European political parties. Even within the German Green Party, when you mention that you will be attending the EPG Council – that is the party conference of the European Green Party – the response will be mostly blank stares.
Considering how relatively unknown the European political parties are it is surprising to learn what an important role they are playing in European policy. According to Article 10.4 of the Treaty on European Union “political parties at European level contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the will of citizens of the Union.” This is no easy task, especially as political parties on a European level were first introduced in the Maastricht Treaty (although there had been European party-political alliances before that). And it was only in 2004, that such a European party, the European Green Party (EPG), organised a coherent Europe-wide election campaign with a common election platform.
In view of this very recent history it is less surprising that the European political parties are mostly under the radar. However, from a European perspective this situation is highly problematic – especially considering what an important role the parties are supposed to play. It is thus of utmost importance to lead a debate about how this “young growth” in European politics can be brought to flourish.
Becoming a platform
I think the most important precondition for strengthening European parties is to avoid falling into the trap of idealising them. Some of the most red-blooded Europeans like to suggest that the European parties should prescribe political principles and that national parties would have to toe the line. However, the European parties are still associations of national parties, and even where there are a few direct members (called “individual supporters” within the EPG), the overwhelming majority are delegates from national parties. These national parties are still very divergent organisations ranging from powerful ruling parties such as in Germany and Finland to relatively loose political associations especially in Eastern Europe.
Presently, the central task of European parties should be to work as a forum in which the different parties within Europe may exchange their experiences, views, and practices; this, in turn, may lead to important feedback into the national parties. Such approaches are even more important during EU elections because a co-ordinated Europe-wide campaign should promote the European, not the national character of the ballot.
A stronger European public
One fundamental problem of European parties is that they lack civil-society counterparts. With national parties, political issues will only reach a wider public once other actors take them up. Only the back and forth between divergent positions will create public awareness. In this respect Social Democrats rely on trade unions, the Green parties on environmental organisations. Such arenas and political spaces for discourse between different societal groups are missing from European politics.
A good example for this was the controversy surrounding the so-called Bolkestein Directive on services in the internal market. For a long time it were mainly national trade unions with their national perspectives that campaigned against this directive (although there were some lobbying efforts on an EU level). Nevertheless, it was only when the trade unions started a Europe-wide campaign that public awareness and a new political dynamic arose. As long as the European political parties lack relevant interest groups they will be operating quasi “unplugged,” without a much-needed amplifier.
Greater media coverage
A further precondition for a functioning European polity is that there has to be greater media coverage on European issues – otherwise the European parties will remain anonymous nonentities. There is no need to create a separate Brussels-based EU media though, all that is needed is that existing media extend their coverage of European party politics.
Reforming electoral law
On an instrumental level, EU electoral law will have to be reformed in order to emphasise that elections are about European parties, not purely national parties. In this context the idea to create transnational ballots with common European candidates is often mentioned (see the initiative led by Andrew Duff, MEP). This certainly is an appealing idea, but to begin it would already be useful to have the names of the European parties on the ballot – not just those of national parties.
In addition, the idea that the President of the European Commission should be elected directly by the European Parliament, that is, that the top candidates of the parties will be running for this office, should be complemented in such a way that European political parties, according to the numbers of votes gained, will be able to name EU Commissioners from their ranks (presently they are nominated by national governments).
Annalena Baerbock is a member of the Committee of the European Green Party and speaker of the German Green Party’s working committee on Europe.
Translated from the German by Bernd Herrmann.