European political parties: a misdirected debate

, by Aymeric Lorthiois

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European political parties: a misdirected debate

The proposed transnational lists for European elections supported by Liberal MEP Andrew Duff are well known and debated. This project is however not the only option considered by the European Parliament to give a new momentum to the European elections.

MEP Giannakou suggests indeed that European political parties be strengthened in order to turn them into the actors of a “political space at EU level, of a European democracy”. But in the details, this essential initiative fails to convince.

On 15 March, the Parliamentary Committee for Constitutional Affairs is to vote on both projects simultaneously. But despite a public hearing on the subject in January, and studies of the Parliament and of the think tank Notre Europe (, the mission of the Greek MEP affiliated to the European People’s Party (EPP) on European political parties has remained rather confidential. Published in early February, her report puts forwards the flagship idea of creating a legal and fiscal status for European political parties, which are often mere associations under Belgian law.

The question of the status: a key issue?

The idea is relevant but not new. The question of a legal personality for Europarties even arose several decades ago, as for associations, foundations, or even for small and medium enterprises.

Without a status valid throughout the EU, political federations such as the European People’s Party, the Party of European Socialists, the Party of European Left, or the Alliance of European national movements would not be able to get involved in electoral campaigns alongside their national member parties, or to raise funds in each Member State.

But with Marietta Giannakou, this technical aspect turns into the top priority, the sine qua non condition of any democratic progress. So much so that there should also be a special tax status for the staff of Europarties. Aiming at the “organisational uniformity for European political parties”, the MEP seems to have forgotten one detail: what is the role of European parties?

According to the treaties, political parties at European level have to “contribute to forming a European political awareness and to expressing the will of citizens of the Union” (Article 10 (4) of the Treaty on European Union). This would be achieved in the perspective of a European Union functioning as a representative democracy (Article 10 (1)), i.e. which would draw its legitimacy from elections. How would a legal status enable to achieve these goals? Reading the Giannakou report, the answer is simple: these goals are already achieved. The article 10 of the Treaty is not considered as an objective, but as an assertion, a statement of fact. Rather hard to believe.

What is a political party for?

A political party is not about status or treaty. A party is nothing more than an association that brings together citizens united by a common philosophy, of which it seeks the achievement through the conquest and exercise of power. Hence arise three main functions: to involve individual members or activists, to develop a manifesto or a program, and to select candidates.

Europarties in their current form have progressed in terms of structuring, by gradually developing an internal political identity and by showing increasingly converging voting patterns within their political groups in the Parliament. From the 1979 European election on, they also proposed their electoral manifestos, and they can now rely on political foundations financed by the EU since 2007 to develop genuine programs.

On the other hand, if the involvement of individual members makes progress here and there, the decision-making remains in the hands of the leaders of national member parties. As to the role of selection of candidates for elections, it is non-existent at the Europarty level. Without a European constituency, this role is confined to the national level. Transparency and honesty towards voters require European political parties to clearly identify their candidates for the presidency of the European Commission before each European election, which is legally possible since 1994. But so far no European party has ever really accepted that role.

A useful step would therefore be to encourage European parties to overcome these shortcomings, while respecting their ideological and organisational freedom. Marietta Giannakou explicitly refuses any step in this direction.

No privileges without compensation!

Without awaiting any effort from them, the Greek MEP proposes instead a series of regulatory, financial, and fiscal advantages to the benefit of European political parties. Besides a fiscal status, the cap would be raised for private donations, and European funding benefiting each year to European parties would now be paid automatically, without the usual administrative requirements.

But how could these privileges be justified if European parties are not yet full-fledged parties? Marietta Giannakou sees no problem in it. The common sense would suggest on the contrary that these privileges be subordinated to concrete improvements. This favourable treatment could, for example, be granted only to European parties across the ideological spectrum that involve activists of their affiliated parties in drawing up their program, and that nominate their candidates for Commission president after consulting activists during primaries.

A technocratic temptation

Of course, the MEP has made useful suggestions, such as to allow the involvement of European political parties in the campaigns of referendums dealing with European issues, which is today prohibited. But some of her proposals on otherwise fundamental issues turn out to be incomprehensible.

Without any reason, Marietta Giannakou wants to tighten the current criteria for recognising and funding European political parties. She recommends for example that European parties having no representative in Strasbourg be no longer recognised nor funded. Such would be the case of the Eurosceptic movement EUDemocrats.

Yet, the current criteria are already considered very restrictive, particularly as regards the recognition of European parties. In accordance with these rules, there are today only ten European parties, whereas France recognises nearly 300 national parties. In fact, the current rules exclude any grassroots movement. In Germany, a similar system has even been deemed unconstitutional by the supreme court in Karlsruhe. Under these conditions, further restricting the list of the lucky few would be surreal.

A key debate

Be that as it may, the debate launched by Marietta Giannakou and Andrew Duff is more than welcome. With abstention in European elections at the level of 57%, and with a marginalised European Parliament compared to the European Council, the current electoral system is on the verge of bankruptcy. Will we need to reach 60% abstention to react?

It is hard to conceive that voters are attached to the current model, one of an election without clear challenges, leading to a consensual Parliament, deprived of any kind of majority and of any executive. Participatory democracy is not a panacea either, as demonstrated by the first European citizen initiatives “Oneseat” and” 1 million for GM facts not crops”, which were citizenship successes but democratic failures.

As risky as it may be, the idea of remodelling European elections on the basis of pan-European democratic parties does not find any realistic alternative. It should not be dismissed on the sole grounds that it is inspired by what works at national level.

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