Transnational lists in theory and practice: Campaigning

, by Juuso Järviniemi

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Transnational lists in theory and practice: Campaigning
President Obama speaking at Cairo University in 2009. © White House // Chuck Kennedy

Last time I wrote about what kind of candidates would stand in the EU-wide constituency in the European elections, were it to be created. I suggested that distinctively European politicians should stand while those primarily famous in their respective member state should stick to the traditional national and regional constituencies. However, I also noted that, presently, there aren’t enough politicians recognised across Europe to fill parties’ lists of candidates. Indeed, depending on the size of the constituency, there may not even be enough of them to fill the seats. I concluded by arguing that relatively unknown candidates, running engaging and genuinely European campaigns, would represent a wonderful success story not only for their parties but also for the system.

National parties as vehicles of transnational campaigning

However, that may be easier said than done. Last time I talked about an engaging social media presence as an asset for a candidate. But unless you’re Guy Verhofstadt, first you need to work hard to build an audience to which you can send out your engaging message. The same goes for the public appearances I mentioned. Even if you speak flawless Portuguese and have a creative political message, if only twenty people turn up to listen to you, the trip from Timișoara is scarcely worth your while.

The general laws of politics apply. One can expect the better-known candidates to benefit from larger flows of campaign funding and resourcing, both from private donations and from party funding. Europe-wide media exposure is mainly helpful for reaching the “academic elites” who read Politico Europe in their spare time but that, too, would be more easily accumulated by prominent politicians. The smaller the European constituency, the less of a problem it will be for the parties that candidates further down the pecking order have a hard time making themselves known to the public.

In the relative absence of a European public sphere, and given the weak role of the European-level parties, at least in the beginning national-level party machines would likely play an important role in promoting candidates. European candidates could be included in the leaflets of national-level parties, and invited to rallies as international guests. These and more innovative forms of campaigning have the effect of bringing national and European parties closer together, and forcing national-level parties to indicate well in advance which group they plan to sit with in the Parliament.

One interesting question to consider is the relationship of European and national-level parties in elections. National-level parties can better reach the public, but on the other hand the European level is bound to be heavily involved in selecting the candidates. A lack of internal party cohesion might translate into poor promotion of European candidates at the local level, potentially hurting the party. One must wonder if such differences can be stomached in all instances, and if not, what the practical effects of any tension would be.

On the other hand, the European level may be called upon to do much of the grassroot-level campaigning in places where the party isn’t properly represented at the national level. Brexit makes Britain a somewhat unfortunate example, but given the absence of a national party affiliated to the EPP in the country, one should consider how the EPP would have gone about its transnational campaigning in Britain in the 2014 election had there been a European constituency. The same question could also be asked about ALDE in Poland, Hungary or Greece in the 2014 election. Resources at the European level are tight, and national-level parties may not be willing to spend on campaigns conducted beyond their home country’s borders. Transnational lists would offer plenty of room for imagination and innovation, and a lot for political scientists to study.

The language barrier

As I noted earlier, knowing several languages would be an advantage for a candidate in a Europe which still lacks a genuine lingua franca. Even though the mental image of a Matteo Salvini leaflet, with quotes of his translated into Finnish, may be cringeworthy to some, that might pass. However, a rally can be nothing but awkward if the audience and the speaker can’t properly understand each other. Indeed, I have written about the importance of a common language for a truly European democracy, precisely for this reason (although in reference to the Spitzenkandidaten system).

As time passes and an ever-larger proportion of Europeans have grown up in an English-speaking online world, perhaps the Timișoara politician can reach the electorate in English. But as Nelson Mandela observed, knowing the voters’ native languages can be essential in provoking an emotional reaction like a proper politician should. Like it or not, the language barrier is likely to remain an element spicing up transnational European politics, including elections in the EU-wide constituency if it is to be created.

This was the second part of the sequence of two articles about transnational lists in practice. Read the first part here.

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