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Will transnational movements help create truly European politics?
Call it the EU’s democracy gap.
As the countries that make up the European Union have become ever more integrated — economically, regulatorily, culturally — policies set at the EU level have become an ever more important part of their citizens’ lives.
And yet, European politics remain stuck in national silos.
EU citizens have voted representatives into the European Parliament since 1979, but even today they do so on different dates, according to different electoral laws, for candidates selected by national — rather than European — political parties and on the basis of domestic agendas.
Pan-European parties (so called Euro-parties) have been given institutional recognition and financial resources over time, but they remain weak, extra-parliamentary federations made up of national parties from several EU countries, united by thin political affinity and driven by financial rewards.
With less than a year to go before the next European Parliament election, the EU lacks a truly European party system capable of fostering a genuine transnational debate.
That has serious repercussions. For one, it impedes the emergence of pan-European public opinion. It also means that EU developments are viewed almost exclusively through a national lens. Media reports are inevitably partial, often misinformed or misleading. National politicians practice passing the buck and scapegoating the EU.
The nature and scale of many of the challenges facing Europe, such as migration, require pan-European solutions. But citizens are led to believe that most of the problems afflicting their local communities can and should be solved locally. Instead of holding a single search for a solution across the bloc, national debates promote local “solutions” that are inefficient and often at odds with one another, as in the case, again, with migration.
Some have attempted to Europeanize the EU’s electoral competition. The European Parliament has introduced the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process, in which each party proposes a “lead candidate” to serve as its nominee for the European Commission president.
Others, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have pushed the idea of transnational lists, in which Euro parties present a slate of candidates running on a common manifesto across the entire Union.
The European Parliament has been cool on the idea, suggesting that established parties do not wish to rock the boat or risk losing political influence. And yet, it may be out of their hands, as a growing number of self-proclaimed pan-EU movements emerge across the political spectrum.
One of these is DiEM25, a left-leaning coalition led by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis and French Socialist leader Benoît Hamon. It also has the support of Poland’s Razem party, Denmark’s Alternativet and the Portuguese Livre. On the Pro-EU side, there’s Volt, founded by three European millennials: Italian Andrea Venzon, Danish Damian Boeselager and French Colombe Cahen-Salvador. On the far right, there’s Generation Identity. Founded in France, it describes itself as “pan-European Identitarian Movement.”
To circumvent the lack of official transnational lists, these movements either register the same party in several EU countries or coordinate their political offer. Some might even choose to swap out candidates across national borders, running a French national in Germany for example and vice-versa, as the Greens have done in the past.
What makes these movements stand out from traditional political parties is their ability to speak with one voice on major European issues — like migration or the economy — to electorates across Europe.
By pioneering genuine pan-European politics across the Continent, these transnational movements — emerging from a hotchpotch of movements, associations and grassroots organizations — suggest that traditional parties’ monopoly over Europe may soon be over.
One thing is clear. There are many more visions of Europe than those presented by traditional federalists on one side of the spectrum and nationalists on the other. Europe as a political space is still evolving, but these transnational movements — however well they perform — will nudge all political parties to compete for ideas, votes and seats on a European stage.
As such, their existence must be encouraged. Transnational parties are the fertilizer for a truly European polity. Next year’s election could mark a turning point, the moment when the first genuinely European political competition paved the way for a genuinely European transnational democracy.
Alberto Alemanno is Jean Monnet Professor of European Union Law, HEC Paris and author of “Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society” (London: Iconbooks, 2017).
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misidentified the founders of Volt.