- “The establishment of full-fledged and mature Pan-European parties is essential to facilitate democratic standards on the European political platform.”
As someone who has been active in European politics for twenty years, one of my convictions has always been that European political parties must provide a more direct link in connecting EU-level democracy with the Union’s citizens. This has to be seen as the number one antidote to the EU’s ever-haunting problem of democratic legitimacy, which manifests itself in such worrying tendencies as the steadily declining voter turnout ever since the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979, and in the rise of Euroscepticism across the continent on both ends of the political spectrum.
The lack of widely-recognised parties at EU-level and the limited legal powers vested in them, is a substantial reason why the EU and its institutions have been losing public support over the past thirty-six years. Amidst the political vacuum created by the neglect of party politics on the European platform, what remains is for national leaders to jump in to claim credit for all the EUʼs successful policies and to blame Brussels for all its failures. And if the EU is presented to the citizen as nothing more than a battle of wills between its member states it will never inspire.
We require full-blown and mature Pan-European parties that are sufficiently empowered by the EU’s legal structure to move beyond the national blame games and political apathy on part of the average citizen facilitated by lack of sufficient democratic opportunity. Europarties have to fulfil the near same role on the European level that political parties have hitherto only done so in the national context.
Supranational challenges require supranational democracy
Ever since the 19th century, the nation state has been designated as the appropriate unit of political governance. Thus, in the traditional context, political parties have been predominantly active on the level of nations; forming the transmission belt between citizens and the state. Their role was, and still is, to organise and structure political dialogue in society, and to nourish democracy through the availability of choices; by offering alternative visions of the future to the electorate.
As we have now recognised that the challenges we face in the 21th century –ushered in by globalisation and the physical limits of our planet– are of a supranational nature that no national government institution has the capacity to effectively respond to alone, the organisation of political activity on regional and global level is rapidly taking over as the new appropriate unit of political governance. However, this increasing predicament that concentrates political responses to the supranational level in turn raises burning questions about the development of supranational democracy.
The EU’s pioneering role
As the European Union is the most advanced institution of supranational cooperation in the world, it has a pioneering role in institutionalising those democratic principles and practises on the supranational level that we adhere to in a national context. Its institutional architecture has to be based on an efficiently functioning democratic system in which its citizens are fully engaged and can express their political will. The success of the whole European Project depends on this.
In order to create this direct link between the EU’s political institutions and the public opinion of its citizens, supranational party-politics has to play a much greater role. Just as how the role of national political parties is indispensable to an effectively functioning democratic state, the establishment of full-fledged and mature Pan-European parties is essential to facilitate the same democratic standards on the European political platform.
Reforms of internal party structures and of the legal architecture
This sentiment is now also recognised in the EU treaties: “Political parties at European level contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the will of citizens of the Union”. However, in order for europarties to be fully able to tend to their roles in fostering European democracy, a combination of internal and external changes is needed– crucial reforms both within their party structures, and outside in the legal architecture of the European Union that regulates their functioning. Development in either of these domains can help increasing the visibility and political role of europarties, and stimulate change in the other, as it has been the case historically.
In amplifying the role of party-political coordination on a European level, liberals have always played a pioneering role ever since they first insisted in the Common Assembly of the European Coal and Steel Community, that they would all sit together rather than in national delegations. The ALDE party continues to honour this trail-blazing tradition by pushing for reforms both within its own ranks, and in the EU’s political institutions to change the governing legal framework.
More coordination among decision-makers
One of the ways in which we as a party can continue to develop is to facilitate more coordination among our leading European liberal decision-makers active in the various institutions of the EU. When I was Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the European Parliament, I started regular meetings between European Commissioners from the Liberal family and our leading parliamentary spokespeople. I took part in the first meetings of the Liberal Democrat prime ministers before European Council meetings. I organised the first of the annual weekend retreats for Europeʼs Liberal leaders. We have come a long way then.
By today, it has been a regular practise for the ALDE party to host the liberal Prime Ministers, European Commissioners, and the leader of our Parliamentary group in Brussels for a joint coordination session before every Summit of the European Council. Moreover, we have recently extended this practise to Council configuration meetings as well. Last December, the ALDE party has hosted its first ever Transport and Telecommunications Pre-Council meeting, by getting liberal national Ministers, European Commissioners and Members of the European Parliament with the relevant portfolio around the same table to align their positions on a range of important policy issues.
The facilitation of these forums for coordination and the creation of regular channels of interaction between European liberal policy-makers play an essential role in tightening the liberal political family in the EU; unifying its goals and vision. It remains a crucial task of the ALDE party to further deepen and institutionalise such interlinkages, while continuing to explore other avenues of innovation with which we can move beyond where any other europarty dares to move.
Voting rights for individual members
One such avenue was when in 2011, the ALDE party has uniquely introduced the category of individual membership, which made it possible for any EU citizen to join the party without the prerequisite of belonging to one of our member parties on the national level. Over the course of the past five years, we continued to significantly develop this ground-breaking program – establishing its own coordinating structure, headed by a Steering Committee, that had integrated individual members more closely into the daily work of the party.
Our commitment to delegate progressively more and more roles and responsibilities to them culminated at our last ALDE Party Congress, held in Budapest, where individual members were granted voting rights. They are now able to vote on and submit their own statutory changes and resolutions. Bringing them to an equal footing with our member parties in this way is a significant milestone in the enduring vision of the ALDE party to transform from a network of liberal parties in to a fully-fledged European political party.
This and other parallel efforts to increase the vitality of europarties is stimulating more external recognition from a range of political institutions and actors. On my initiative, former European Commission president, José Manuel Barroso (PSD/EPP) established a regular twice yearly meeting with the political leaders of europarties, while previously the President had met only with the leaders of the Parliamentary political groups. President Jean-Claude Juncker (CSV/EPP) has continued this tradition.
Another example is that five years ago the Communist Party of the Peopleʼs Republic of China moved to set up a China-EU Political Partiesʼ Forum. This suggests that europarties have increasingly become more and more recognised, even outside the border of the EU. Developments like these demonstrate the power that is in each Europarty’s hand to induce political change in the right direction.
Legal and institutional reforms
While there are certainly more things that we can do to increase our own visibility and significance in the political life of the EU –and the ALDE party is committed to make full use of whatever is within our reach– there are certain legal limitations imposed on us by EU law, which restrain the available scope of development. This is why it is necessary to also push for more structural reforms in the realm of the EU institutions, such as the Parliament, the Commission and the Council.
Institutional changes in the EU treaties show a positive tendency in empowering party-political activity, ever since the Maastricht Treaty first made a reference to europarties in 1992. In 2003 (in Regulation (EC) 2004/2003) the EU adopted a European political party statue by defining what a “political party at European level” is, and by setting out laws concerning their funding. And indeed while several successive legislations have provided for the growing importance of europarties, yet more is needed. The fully required legal architecture to deliver a direct link between the EU’s political institutions and the “political will of the citizens of the Union” is still in need of development.
Reforming the European electoral law
An integral element of this task is the proper reformation of the European Electoral Law, which, being adopted in 1976, is sorely outdated. Currently, European elections consist not of one election to one parliament held simultaneously across our continent, but of 28 different national elections spread over four days in the same week.
Despite the ALDE Party’s sincerest efforts to ambitiously move forward on the issue, reforming the European electoral law was on a standstill for many years in the EU institutions due to a lack of unified political will. Recently however, the issue of electoral reform has resurfaced on the agenda. On 5 February 2015, the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) gave green light for the drafting of a report on the reform of the European Electoral Law, appointing Danuta Hübner (PO/EPP) and Jo Leinen (SPD/PES) as co-rapporteurs. Their report was tabled by AFCO for debate in plenary in October 2015 and was successfully adopted on 11 November 2015 by the Parliament.
The AFCO co-rapporteurs in their report have called for a number of important changes to the 1976 Electoral Act, such as the enhancement of the visibility of European political parties by placing their names and logos on the ballot papers and posters in the election campaigns; introduction of obligatory threshold for the allocation of seats in single-constituency Member States; closing of polls in all Member States at the same time; introduction of a common deadline for the establishment of national lists and the nomination of lead candidates; and harmonising the voting age at 16 years. It will be now up to the Council to agree to the Parliament’s proposal and adopt its own decision on the matter.
Our opinion at the ALDE party is that the proposed measures are still too modest in scope, yet we nevertheless welcome it as an important step in the right direction, while continuing to push for more far-reaching reforms. We make the case that in order to truly create an EU-level democracy, we have to elect MEPs partially on a transnational list by a single constituency. And while this is unlikely any time soon, I would not exclude the possibility down the road of a Council agreement to elect a small percentage of MEPs in this way. The creation of a truly uniform electoral system, with partially supranational features such as a transnational list, is vital to bring European political parties closer to citizens. Thus the ALDE party will continue to strive towards this reform.
Sir Graham Watson was Member of the European Parliament from 1994 to 2014, leader of the ALDE Group in the European Parliament from 2002 to 2009 and president of the ALDE Party from 2011 to 2015.