Cocktail party or political party?
Pan-European parties have not played a significant role in the development of the European Union up until now. Member states, and consequently national governments and parties, have triggered, negotiated and approved subsequent changes of the treaties and institutions, including the creation of pan-European parties. To be very blunt, European parties resemble more a cocktail party than a political party: they do not run in elections, they rarely develop policies and they are not membership based. Especially in the case of big political families such as the Christian democrats and Social democrats, they serve as gathering for high-profile politicians to attract media attention and broker deals.
Smaller political families have gone beyond organising cocktail parties to some extent to develop common positions and electoral manifestos. But, to this day, none of the pan-European parties have kept up with the increasing role and influence of the political groups in the European Parliament. The main push for change in the functioning and institutions of the EU has come from the European Parliament asserting its role. To a large extend, the parliament has taken the role traditionally held by political parties: to make politics and translate people’s demands into policies. At EU level, the leaders of the parliamentary groups are often better known and more vocal on their views about the challenges and solutions for the European project than the leaders of their corresponding parties, which is rarely the case in national politics.
Which comes first, the egg or the chicken?
So, if European political parties do not work in the same ways as national political parties and do not have the same role of translating citizens’ views into policies, why is that so? Well, to keep it very simple, I guess they have no space and no incentives to do so. The major mechanism political parties use to develop, test and implement policies is to run in elections. No elections, no real political parties.
Political parties at the European level would be an important step in building a European polity. European parties, if we were to have pan-European elections, could be a fantastic way to galvanize citizens, create a real European debate on policies and mobilise people to participate in politics at EU level. Strengthening Pan-European parties would also be a significant asset in counterbalancing the power of member states and to increase transparency of European politics, and would certainly be of great help to move away from the administration of things to a real debate on ideas.
Or is it the other way round? Should we first build ‘real’ pan-European political parties and only then have them run in pan-European elections? Or should we start by changing the institutions and procedures, to give European parties a space for political action? I guess the answer is: both at the same time. We need to continue advocating for pan-European elections, of at least a part of the members of the European Parliament, while working on building true pan-European parties. What should these parties look like?
Power to the people
You may ask yourself, why writing an article about the future of pan-European political parties if my view on them is so grim? Well, because, the fantastic thing about building something new is to have the chance to learn from others’ mistakes. In the current climate of political apathy, disaffection and especially the growing (and often justified) criticism towards political parties in many parts of the EU it is not an easy task to develop a party structure. Anyone involved in party politics would ask him or herself: how do I build a party that does not fall into this trap?
For the European political parties to change from being a mere cocktail party into a ‘real’ political party, the first step is to create a membership base. The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party (ALDE Party) has been the first pan-European party to take this step and create the status of individual membership in 2011. Since then, close to 2000 members have become a direct member of the ALDE Party from Portugal to Estonia. Over 40 coordinators mobilise our ideas, initiative and expertise across the continent under the leadership of the Steering Committee, which I chair since 2014.
ALDE Party took a step further in the direction of becoming a truly pan-European party when granting voting rights to individual members’ delegates at the Party Congress last November. The creation and empowerment of individual membership is a novel route for citizens to participate directly in European politics, in developing common policies and choosing our representatives.
In post-modern politics, the role, functioning and shapes of political parties are changing. Younger generations are looking for parties that resemble grassroots movements, advocating causes and issues rather than ideology. Many disaffected citizens wish parties were more transparent, more democratic and certainly less hierarchical. Let us not repeat these mistakes and create parties that respond to citizens’ expectations. It is not only a necessity if we want to secure membership and votes, it is also the right thing to do.