07 März 2023

Make Europarties fit for EU democracy: Beyond the reform of the regulation

By Edoardo Bressanelli
Pixelated photo of figures in different colours representing MEPs from different parties in the Parlamentarium in Brussels
“To promote citizens’ engagement, Europarties would need to be ‘political alliances between citizens’ rather than ‘political alliances between parties’.”

The role of political parties at the level of the European Union – or, for simplicity, Europarties – is spelled out in art. 10(4) of the Treaty on the EU, where it is written that they “contribute to forming European political awareness and to expressing the will of the citizens of the Union”, and in art. 12(2) of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which underlines their ‘expressive’ function. The Europarties and the political foundations associated with them can effectively contribute to structuring “representative democracy” in the Union (as further stated by art. 10(1) of the Treaty), reinforcing the transnational dimension of public debates and of the campaigns ahead of the elections to the European Parliament (EP).

When it comes to political practice, however, Europarties are almost invisible in the broader public debate and unknown to most European citizens. A new reform currently under discussion in the EU institutions aims to strengthen their political role. But will that be enough?

A long history

Currently, there are ten Europarties and as many foundations registered with the Authority for European political parties and foundations. Some of them have a relatively long history. The European People’s Party – for a couple of decades, the only Europarty to label itself as a “party” – was founded in 1976. The Confederation of Socialist Parties of the European Community (later Party of the European Socialists) and the Federation of Liberal and Democratic Parties (then Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe Party) were also established in the run-up to the first direct elections for the EP. Some other Europarties have much more recent histories and, particularly on the right side of the political spectrum, the Europarty landscape has been very fluid.

The Europarties were formally recognized by art. 138A of the Maastricht Treaty and, over the following three decades, have strongly consolidated within the EU legal framework. Regulation 2004/2003 introduced a mixed funding regime while Regulation 1524/2007 established political foundations, complementing the activity of the Europarties, and spelt out the rules for their funding.

The EU invests significant resources on Europarties

Currently, the Europarties together receive around €43 million and their foundations around €23 million from the EU budget. Since Regulation 2004/2003 came into effect, there has been a constant increase in the annual quota of public money allocated to the Europarties, which now receive practically as many financial resources as the political groups in the EP (cf. Wolfs 2022, pp. 55-56). Considering that in the 1990s most Europarties were still based in the EP and necessitated of the staff and financial support of its groups to ‘survive’, this is clearly a very remarkable development.

The quota of EU funding received by the Europarties has progressively increased. While the original regulation set it at 75% of their budget, Regulation 1524/2007 moved it up to 85% for both Europarties and political foundations. Regulation 1141/2014 – as amended in 2018 – consolidated this trend, bringing the quota of EU money to 90% for the Europarties and 95% for foundations.

The registration (and de-registration) of the Europarties is managed by the independent Authority, which ensures that they fulfil a number of requirements set out in the regulation. With all evidence, the EU has invested significant resources on the Europarties, and continues to do so. The Europarties, however, have not always made good use of such resources and, particularly on the Eurosceptic right of the political spectrum, have occasionally used EU funds to (illegally) finance national party activities.

Reform is back on the agenda

Thirty years after Maastricht, and twenty years after the approval of Regulation 2004/2003, reforming the Europarties is back on the EU agenda. It is listed among the priorities of the Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen – in particular, in its sixth priority: “a new impetus for European democracy” – and has been accompanied by debates and recommendations by the new EP, which took office following the elections of May 2019.

In the Resolution of 26 November 2020, taking stock of the last round of elections, the EP proposed amending the regulation to allow the Europarties to “fully participate in the European political space, to campaign, to be able to use campaign funds and stand in European elections, to increase the transparency of their funding” (paragraph 29). Evidently, there are still clear limits to the role of the Europarties in the EU political system, preventing them from effectively carrying out that ‘expressive’ function formally attributed to them by both the Lisbon Treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Europarties are unknown to most citizens

In fact, despite the successive regulatory reforms, the Europarties are still little known by European citizens. In 2014, an AECR/AMR post-election poll – based on more than 12,000 adults across 15 EU countries – indicated that only about 8 percent of the interviewees could name Jean-Claude Juncker, back then the presidential candidate of the EPP. Less than 30 percent of all respondents knew the names of the largest Europarties: more specifically, 27.2% the PES, 26.1% the European Green Party (EGP) and 24.4% the EPP.

More recently, the European Commission’s report on the 2020 public consultation on the Action Plan for European Democracy showed that a very large majority (91%) of respondents – despite being, most probably, more knowledgeable on the subject than the average EU citizen – believe that the role of the Europarties in the EU political system could and should be better explained. Furthermore, 84% support measures that enhance the transparency of their funding and 77% would appreciate more clarity regarding the relationship between Europarties and national (member) parties. As Isabelle Hertner clearly put it: “the Europarties are still unknown to most European voters. Few will have heard their names, or would recognize their symbols” (2018, p. 33).

The reform proposal of the European Commission

In order to strengthen the Europarties and address shortcomings in the current regulatory framework,  the European Commission presented a proposal for a new (recast) regulation in November 2021, which is currently (February 2023) under examination by the co-legislators. The Commission’s legislative proposal makes some punctual changes to the current regulation (for a more comprehensive assessment, see Bressanelli 2022).

Among the most significant, it allows the Europarties to receive contributions from political parties in third countries, insofar as they belong to the Council of Europe. This change is not without risks (Russia, for example, was a member of the Council of Europe until mid-March last year), and several member states in the Council of the EU have expressed concerns. But it was loudly requested both by the EP and by various stakeholders, arguing that the Europarties have an important role to play in preparing parties and elites in candidate countries to membership and should therefore maintain formal relationships with non-member states as well as former member states like the UK.

Strengthening Europarties as campaign organisations

Moreover, so far Europarties have only been allowed to finance campaigns for the EP elections. With the Commission proposal, they will be able to expand their role also in campaigns for national referendums with a focus on the implementation of the Treaties or, according to the broader wording proposed in an EP amendment, for all referendums concerning “European issues”.

This is an important change, broadening the role of the Europarties as campaign organisations. Had it been already in force in 2016, they would have been able to play a role, for example, in the Brexit referendum.

Demanding respect for the EU’s fundamental values

Another important amendment concerns the respect for the EU’s fundamental values. According to the current regulation, Europarties are required to endorse the values listed in art. 2 of the Treaty on the European Union. If they fail to do so – let me stress: as Europarties – they can be sanctioned by the Authority and ultimately de-registered.

With the new regulation, compliance is not only required to the Europarties, but also to their national member parties. If any member party does not comply, the Authority can start the non-compliance procedure against the Europarty. Clearly, the membership of the Hungarian governing party Fidesz in the EPP (which, of course, has now been terminated) comes to mind as a possible case for the application of the new norm.

Moving towards an entirely public funding regime

Finally – leaving aside other important changes for the promotion of gender parity, the display of the Europarty logo on the national party websites and the simplification of some administrative procedures – the funding system takes a further step towards an entirely public regime, with 95% of the revenues of the Europarties coming from the EU budget, and even 100% in the years of the EP elections. This is a change addressing the pleas of all Europarties – not only the smallest and least institutionalised – to support them reaching the co-funding quota.

With a larger share of EU funds available, matching them with an additional (although relatively small) quota of co-funding has proved challenging and, as a matter of fact, whenever the Europarties are not able to match the EU funds, the latter are reduced accordingly. The legislative proposal by the European Commission – which, incidentally, has effectively taken into account most of the requests made by the EP and the Europarties themselves – makes them less exposed to financial fluctuations.

More internal democracy through individual membership?

Despite such (potential) changes, which are sometimes important and long overdue, there is a lack of more radical proposals on the governance of the Europarties and their internal democracy. Without doubt, there are good reasons to avoid excessive prescriptiveness with respect to the internal organisation of the Europarties: the recommendations of the Venice Commission of the Council of Europe go, in fact, in this direction. However, the new regulation could introduce incentives to push Europarties to be more inclusive (and democratic).

Individual membership of Europarties by citizens of the Union is currently quite exceptional and membership remains, by and large, a national party membership. Only the Party of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe has implemented something deserving the label of ‘individual membership’ (rather than ‘diminished’ membership types such as ‘supporters’ or ‘activists’), but its membership figures – with less than 1,000 members in 2021, according to official data published on the EP website – are rather disappointing.

By providing financial incentives to those Europarties that introduce or strengthen the possibility of individual membership, the EU could push them to open up to broader forms of participation and to cultivate their relationship with EU citizens. The current elite-driven Europarties would gradually develop a grass-root and possibly become better known and more visible actors in the member states.

Lead candidates selection is tightly controlled by party elites

The selection of the lead candidates for the European Commission presidency – the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process – provides a clear illustration of the way Europarties work. Despite the absence of any legal constraint, all Europarties have selected their lead candidates, both in the 2014 and the 2019 election rounds, using ‘exclusive’ decision-making procedures controlled by the national party elites.

Only the European Green Party opted for a primary election in 2014, open to all citizens who supported the values of the EGP. The disappointing outcome – with only 23,000 citizens casting their vote out of million potential voters – subsequently pushed the party in a different direction, however: in 2019, the selection of its lead candidates was controlled by its Council, where delegates of the national member parties decide.

Rather than reaching out to supporters and citizens and involve them in the selection of party candidates for the top EU executive office, all Europarties run internal selection procedures that are tightly controlled by the national party elites.

A more public funding system will distance Europarties from citizens

On top of it, the consolidation of an almost entirely public (i.e., EU-based) funding system binds the Europarties even more to Brussels and its institutions (and particularly to the EP, given that the funds are mostly distributed on the basis of the number of parliamentary seats obtained by the national member parties). This will further increase the Europarties’ distance from civil society and the national level.

Successive reforms of the regulation have displayed a clear trend: the share of public funding has been progressively strengthened, going up from 75% of the Europarty revenues with the first regulation to 95% (and 100% in EP election years) with the latest proposal. On the one hand, this creates a welcome financial stability. On the other hand, however, the need to find a share of resources from financiers (through donations) or from membership (mainly from national parties, or occasionally from individuals, in the form of contributions) somehow ‘forced’ the Europarties to interact with civil society in the member states, moving them out of the Brussels ‘bubble’.

In this sense, the new proposed regulation does not push the Europarties to become less “introverted” organisations, to use Richard Rose’s effective definition.

Nothing prevents the Europarties from involving citizens more

Here we come, however, to the most crucial point. The new regulation, despite addressing several important shortcomings in the current regulation, could certainly be bolder and more assertive on internal party democracy. However, it should be stressed that there are no obstacles of a legal nature, either now or in the recent past, preventing the Europarties from involving European citizens more, and more substantially.

The Europarties conduct an electoral campaign in the 27 member states of the Union and select their Spitzenkandidaten as they see fit. If the reform of the European electoral law, already approved by the EP, were to be approved by the Council of the EU (which, at the time of writing, is by no means guaranteed), the Europarties would also be asked to manage transnational lists, from which 28 MEPs would then be elected. In this case, it would be crucial that the European voters, when called upon to choose the new EP in the late spring of 2024, perceive the added value of transnational lists. Otherwise, the concrete risk is that this innovation becomes a boomerang for parties at the EU level.

To engage citizens, a new regulation is not enough

To promote citizens’ electoral participation in and engagement with EU politics, the Europarties would be required to be, taking up the letter of the regulation now in force, “political alliances between parties and/or citizens” (emphasis added) while, up to now, they remain umbrella organisations or, substantially if not formally, “political alliances between parties”.

For this change to take effect, however, a new regulation is not enough. It will require bold political choices on the part of those national party elites who, for all too predictable reasons, so far maintain their control over the Europarties and resist democratic change.

This contribution is part of the thematic forum “Supranational governance between diplomacy and democracy – current debates on EU reform”, published in cooperation with the online magazine Regierungsforschung.de.

Picture: Figures in the Parlamentarium: Like_the_Grand_Canyon [CC BY-NC 2.0], via Flickr (cropped); portrait Edoardo Bressanelli: private [all rights reserved]; EU flag: Arno Mikkor (EU2017EE) [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr.

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