Why the EU is witnessing the birth of real European politics
Despite 60 years of union there are no real cross-border parties. But times are changing
There is a problem with European elections: they are not very European. When EU citizens go to the polls this month, they will vote under national electoral laws, for candidates representing national parties, campaigning on domestic issues.
The “Europarties” the newly elected MEPs will join are not parties at all but loose, often fractious coalitions, so a vote for Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party also amounts to a vote for the far-right populists of Fidesz – unless the Hungarian nationalist party is finally expelled from the European centre-right group, EPP, to which both belong.
More than 60 years of European union have, in short, signally failed to create anything that might reasonably be called a European political space.
“European democracy is still, basically, the sum of the EU’s national democracies,” said Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at the HEC business school in Paris who has been studying and advocating for truly transnational parties for more than two decades.
“We don’t yet have a European politics – there’s no real pan-European public opinion, no transnational political debate or dialogue on the issues that affect our common interests as Europeans – unemployment, the environment, migration, data protection. But as the need increases, it’s starting to come.”
Previous attempts at a cross-border European politics have made little progress. In the early 2000s, the Greens began working towards a pan-European network, fielding candidates outside their home countries. In 2009 the Newropeans, a short-lived mini-party, won a grand total of 36,871 votes in the Netherlands, Germany and France.
But progressives are now trying too. Imagined the day after the Brexit referendum by Colombe Cahen-Salvador, now 25, a French human rights lawyer, her partner, Andrea Venzon, 27, an Italian consultant, and a German friend, Damian Boeselager, 30, a pro-European group called Volt hopes to become the first true pan-EU party to win seats in the parliament.
National parties “completely fail” on the European level, said Venzon. “At any EU election meeting in any member state, the discussion will be 90% national issues and 10% how the EU must change to better serve national interests. National interests always come first, even in pro-European parties.”
Entirely crowd-funded, Volt claims 25,000 members, aged from 14 to 92, in 32 countries. It is registered as a political party in 12 and will field candidates in eight, said Cahen-Salvador. Supporters spent 18 months debating its policies bottom-up, online and in meetups before agreeing a platform in Amsterdam late last year.
Nothing if not ambitious, its goals include “fixing the EU” by allowing MEPs to propose laws and member states to decide by majority rather than unanimous vote, and ensuring the bloc’s funds are invested to make a palpable difference to ordinary Europeans’ lives – in education and infrastructure, to create jobs.
Other groups are attempting similar exercises. The left-leaning European Spring, headed by Greece’s former finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, its lead candidate in Berlin, is a coalition of small, radical national parties rather than a single pan-European party but will nonetheless present a single reformist programme – a “New Deal for Europe” – to the EU electorate.
Also standing on a common platform in more than one EU country is a rather different kind of group: Génération Identitaire, which bills itself as “a political movement for young people from all across Europe … fighting mass immigration and the Islamisation of Europe” and has made headlines staging anti-immigration stunts in the southern Alps and the Mediterranean.
No matter how they fare, however, the energetic young activists behind Volt – who will do well to win more than a couple of seats – will have performed miracles by getting even as far as they have, because single pan-European parties are made all but impossible by the tangled web of differing national electoral law across the EU.
In Italy, 150,000 signatures, including at least 3,000 in each region, are required to run in European elections, all authenticated on the spot by a notary. In France, a party must pass a 5% threshold to win seats – but even more dauntingly, it must pay the cost of printing its ballot papers: €800,000-€1m.
In Denmark, 70,000-odd signatures must be collected no later than eight weeks before the election – but EU nationals can only register to vote 12 weeks before the date. Portugal may demand just 7,500 signatures, but all – along with the new party’s statutes and mission statement – must be approved by the constitutional court.
And in Britain, where Volt managed a respectable 4.2% in Manchester local elections this month, Venzon is having to stand as an independent in London because, 10 weeks after filing its application, the movement still has not been formally recognised as a political party by the Electoral Commission.
Despite determined attempts in more than a dozen countries, Volt is fielding candidates only in Sweden, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Flemish-speaking Belgium, Luxembourg, Spain and Bulgaria. “It’s crazy,” said Cahen-Salvador. “These laws are massive obstacles to a European democracy. They need to be harmonised.”
The party is, however, likely to benefit from a civic society that is slowly but surely becoming more Europeanised. Springing up often over the past two or three years in the wake of Brexit and strong performances by far-right parties in elections in the Netherlands and France, initiatives such as Stand up for Europe and Pulse of Europe have mobilised large numbers in defence of the European project.
“I’ve campaigned in 15 or 15 European countries and there’s no doubt people feel the cross-border fears, hopes and challenges are the same all over,” said Volt’s Venzon. “Jobs, the environment … the basis is so clearly there for a real, functioning European democracy – but the structure just isn’t. Not yet.”
For Alemanno, we are “finally in at the birth of a European political space. It’s slow, it’s hesitant, it’s painful, it’s repeatedly being knocked back by national politics, nobody knows what form it will eventually take … And it will include anti-Europeans, for sure. But it is clearly developing.”