The EU could be on the verge of a step towards real Europarty democracy

European (transnational) political parties – Europarties – have suffered from a lack of political influence in the European Union. Diogo Vieira Ferreira argues that dealing with the EU’s democratic deficit requires higher political (party) competition at the EU level. The direct suffrage of MEPs via transnational lists is a tiny, but required, step

Why do Europarties fail?

Whether or not we think that Europarties matter, a key question is how current transnational party federations can become true political parties similar to their national party counterparts. That matters because it would go some way to tackling their institutional deficiency.

Arguably, a functioning democracy, more specifically representative democracy, requires the existence of political parties and party competition. The emergence of a European democratic identity, and European democracy in general, likely facilitated the practices of democratic competition and institutionalised cooperation through a supranational party system.

European Union leaders are always attempting to develop EU representative democracy using national-level institutions as a benchmark. The introduction of political parties at EU level was therefore almost inevitable. And so, the inaugural European parliamentary elections in 1979 saw the introduction of the first Europarties. Nowadays we have ten registered Europarties, two of which dominate the voting plenaries based on their greatest number of seats. These are the European People's Party (EPP) and the Party of European Socialists (PES).

While Europarties allow the EU to develop representative democracy, in practice they fail because their visibility is insignificant in the European Parliament

In theory, Europarties act as transnational federations. They are composed of national parties or individual members, representing the variety of interests and policy positions of member-state citizens. In practice, however, inter-party competition is lacklustre, and merely paves the way for grand EPP and PES coalitions in the European Parliament. Yet Europarties' visibility is insignificant because, during EP elections, national parties campaign, and MEPs are nominated, via national candidate selection. Citizens therefore vote for national candidates on what is effectively a nationwide ballot.

Transnational lists: will 2024 trigger Europarty evolution?

For the above reasons, European parliamentary elections have always been regarded as second-order national elections. Europarties receive much less visibility in party campaigning, and barely any European citizens know that these transnational federations exist.

This is evident when we look at the adoption of the so-called Spitzenkandidaten process back in 2014 and 2019, which allowed Europarties to nominate candidates for the role of European Commission president. News coverage and citizen awareness of Spitzenkandidaten was low, and ballot voting focused stubbornly on national candidates.

Recently, however, there has been a new proposal to reform electoral procedures. In May 2022, the European Parliament approved the direct suffrage of 28 MEPs via transnational lists for the 2024 European Parliamentary elections. This means that, for the first time in the history of European elections, and for any election held in Europe, not only we will vote for national candidates, but also for candidates directly nominated by European political parties. In other words, we will vote for purely European (transnational) candidates.

The new proposal's conditions are essential for strengthening Europarties at electoral level. They also ensure the mistakes of the Spitzenkandidaten process are not repeated

The proposal comes with conditions vital for strengthening Europarties at the electoral level. These include transforming the European elections into a single Union-wide constituency, and increasing the visibility of the Europarties and their candidates through media campaigns, on ballot papers and in all election materials.

The proposal also calls for Europarty funding for campaign materials, whether through the EU budget or national provisions. All European voters would thus be able to vote for their preferred EC presidential candidate. Moreover, lead candidates would be able to stand in all member states on Union-wide lists, nominated by a European political party.

The transition may be slow, but the future's bright

The newly accepted transnational lists are a long-overdue EU institutional and electoral reform. The reform of Europarties and the support of an EU-wide party system prompted frequent, though not constant, debates and discussions among pro-Europeans and anti-Europeans alike. If EU leaders wish to reform electoral activities within EP elections to increase turnout and improve Europarty visibility, transnational lists will constitute a good test.

The Spitzenkandidaten project failed because it was never provided for in the treaties, never had the full support of the EU Council, and was not even voted for in plenary. The winning candidate in 2019's EP elections, Manfred Weber, won without the majority support of Europarties or national leaders.

With the introduction of MEPs' direct suffrage, there is light at the end of the EU’s democratic tunnel. A true party system requires cooperation and competition among political parties. Their interactions together, in the form of campaigning or party manifestos, provide citizens with a vast array of policy choices.

An EU-level party system needs Europarties to generate competition between themselves in order to increase overall citizen engagement

A competitive – not just cooperative – party system can influence levels of turnout and overall citizen engagement during elections. As such, an EU-level party system needs the Europarties (and their political groups in the EP) to provide a level of competition that affects the political outcomes of the EU and attracts voters' attention, something that the Spitzenkandidaten mechanism, for example, barely even did.

If the Council votes unanimously for the direct suffrage of MEPs, we will witness the emergence of true political parties at the EU level. This might alleviate more than just the EU's democratic deficit. It might also show EU citizens why they should care about Europarties. This is a slow, elementary but essential step for EU democracy.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Diogo Vieira Ferreira
Diogo Vieira Ferreira
PhD Candidate, University of Beira Interior, Portugal, in conjuction with the University of Aveiro, Portugal

Diogo has collaborated on projects related to the European parliamentary elections and the effects of media campaigns on the politicisation of the European Union.

He also writes ocasionally for Diario dos Açores, a regional newspaper from the Azores Islands.

His main areas of research are European election studies, democracy in the European Union and comparative party politics.

He tweets @FerreiraVDiogo

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