European Primary Elections: Step it up, ahead of 2019

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

TellEurope Presidential Debate Brussels, 15 May 2014. Organised by EBU, hosted at the European Parliament. Candidates: Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz, Guy Verhofstadt, Ska Keller, Alexis Tsipras

TellEurope Presidential Debate Brussels, 15 May 2014. Organised by EBU, hosted at the European Parliament. Candidates: Jean-Claude Juncker, Martin Schulz, Guy Verhofstadt, Ska Keller, Alexis Tsipras [Laurens Cerulus / EURACTIV]

Now is the time to start the debate on how to better organise the 2019 European primary elections and Spitzenkandidaten system, especially in light of the forthcoming European political party congresses later this year, argue Dan Luca and Dominique Ostyn.

Dr. Dan LUCA is the Director of the Brussels based EURACTIV Institute. He also lectures on topics related to communication techniques and the European Union at VUB Brussels and SNSPA Bucharest. Dominique Ostyn is the Director of Communications at EURACTIV. He managed EURACTIV’s partnerships with the Presidential Debates in the lead up to 2014 European Elections. EURACTIV was the only media to be associated with the three main televised debates.

The elections to the European Parliament are still highly dominated by national electoral rules and national debates, despite the fact that the Treaty of Rome in 1957 already envisaged the possibility for the elaboration of a uniform electoral procedure based on direct universal suffrage.

The primary elections in several European political parties and the Spitzenkandidaten debates in 2014 were the latest innovations in this context. They were a good ‘first run’ and helped shape the debate in many EU member states, especially those with a contending Lead Candidate, or where national media covered the overall process and televised presidential debates.

The new system is not without its critics but it uncontestably landed Jean-Claude Juncker at the helm of the EU’s executive. The link between the lead candidate from the biggest EP political party after the elections and EU’s top job has clearly been established. But it also showed that there is room for improvement, especially if this system is to help citizens to better connect with EU policymaking.

European parties have a responsibility to the European citizens. It’s a real responsibility to propose mechanisms for connection, whether primary elections, Spitzenkandidaten or better transparency in internal party mechanisms.

At a recent EURACTIV Institute roundtable debate senior representatives of political parties and political foundations indicated – in large majority – that they wanted to see the new system go forward, while pointing to a number of shortcomings that would need to be addressed.

And the debate within the European institutions has also started. Danuta Hubner and Jo Leinen, two members of the European Parliament, are jointly drafting a report on EU electoral law reform due for a plenary vote in October this year.

One year on from the 2014 elections, and well ahead of the next elections in 2019, now is the time to start asking the questions that should be debated by the European political foundations and the European political parties, especially in light of their forthcoming congresses later this year (i.e. PES in June, EPP in October and ALDE in November).

Here are the points that should be addressed:

  • Establishing a framework in which transnational political parties can attract funding to allow them to run pan-European campaigns. Some national parties have funds up to 100 times higher than their European party equivalents. Direct membership to the European parties or lump sum campaign budgets from the Community budget are two possible, non-exclusive ways;
  • Agreeing on a system of Transnational lists to represent the European dimension in the European electoral system, for it to be confirmed in the next round of EU Treaty change;
  • Harmonising the voting systems in Europe on several points, i.e. to take into account common procedures for EU citizens to vote from abroad and to avoid double voting;
  • Setting a clear timetable with deadlines for lists at national level, Lead Candidate nominations, primary elections and lead candidate debates;
  • Defining of the term Lead Candidates, with minimum standards on who can stand and how they are nominated.

Let’s be honest, it would be a shame if in 2019 we realise that a lack of preparation had caused us to miss a chance to improve the European Primaries and Spitzenkanditen system. Putting the respective European political party logos on the European Election ballot papers, as suggested by some, is a good idea but clearly not enough to unlock the full potential of EU democracy.

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