Funding the 2019 European primary elections

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

The 'Spitzenkandidaten' concept, introduced in the 2014 elections, was a great success and provided the ultimate winner, Jean-Claude Juncker, with extra legitimacy. [European Parliament]

The collapse of Euro-enthusiasm, in parallel with increased Euroscepticism, has underlined the need for the “democratisation” of European elections and for an increase in the legitimacy of the European institutions and their leaders, write Dan Luca and Alina Bârg?oanu.

Dr. Dan Luca is the Senior Director of EURACTIV and also lectures on topics related to communication techniques and the European Union at VUB Brussels and SNSPA Bucharest. Dr. Alina Bârg?oanu is the Vice-Rector of the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA) and Founder of the Centre for EU Communication Studies, Bucharest. 

Even if the European Union is currently absorbed by solving urgent problems, such as the refugee crisis, the security crisis and even the euro crisis (far from over), we believe that the next European elections should take their place on the agenda of European leaders, being an opportunity to regain the lost legitimacy and trust, and to reconnect citizens with the European project.

The primary elections within the large European political parties and debates with Spitzenkandidaten in 2014 were the last innovations in the European electoral system. It was a good start, a formula that helped the debate in many EU member states. Although criticised, this electoral innovation conferred Jean-Claude Juncker an undeniably legitimate position as the head of the EU executive branch and clearly established a link between the candidate of the largest political party in the European Parliament as indicated by elections and the top EU positions. This approach also showed that there is room for improvement, because it calls for increased participation of citizens in the design and implementation of EU policies.

We aim to identify possible funding sources and design advanced funding mechanisms in order to be able to fund the communication and legitimisation efforts ahead of the 2019 elections. Three preparatory phases should be distinguished – preparations in the 2016-2017 period, primary elections within the European parties in 2018, and a round with Spitzenkandidaten in early 2019.

Before proposing concrete ideas for financing primary election, we must emphasise the need to continue, deepen and improve the mechanisms that were put into motion in 2014. The European political parties need to understand that they are the engines of these primary elections, while the European institutions are only in the co-pilot’s seat.

Financing the project preparation period (2016-2017)

It is very important that national political parties and members of the European parties participate in ample debates and make firm commitments to financing the 2019 primary elections.

The individual membership idea regarding European political parties is slowly taking shape. ALDE already has this possibility, and PES through the PES Activists’ structure is just one step forward. Besides the obvious symbolic value, this directly contributes to the European structure and may be a clear source of income for the European elections.

One of the stakeholders that can be involved at this stage of the project is the European Industrial Champions, which could create great opportunities for the involvement of the European business sector and arouse their interest in the macro and micro functioning of the EU.

Financing primary election (2018)

Primary elections in 2014 “suggested” to the European political parties which candidates to nominate for the position of the President of the Commission. The mechanisms put in place are still relatively shallow and have had only a limited impact on EU citizens so far. Most party activists were not involved in the primary elections, while certain internal procedures were preferred.

In order to promote transparency, each country should have a number of “electors” equal to the number of MEPs in the Parliament. The winning candidate has the highest number of points after the cumulative results of the 28 member countries.

It is obvious that such systems need time to develop over time. Therefore, we believe that 12 months is the optimal time span for the design and adoption of such a system. 2018 would be the perfect year to build a relationship with electorates in the member states. National political parties should be involved in this process, thus building on the awareness that their own success, and the future of the party, are at stake in these European elections.

European events surrounding the European primaries can have a strong impact on the legitimacy and credibility of the European project, therefore, national media involvement, especially of the national television networks is a must. In this context, one can imagine the possibility of providing private actors advertising space both during the actual debates between candidates, or during subsequent media shows covering the subject of European primaries.


If something went well in 2014 it was the Spitzenkandidaten system.

The language of communication is important in politics, but it is impossible, and anyway useless to expect a candidate to speak more than 20 European languages. Surely we can identify simple solutions to this lack of communication, involving, for example, simultaneous interpretation during the debates.

This period of elections may represent a peak of funding for European political parties. Beside some ideas from the first two points, which are also feasible at this stage, it may be relevant to consider other solutions. For example, a system of fundraising dinners could be easily introduced.

Another idea is that part of the communication budget for European elections at the disposal of the Parliament could be allocated to those political parties that utilise them for primary elections in a transparent and efficient manner.

Of course, there are other ways to finance the primaries in 2019. The basic idea is that European political parties should be heavily involved.

We are aware that any change which involves new rules takes a period of adjustment. European institutions have a fundamental role in managing these changes. They should identify the procedures that provide for the transparency of the whole process of financing the electoral campaigns in 2019, especially given that the expected budget for these campaigns, will be 100 times higher than in 2014.

European issues are, by nature, boring and uninteresting for viewers and listeners alike. But despite the difficulties, public communication on European policy is indisputably binding. If we have an electoral system based on European primary elections, the national media would pay more attention to European issues, including those related to the European elections, long before the effective polling day.

Multiply this by 28 national election campaigns, and we can say without any reservation that the European primaries are a gold mine for media coverage on European elections.

If Spitzenkandidaten and the European primary elections prove to be the instruments by which European elections bring about more debates in the EU, the financing of transparent communication with electorates in the member states is imperative.

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