A moment of truth for European political parties

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

European political parties are largely ignored but they have vast untapped potential to play a major role in EU decision making, argue Alina Bârgăoanu and Dan Luca. [Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock]

European political parties are largely ignored but they have vast untapped potential to play a major role in EU decision making and in giving the EU more democratic legitimacy, argue Alina Bârgăoanu and Dan Luca.

Alina Bârgăoanu is the Dean of the Faculty of Communication and Public Relations (SNSPA) in Bucharest, and a member of the advisory board of the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO); Dan Luca is an associate professor at SNSPA, and vice president of EURACTIV.

Little interest is given to European political parties in the European Union. Apart from confusing a European party with the political group in the European Parliament or possibly noticing it about six months before the European Parliament elections, little can be said about the life of European political parties.

By definition, a political party is an organization that seeks to gain political power for governing purposes, usually by running in elections, by participating in the election campaign. Electoral campaigns are thus situations to gain public support, build legitimacy, and cultivate trust, which are essential ingredients for the actual governing process that follows.

We recognize these mechanisms for national or even local elections, but we certainly do not have anything similar at a European or international level. Formally speaking, European parties have existed for decades, but they participate in European elections only indirectly, through affiliated members, i.e. national political parties.

In addition, let’s be honest: it is already difficult for us to recall the names of European ministers (European Commissioners), let alone the leaders of European political parties.

Without the capacity to participate in elections, without communication means and high profile actors, without pan-European narratives and political programs in response to pan-European problems, can political parties have an impact on the European decision-making process, and on the construction of the EU?

We believe the potential of European parties to be enormous, but only under certain conditions. Given that those who govern the 27 member states of the European Union are connected to the structures of European parties, it is important to deepen cooperation within the same political family.

But difficult political issues must be addressed in complex areas, such as finance, technology, education, energy or climate change. Everything is to be analysed in real time, and political decisions are to be made by qualified majority, not by unanimity.

Only in this way can we hope to have an approach that is consistent with that at the European Council level and thus make real progress in the European construction.

Certain developments at the level of European parties or groups in the European Parliament are highly significant as to where the EU is likely going.

Few people still remember it, but the withdrawal of British Conservatives from the European People’s Party group in 2009 and the formation of the ECR group (Group of European Conservatives and Reformists) were a catalyst for Brexit.

The launch of the Conference on the Future of Europe marks a turning point in the life of the Union. In this context, the question that we ask relates to the role of European political parties in this consultation, in this legitimacy-building exercise.

This is a huge opportunity that political parties should take advantage of for the wellbeing of European citizens.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything, and citizens are no longer patient with politicians explaining, in a technical and detached manner, that they are not responsible for the unfolding of this event, or of other similarly complex ones, that have a concrete and direct impact on the life of each and every one of us.

For the past 12 months, the European Commission has set an example by successfully getting involved in the management of the health crisis without having actual competences on health policy.

According to recent Euro-barometers, citizens have endorsed this approach, being aware that, in order to solve such complex and pressing issues, EU-wide cooperation is needed.

As we learned before the pandemic and as the pandemic has dramatically underlined, today’s complex problems go well beyond the national borders, sometimes even beyond the borders of the European Union itself.

Without the involvement of European parties in these debates, without them being connected to the concerns of European citizens, it is likely that the European Union will constantly face the criticism that it lacks legitimacy, that it is a technocratic construction largely disconnected from people’s real needs, with no capacity to reverse the national-European divergence into a converging force that drives it forward.

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