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Pan-European Parties in a Time of Resurgent Nationalism

May 16, 2019
by
Caspar Kolster
Henrik von Homeyer
3 min read
In the past, European Parliament elections failed to mobilize a large part of the electorate and were often regarded as second-tier national elections, but this year’s contest might be different.

In the past, European Parliament elections failed to mobilize a large part of the electorate and were often regarded as second-tier national elections, but this year’s contest might be different. Europe is witnessing a transnationalization of the parliamentary elections. While the political center has been weakening and anti-establishment parties have been gaining ground across the continent, pan-European policy debates have become more prominent and new pan-European parties have emerged, suggesting that Europe has the potential to outgrow its various nationalisms. For the first time, Europeans have a chance to vote for very different visions for the EU championed by veritable pan-European parties.

For the first time, Europeans have a chance to vote for very different visions for the EU championed by veritable pan-European parties.

The leftist DiEM25/European Spring strives for fundamental democratic reform of the EU; VOLT has managed to mobilize particularly younger activists across the continent with a simple, pro-European and “post-ideological” message; and the alliance between French President Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche and the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) campaigns on a progressive, pro-Europe platform. DiEM25/European Spring is a mix of traditional Europarty and new pan-European movement while VOLT might be the most genuinely pan-European of the new actors on the scene. Both seek to fundamentally reform and democratize the EU, because they believe that the structural problems within the union can be solved by “pan-European” policies.

These new pan-European parties distinguish themselves from the traditional Europarties such as the European Peoples’ Party or the Socialist and Democrats when it comes to their discourse and agenda setting, and to their party incentives and structures. They are different from traditional Europarties in that they have a centralized leadership at the European level and coordinate their political activity Europe-wide rather than nationally or through a coalition of parties.

These parties face considerable odds to achieve even minimal electoral success, and they suffer from many disadvantages in competing with the long established, well known, and well-resourced national parties and Europarties. Nonetheless they could take advantage of the particularities of European Parliament elections and of the variation in electoral systems across member states to enhance their chances of winning seats. Even if their electoral chances are slim, except for the En Marche/ALDE alliance, the key question is whether the new pan-European parties can still perform well enough to shape the future of European politics. They may not achieve electoral success this time around, but they are introducing important new elements to European politics. Their messages are explicitly pan-European, making it clear that groups of citizens can share interests across borders, and that European elections can be contests about shared European concerns rather than a continuation of national politics in a different arena.

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