For Tamara Ehs Europe is not only facing a fundamental decision on its future direction but also the first truly European election. Parties from all across the political landscape are pushing for transnational dialogue – albeit with divergent objectives.
Tamara Ehs is a political scientist and head of IG Demokratie (Austria). She developed the “Democracy Repair Café”, bringing together citizens and politicians in new conversational formats. @Tamara_Ehs
Originally published in “Furche”, an Austrian weekly newspaper founded in
“This time I’m voting” is the motto of the elections to the European Parliament, expressing tentative optimism rather than a steadfast belief in the strength of democracy. For although the Parliament has steadily gained influence in the political structure of the EU, citizen support has been declining. In Austria, only 45% of the electorate cast their ballot in the last EU elections (2014). Slovakia was in last place in Europe, with only 13% of voters going to the polls. In order to counter this downward trend, this year the European Parliament supports activities by civil society organisations that encourage people to vote under the aforementioned motto. The best known of the pro-European movements is probably the Pulse of Europe initiative, founded in 2016. In response to the Brexit referendum and the rise of anti-European parties, the initiative has motivated thousands of people to take to the streets and demonstrate for a united Europe. It symbolically anticipated what is at the heart of the 2019 European Parliament elections: a fundamental choice of course for Europe based on the question “Where do you stand with Europe?”
However, the most significant visions for the future of the EU no longer come from established parties, but rather from new transnational parties and alliances, which have been drawing crowds as a consequence of the events of recent years and the perceived lack of democracy on the European level. While parties of the far-right are united in their resistance to the concept of supranationality and push for renationalisation; pro-European alliances advocate a strengthening of the EU through democratisation. What they both have in common is that their pan-European activities reflect the emergence of a transnational European public sphere that had not yet existed during the 2014 European Parliament elections. Since then, we have experienced the EU more intensely than ever before, mainly in the light of its (dys)functionalities. To name a few examples: the tug-of-war between Greece and the Eurogroup, which was less about economic reason than about the political risk that the rebellion against austerity policy could spread. The “Summer of Refugees”, which revealed a crisis of solidarity and of EU border policy; resulting in nationalist parties gaining votes and becoming government members. Last but not least the vote to leave the Union in the United Kingdom, which highlighted the European public sphere’s defencelessness against disinformation campaigns.
The current election campaign is seen by some as a “Kulturkampf” between opposing political blocks, with the party system standing on the verge of a fundamental reorganisation. Either way, we are witnessing the most European election that Europe has ever seen. For the above mentioned events have not only led to the formation of a common public sphere with regard to grassroots movements, but parties of all colours are also spurring a transnational dialogue – albeit with diverging objectives.
It had almost come to the point of changing the electoral law to reflect this development, allowing transnational electoral lists to be formed. After the 2014 reform, when the spitzenkandidates conducted a Europe-wide election campaign for the first time, Social Democrats, Greens and Liberals proposed to let voters to elect candidates on transnational lists in an EU-wide constituency. After all, European Parliament members are already seated in Parliament based on their membership in one of the political groups, and not their nationality. According to the proposal, the 73 mandates to be freed up by Brexit in particular should have been earmarked for transnational lists. But the majority of the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) and right-wing parties rejected the idea because they feared alienation between European Parliament members and voters.
However, this setback on the road to transnational democracy has not prevented newly founded pan-European movements from forming transnational lists. The pioneering electoral alliances Volt and European Spring are both entering the race explicitly as “Europe’s first transnational party”. While they must comply with European law like any other party, they are adding candidates from other Member States to their national lists. European Spring is based on the DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) initiative launched in 2016 by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister and political whistleblower and has its own ‘electoral wing’ in seven countries. While the German Jochen Schult is leading the ‘electoral wing’ MeRA25 in Greece, Varoufakis heads the list of Democracy in Europe in Germany. In second place of the joint list is the Austrian Daniela Platsch, who is the political director of the party Wandel in Germany. In Austria, however, constituents can neither vote for European Spring, nor for Volt. The movement, which was founded in 2016 partly in reaction to Brexit, is now registered as a party in 13 EU countries. However, it has only made it onto the ballot in eight countries – including the UK, with the Italian Volt founder Andrea Venzon as their top candidate.
While Daniela Platsch as an Austrian national could be elected to the European Parliament by the German constituency, it is possible that Angelika Mlinar, who had previously been a European Parliament member of the Austrian Liberal Party Neos, would this time win a mandate on the list of Slovenian liberals. The Austrian Communist Party KPÖ, on the other hand, will compete with the Greek Katerina Anastasiou at the top of their list. This is how these parties live up – at least to some extent – to their aim of establishing a genuine transnational European democracy, as stated in their party manifesto. The slogan of DiEM25 – “Europe will be democratised or it will disintegrate” – could become a warning for the next legislative period, as both pro-Europeans and Europhobes complain that political decision-making has shifted to the supranational level, where a considerable democratic deficit still prevails. Right-wing authors oppose this development, pushing instead for a strong nation-state in a “Europe of the Fatherlands”. Others promote a genuine right of initiative for the European Parliament and demand Europe-wide referendums. The reshaping of Europe is also a popular demand, e.g. by convening a constitutional convention as a European Citizens’ Assembly, formed by citizens nominated randomly by lot.
This transnationalisation of politics has so far been only advocated by the left and liberal political spectrum, culminating in 2016 in the establishment of a US-style Progressive Caucus at the European Parliament to improve cooperation. Surprisingly, even the far right-wing seems to endorse transnational strategies to some point: while it does not have transnational lists, it is building a pan-European alliance that could lead to tectonic shifts within the European Parliament. At Matteo Salvini’s initiative, an agreement was made in April to establish the European Alliance of Peoples and Nations as a new Political Group in the European Parliament. This nationalist International is meant to form a united right-wing block, binding together three factions. This would mean that Rassemblement National, Lega, FPÖ, PiS and AfD, among others, would for the first time be in a joint political group. Viktor Orbán is also invited to join the alliance – after all, the EPP has suspended his membership. If Fidesz were to switch to the new political group, the Alliance’s chances to become the second strongest power in the European Parliament would be even higher than predicted. Behind the scenes we find Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s former chief strategist. Based in Brussels, he runs a network called The Movement for extreme right-wing parties and provides them with media analyses, strategies and, above all, financial funds.
This presumed shift of power could give the anti-European alliance a blocking minority – in particular if the other political groups cannot find a common ground. This would further paralyse the EU and abet the argument that renationalisation is necessary. The primary goal of the transnational right is no longer withdrawal from the EU, but the takeover of its institutions, and the reformation as well as deformation of the European Union. Therefore, this election is about nothing less than the future face of Europe.