Rule change to allow euro-parties to campaign in domestic referendums
MEPs have backed a change to rules governing euro-parties - the 'meta-political-parties' or umbrella organisations that bring together the various national political parties of more or less a similar ideological flavour - allowing them to spend money on domestic referendums.
Until now, the European Parliament has maintained a strict firewall between European campaign spending, delivering europarty money to candidates and domestic political parties to help individuals get elected to the chamber.
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Since 2008, europarties, including the centre-right European People's Party, the centre-left Party of European Socialists and the middle-ground European Liberal Democrat and Reform Party, have been able to use some of their funding to finance "campaigns conducted ... in the context of the elections to the European Parliament," according to funding regulations.
However, europarties have been prohibited from using these sums to finance referendum campaigns, due, according to an explanation found in an early draft of the rule-changes, to "a concern that European parties and foundations could interfere in the domestic affairs of member states."
But under a report overhauling the rules governing europarties, backed this week by the chamber's Constitutional Affairs committee, this prohibition is to be lifted in cases where domestic referendums have "a direct link" with EU subjects.
The document reads: "If European political parties are to play a political role at EU level, they should have the right to participate in such campaigns as long as the subject of the referendum has a direct link with issues concerning the European Union."
The rule change is not an abstract point. Three days ago in the UK, a cross-party group of politicians, including former MEP and now domestic Green Party leader Caroline Lucas, Labour's ex-Europe-minister Keith Vaz and Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith, launched a campaign for a referendum on the country's membership of the EU.
Calling itself "The People's Pledge", the campaign is asking voters to sign a pledge that they will only support candidates at the next general election who back a binding popular referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU or leave.
Caroline Lucas, now an MP for Brighton Pavilion, told EUobserver: "We think there are benefits to being part of the EU – for example, the chance to develop effective laws on protecting the environment, workers' rights and fundamental human rights. But we also think the EU shouldn't exercise too much control over things like our economy or our justice system ... I support an EU referendum not because I'm anti-EU – I'm not – but because I'm pro democracy."
Nigel Farage, the leader of Britain's conservative eurosceptic party, Ukip, accused those behind the rule change of wanting the EU to be able to funnel public subsidies to the Yes side in any future referendum.
"It is an outrage that people in Britain will be funding pro-EU propaganda when we finally get the referendum so many are demanding," he said of the move.
"This is a direct attempt to find extra taxpayer funding for the Yes side in any forthcoming EU referendum in the UK. They are as aware of the likelihood of an in out referendum in the UK sooner or later and have every intention of loading the dice with taxpayer's money."
Transnational constituencies in the parliament
The rulebook overhaul would also see the creation of individual memberships of the europarties. Currently only national parties can be members.
The other major change MEPs are pushing would see the creation of a new, pan-European 'transnational constituency' within the European Parliament.
The idea is that europarties would campaign across Europe for constituency, which would contain 25 seats, rather than just domestically. It is an initial effort to give a pan-European identity to the elections, which in many cases are viewed as little more than 27 simultaneous national elections.
The report, which aims to set out the parliament's thinking on the rules ahead of an upcoming regulation change being prepared by the European Commission, must also be adopted by the full sitting of the chamber.
It is understood that on the question of the creation of a transnational constituency, Germany, Italy and the Hungary as current chair of the EU's rotating presidency, are particularly enthusiastic, as is EU Council President Herman van Rompuy.
The rule changes also cover the foundations, or think-tanks, associated with the europarties. Each party has its own think-tank, but these are limited to working within EU member states.
Under the new proposed rules, the think-tanks could work in non-EU states, notably in Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, candidate countries such as Croatia and Turkey, and even the post-Soviet space and north Africa.