New rules to boost profile of European political parties
By Honor Mahony
The EU Commission on Wednesday (12 September) unveiled plans designed to give a legal boost to European political parties as they gear up for the 2014 elections, expected to be a watershed date for the politicisation of European debate.
The draft statute would give the political parties a legal footing - until now many registered as a Belgian not-for-profit organisation - and loosen funding rules.
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Single donations of up to €25,000 a year would be allowed while the EU money given to the parties would no longer be in the form of a hand-tying grant, allowing parties more freedom on how to spend the cash.
"We have very often a real disconnect between political parties in the capitals and the European political parties here in Strasbourg," Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso told MEPs, explaining the need for the changes.
There are currently 13 European political parties with a budget of €31m between them, but they have made little headway in fostering EU-wide debate since the rules were first established in 2003.
"Truly transnational European political parties and foundations are key to articulating the voices of citizens at European level, and generating Europe-wide public debates," said institutional affairs commissioner Maros Sefcovic.
Aside from trying to create the elusive European public space, supporters of the initiative hope it will raise the turnout in the European election.
Voter numbers have decreased each year since elections began, even as the legislating powers of MEPs have grown exponentially over the same period.
The new rules - which come with spending and donor transparency obligations - chime with the intention of the major parties for the first time to field candidates for European commission president.
With the president traditionally chosen after a behind-closed-doors huddle by EU leaders, this is meant to make the process more democratic as well as high-profile.
"There won't be a direct vote for the presidential candidate but as that candidate will be spear-heading the campaign and they will be putting forward the main policies of each European party, that means they will at least have some democratic legitimacy," Kostas Sasmatzoglou, European People's Party (EPP) spokesperson, told this website.
But many details - not least how the parties themselves will choose their candidates - have to be worked out.
"In some countries you can have TV ads and in others not. Will we, for example, have co-branding of the Fine Gael (Irish centre-right party) logo and the EPP logo? The campaign will be two tier - national level and European where the candidate will be flying around to the different member states, doing press, doing appearances with national MEPs and so on."
Having candidates openly running for the job as commission president has meant speculation has started early about who could be the next president, although the post only comes up for grabs in mid 2014.
Der Spiegel recently ran an article suggesting that Polish centre-right leader Donald Tusk might be favoured by Berlin. Martin Schulz, the socialist head of the parliament, crops up as a potential name for the left. Meanwhile, Barroso himself is technically not barred from running for a third term.
"It's much too early for names," said one parliament official.