EU in drive to make Brussels more political
By Honor Mahony
The European Commission next month is to announce plans to establish European political foundations to spice up the tone of political discourse at the EU level and entice voters to ballot boxes after a series of poor turnouts at the European elections.
According to an EU official closely involved in the proposal, the idea is to give European parties such as the European People's Party, the European socialists or the European liberals greater ability "to develop networks on European issues."
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These foundations - which would be ideologically linked to a political party - would contribute to a European political culture by "observing, analysing and contributing to the debate on European public policy issues and the process of European integration."
They would also support "European seminars" and serve as a "framework for national think tanks, political foundations and academics to work together at [the] European level," says a preliminary paper on the issue, seen by EUobserver.
Proper European debate
At the moment, European parties - there are currently ten - occupy an undefined public space. They are trans-European but lack the link to citizens as national parties are affiliated rather than individual members.
On top of this, they have difficulty making EU political campaigns, hampered by language barriers and different political traditions in the 27 member states.
The move to up their profile is the brainchild of EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom who wants to introduce a "proper European debate," with the current European political discussion seen as taking place in a "Brussels bubble" dominated by political elites.
As yet, it is unclear how much money will go towards the scheme - EU officials have previously spoken of €1 million - but 15 percent of the money will be divided equally between all of the foundations while the remaining 85 percent will be distributed according to how many MEPs a party has.
The commission is also to leave the touchy question of setting out criteria for foundations entitled to receive the money up to the parliament saying only that they should respect fundamental European values.
The June proposal is part of the updating of an EU law on funding EU political parties - this law currently states that the parties have to observe the principles upon which the European Union is founded as well as be represented in at least one quarter of member states.
Although political foundations are well established in Germany, where the major parties have ideologically associated foundations - Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, CDU or Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, SPD - and there is a budget line for them in the German parliament, they are not common elsewhere.
Ms Wallstrom, who recently said the EU could do with a bit of "diversity" and "controversy" to make it register more with citizens, took charge of the communications portfolio in 2004 - a year that saw record low turnouts in the European elections in central and eastern European member states who had only just joined the bloc.
Three years on little has changed. European elections last week in Bulgaria, a member of the EU since January, saw a turnout of just 29 percent.
The commission is trying to bring about a visible difference in the next European election in mid-2009. This is the time by which most EU leaders want to have agreed a new EU treaty for the bloc - one likely to give much more co-legislation powers to MEPs.
Meanwhile, the European Commission is also planning on publishing a separate proposal next month on how better to communicate with citizens.
The paper is likely to contain proposals to give EU officials more leeway to talk to the media and extend the scope of Brussels' audiovisual services.