European politics to get more political
By Honor Mahony
European political parties are gearing themselves up to actively fight for citizens' attention following years of low-turn out in EU elections and widespread ignorance about who MEPs are and what they do.
Under plans published by the European Commission on Wednesday (26 June), EU parties - such as the centre-right, socialists, liberals and greens - will be able to campaign at national level during European elections, next taking place in mid-2009.
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At the moment EU parties are banned from entering the national political fray at European election time, meaning that although the vote is about electing over 700 MEPs to the Brussels assembly, it tends to be fought as 27 national election campaigns with candidates made or broken on domestic issues.
The new rules will also allow parties to have a financial surplus at the end of the year and build up small financial reserves, they also foresee over €1 million to establish political foundations – providing an extra forum for political debate and research.
According to Margot Wallstrom, the commissioner tasked with bringing Brussels closer to citizens, it needs to be made clear that citizens' "political choice matters and that their active involvement on European issues has a direct bearing on their everyday lives."
The plans have been generally welcomed in the European Parliament, where MEPs experience first hand the political vacuum between national and European level politics.
UK liberal MEP Andrew Duff says "party political foundations at the EU level are going to be a key element in developing political thought and sharpening debate with a European dimension."
"I think the European parties have to be more present to create a trans-national debate," says German socialist MEP Jo Leinen, in charge of this dossier in the parliament.
Voting for a commission president
He envisages them having the same slogans, posters and a "top candidate who runs for commission president."
Giving voters a say on who will run the commission, arguably the most visible of Brussels' institutions, is seen as key to boosting turnout, which in the last elections, three years ago, hovered at the 30 percent mark in some member states.
At the moment, EU leaders decide who the commission president is, a system that goes on behind closed doors and is based on political pay-backs, ferocious haggling and a dose of whim.
It would be a "huge breakthrough" if political parties were to decide on both a main candidate and their programmes ahead of the elections, says Mr Leinen.
This candidate could then travel around Europe and appear on local radio or TV shows so that people would then know what they were ultimately achieving when casting their vote for their local MEP.
It is an open secret that current commission president Jose Manuel Barroso would like to run again for the job when it comes up in 2009.
Many are now watching whether the centre-right European People's Party, to which he belongs, will endorse him ahead of the 2009 elections.
An EPP move would spur other parties to do the same, says Mr Leinen, with analysts hoping that such a move would then open up the European election campaign to transnational themes such as immigration, climate change, globalisation and enlargement.
With a new EU treaty possibly in place by 2009, MEPs are aware that they have to up the turn-out and improve citizens' understanding of what they do. As it stands, the treaty will extend the European Parliament's co-legislating power in around 40 areas.