In fully developed competitive democracies, elections generally are about choosing alternative scenarios. This being the case, ideally, European elections should also be about choosing alternative scenarios. There is widespread agreement that competitive dynamics between alternative parties or coalitions in elections are healthy for democracy and it follows that if such conditions existed in European elections it would be indicative of the establishment of a mature democracy at EU level as well. This view implies strong normative assumptions about the superiority of a model of democracy that privileges policy oriented over expressive notions of representation and at the same time overlooks the fact that specific societal and political conditions must exist for elections to be contested between alternative competitors.
Not all elections, however, are about choosing alternative scenarios. Especially in political systems with highly fragmented party systems (usually reflecting equally fragmented societal structures) and proportional electoral systems, parties compete for votes independently with adversaries but also with potential partners. Hence convergences and coalitions occur after the election results are known.
The EU is more amenable to the latter type of polity. For example, there are now seven party groups in the European Parliament (EP), a number that reveals the multiplicity of political orientations that need expression and of societal groups that need representation at EU level. This is a fact that will not change in the immediate future and that makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to imagine that the next elections will be about choosing between alternative scenarios. Electors will inevitably have a gamut of possible choices before them that will be even wider than that represented by the existing EP party groups because of the variety expressed by their different components in the member states (MS). Paradoxically, the presence of many possible choices blurs the distinction between alternative scenarios.
For example, there are now seven party groups in the European Parliament (EP), a number that reveals the multiplicity of political orientations that need expression and of societal groups that need representation at EU level.
The way to make European elections closer to the competitive/adversarial model is for the leading parties, the Progressives in our case, to identify a relatively small number of policies on which to build the next campaign. It is on policies that differences and counter-oppositions between political parties and coalitions are expressed and made visible to the electors. This is a very demanding challenge as individual national components of European parties tend to diverge on many important issues. But there is no other option. Empirical evidence from research on comparisons between MEPs’ and citizens’ attitudes shows that parties at European level are more representative than nationalities. But this potential advantage is lost if internal divisions along national lines exist within the European parties. Traditional European campaigns based on generic programmes and manifestoes that superficially reflect diluted ideological principles have had the effect, but perhaps also the deliberate purpose, to allow national differences to survive and oppose the development of European Party identities that are clearly diversified.
Policy-based coalitions would necessarily produce greater identity divergences between parties and allow electors to express real choices between alternatives.
Whilst this may have helped the formation in the EP of grand coalitions capable of strengthening the role of the institution vs. other EU bodies and even the MS, it has prevented a real politicisation of the EU as a polity. Policy-based coalitions would necessarily produce greater identity divergences between parties and allow electors to express real choices between alternatives. This appears to be the only way to the creation of alternative scenarios.
Can Progressives lead towards the establishment of a new kind of political coalition for the EU?
The answer to this question is certainly connected to that given to the previous one. The identification of policies that are crucial to the interests of EU citizens and the development of positions that are responsive to their demands is a necessary pre-requisite for finding potential foci and partners for EU level coalitions. Moreover, it is only on common, or at least relatively close, positions and policies that European parties with different, albeit not necessarily distant, ideological and value orientations can find unproblematic convergence and develop common programmes.
Again, empirical evidence from research on parties’ policy positions, allows for the identification of the issues, in areas such as welfare and environment, on which other parties (notably the Greens-EFA and the GUE-NGL) exhibit a high degree of overlap with the Progressives’ positions. These findings will need to be updated in view of the next European elections and the most preferable potential partners may not be the ones mentioned above, but it is clear that the only possible “new kind” of coalition the Progressives should aim at creating and leading must be policy convergence based.
The Progressives should aim at identifying someone capable of appealing to those other parties with whom policy convergence appears to exist.
This suggests that a new strategy should also be developed for the identification of the Progressives’ 2019 Spitzenkandidat. The 2014 experience indicates a growth in the perceived salience of the European elections’ campaign owing to the parties’ decision to present their Spitzenkandidaten. It is almost certain that in 2019 the choice of the leading candidate will be even more crucial. The battle against the MS over the appointment of the Commission’s president was won in 2014 with the convergence of all major European parties on Jean-Claude Juncker. Five years on, European parties are faced with the new challenge of making European democracy more competitive. The Progressives should aim at identifying someone capable of appealing to those other parties with whom policy convergence appears to exist. Whilst it may be impossible to form an organic coalition before the election, and therefore agree with the partners on whom to nominate, or even on how to identify the candidate, it would be advisable to choose one with a programme based on policies that are relevant and positions that are acceptable to the other potential partners; a programme, in other words, that sets her/him clearly apart from the candidate of the more conservative parties in the EP. Once an agreement is found on this basis with the potential partners, the Progressives will have the authority and the strength to exercise their leadership also in those policy areas in which evident convergence does not exist yet.