This article is part of the Reshaping European Democracy project, an initiative of Carnegie’s Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program and Carnegie Europe.

The EU political landscape will be on the cusp of a profound shake-up when the European Parliament holds its next elections in May 2019. Not only are long-time populists poised to disrupt the parliament, but a new wave of little-noticed transnational parties is also emerging from the bottom up. Both threaten the mainstream political parties that have historically held a monopoly on the European project. Europe may be on the verge of a more transnational form of democracy—one that is polarized around very basic pro- and anti-EU positions.

Europe’s Out-of-Sync Political System

The EU’s political system has never caught up with the impact European integration has had on citizens’ daily lives. EU citizens still vote in the European Parliament elections on different dates, according to different electoral laws, and in support of candidates selected by national parties and on the basis of domestic agendas. These national parties belong to European political parties that have been given institutional recognition and financial resources over time. Despite their name (Europarties), they consist of weak, extra-parliamentary federations of national parties from several EU member states, united by thin political affinity and driven by financial rewards. The largest political group in the European Parliament is the right-leaning European People’s Party (EPP), which holds 217 of the 751 seats, followed by the left-leaning Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), which currently holds 189 seats. The parliament also includes the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), the European Conservatives and Reformists, and several other smaller coalitions.

Alberto Alemanno
Alberto Alemanno is the Jean Monnet professor of EU law at HEC Paris and author of Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society (Icon Books, 2017).

Europarties have historically remained irrelevant in the European electoral competition. German citizens vote for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) rather than the EPP, and Spaniards pull for the Socialist Party instead of the S&D. As a result, after more than sixty years in existence, the EU lacks a Europe-wide party system capable of fostering a genuine transnational space for political debate and dialogue, in which citizens can understand, influence, and participate in decisionmaking that affects their common interests as Europeans.

The absence of an authentic pan-European party system heavily conditions the electoral game and partisan competition, which remain largely national. This absence also militates against the emergence of pan-European public opinion. Despite states’ interdependence in matters concerning their citizens’ daily lives—ranging from economic and environmental policy to EU-enacted data protection regulations—Europeans are exposed exclusively to domestic accounts of EU developments. These accounts are inevitably partial, often misinformed, and generally misleading, in part because national politicians pass the buck and scapegoat the EU. Unsurprisingly, turnout for European Parliament elections is typically low, and citizens’ perceptions of Europe are largely misaligned with reality. The EU is more important to the average EU citizen than voters realize.

The primary institutional incentive for developing a genuine transnational party system is that offered by a common structure of competition. That is the rationale behind the so-called Spitzenkandidaten (or lead-candidate) process, whereby each pan-European party is expected to select a lead candidate for its electoral campaign, who might then become the president of the European Commission. Yet the Spitzenkandidaten mechanism—which was first used in 2014 in the election of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker—falls short. It is overly complex and opaque, insofar as transnational parties compete for control of a transnational political executive, all at a distance from European voters themselves.

Consequently, there have been various calls in the past decade for the EU to move toward a more genuine election process that allows political parties to present transnational candidate lists. French President Emmanuel Macron recently revamped this idea; it was endorsed by Juncker (against his own political party) and was publicly supported by Belgium, Italy, and Spain. However, in February 2018, the European Parliament rejected a proposal to apportion forty-six of the seventy-three seats that will be left vacant by the UK after Brexit to a new class of members (MEPs) representing one pan-European constituency. The established Europarties do not want to risk losing their own political influence in the European Parliament. Some MEPs argued that only individuals from larger member states would stand any chance of securing spots atop a transnational list, given that only the domestic (news) markets of such countries would be large enough to gain traction with the media and the higher number of electors entitled to vote for them. Yet without transnational lists and candidates, the EU lacks a counterfactual to prove the veracity of such a statement empirically.

The Potential Emergence of European Transnational Politics

Despite the limited incentives for political parties to Europeanize the electoral contest, a growing number of domestic political parties have been connecting—over time—with one another across the political spectrum. The increasing salience of the effects of EU policies on citizens’ lives, growing economic and political interdependence, and Brexit have accelerated this process, which in turn has led to the emergence of a timid, yet evolving, common European debate. National elections—whether in Hungary, Italy, or the Netherlands—have never drawn the level of attention and public scrutiny that they do today; these contests feed into a pan-European form of public discourse structured around a few key resonating issues, ranging from migration to economic policies.

Paradoxically, this incremental Europeanization of the political discourse has initially occurred at the fringes and has been driven by radical populist parties, such as the UK Independence Party (UKIP), Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly the National Front), Geert Wilders’s Party for Freedom, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s League, and Alternative for Germany. These political forces are the only ones that have positioned themselves vis-à-vis the EU (to beat the establishment) over the last decade. By developing one common political language across their pan-European electorate and identifying some key major issues common to the continent, they have succeeded in doing what mainstream political parties have never even tried. Indeed, the latter, by failing to identify and position themselves on EU terms, have manifestly contributed to the emergence and success of these fringe parties.

This lack of engagement by mainstream parties—such as the EPP and the S&D—on the subject of Europe, within and beyond its boundaries, has created a political vacuum. A plethora of new parties and grassroots movements across the political spectrum, as well as emerging alliances between them, seems ready to fill this vacuum. Being progressively more inclined to privilege the supranational level of government, several of these actors are at the forefront of today’s incipient Europeanization of politics. One important example is the left-leaning coalition called European Spring (originally referred to as DiEM25). It is led by former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis and former French presidential candidate Benoît Hamon, and it has drawn support from a Polish political party called Razem (the Together Party), a Danish party known as Alternativet (the Alternative), and a Portuguese party called Livre (Free). Other examples include the Left led by the Spanish party Podemos (We Can) and a Portuguese party called O Bloco (the Bloc), a more youthful pro-EU movement known as Volt, and an anti-EU movement named Generation Identity.

Emerging from a hodgepodge of movements, associations, and grassroots organizations led by old and/or new political leaders and activists, these pan-European movements—whether on the left, center, or right of the political spectrum—represent a further challenge to mainstream political parties. Indeed, what makes them stand out from traditional political parties is not only their ability to position themselves in relation to major pan-European issues—such as migration or the economy—but also to take action and successfully mobilize their supporters on these issues transnationally. The latter feature also differentiates them from previous attempts to build pan-EU political offers, such as those pioneered by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, the National Front, and Italian comedian Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement. These earlier efforts never turned into meaningful pan-EU parties—not even political groups within the European Parliament; they are reminiscent instead of the pioneering attempts to build genuine transnational alliances, such as those led by the European Greens.

A glance at the websites of the new transnational movements shows how these emerging political forces reflect the vivacity that the dominant political discourse on Europe has been hiding for so long. These new pan-European organizations are as transnational as the lives and mind-sets of their members. Counterintuitively, this is true even of movements that oppose cosmopolitanism—like Generation Identity—and instead defend a supposed European ethnocultural identity. In other words, these rising transnational movements embody a new way of feeling, understanding, and energizing the European political space. They look increasingly capable of disrupting traditional parties’ approach to Europe. They typically identify a limited set of policy issues—including migration, unemployment, and the environment—that are locally relevant but common to most European countries. They then campaign on these common pan-European issues using very locally and citizen-driven community-organizing methods. Interestingly enough, they all seem to draw inspiration from the methods famously developed by Marshall Ganz at Harvard University and put to the test by Barack Obama’s 2012 U.S. presidential campaign.

These efforts may be gaining traction. Interestingly, a majority of Europeans seem to perceive the emergence of new parties and movements rather positively, based on recent polling. According to the latest Eurobarometer survey, 56 percent of Europeans believe that new parties and movements can bring real change, while 53 percent contend that they could find new solutions more readily than the political establishment.

Transnational Versus Mainstream European Parties

While traditional Europarties already were challenged in the previous 2009 and 2014 European Parliament elections, they are much more vulnerable now. They are at risk of losing their monopoly on Europe. The emergence of this new wave of self-proclaimed pan-EU movements shows that Europe is no longer the exclusive patrimony of German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Emmanuel Macron, on the one hand, nor that of Marine Le Pen or Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and the usual anti-EU fringe rhetoric, on the other.

Many more visions of Europe exist besides those that long-standing Europarties have been presenting for the past several years. These competing visions will likely confront one another in the run-up to the 2019 European Parliament elections. Macron’s grand plan to reunite pro-European forces may feed the populist rhetoric of neo-liberal Europe—all the more so since it has gained support from the Spanish liberal party Ciudadanos (Citizens). Yet movements such as European Spring or Volt may show that it is possible to put forward an alternative model of what it means to be pro-European. Likewise, while Orbán’s announced anti-migrant posture and his attempt to unite populist forces—from Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz to Italy’s Matteo Salvini—may lead to an explosion of the EPP, new forces such as Generation Identity may offer an alternative model of what it is like to be anti-EU.

The implications are far-reaching: a political European demos is sprouting at the fringes, not at the core. It is likely to cannibalize mainstream forces’ political capital on European issues. Europe continues to evolve as a political and human space that is shared and lively. Against this backdrop, the next European Parliament elections could mark a turning point and constitute the first genuinely European political competition, a prospect that may pave the way for the emergence of an incipient transnational European democracy.

Yet there is still a risk that some of these emerging voices could be silenced. Given that the electoral law governing the EU elections—having merely established some basic common principles, such as proportional representation—is European only in name, some voices might never be heard in the new European Parliament. To cite just one example, the minimum number of signatures required for individual candidates to appear on the ballot ranges from 35,000 in Italy to 5,000 in Belgium, to say nothing of residence requirements. If emerging transnational movements decide to have candidates run in countries where they are not citizens, these aspiring candidates would face a further layer of eligibility requirements. (Luxembourg, for instance, requires ten years of residence for non-nationals to run.) Moreover, if they succeed in running, they would still have to reach—at least in some member states—the 5-percent minimum vote threshold that the European Council is currently discussing in connection with a new EU electoral law.

To overcome these high barriers to entry, some of these new movements may be drawn to join hands with traditional parties or with each other. Thus, Macron’s Grande Marche pour l’Europe (Great March for Europe), the master plan for 2019 the French president put forward to revitalize Europe, would require him to forge alliances with like-minded parties from other countries to overcome the current dominance of the EPP and the S&D and to challenge ALDE. The relationship between Macron’s Great March for Europe and ALDE remains unclear. Yet in the absence of a rapid deployment by the French president, it will be the latter political group that will eventually take advantage of its well-established, pro-EU track record. Varoufakis’s European Spring could exercise a power of attraction similar to that of Macron’s platform. This pan-European movement is pursuing a democratic, ecological, egalitarian Europe, and it might also draw some pro-EU and progressive movements across Europe.

The Prospect of Greater Polarization to Come

As a result, all these political forces—whether they are new or pre-existing entities, and whether they are acting along transnational or national lines—are set to position themselves in a far more polarized European political debate in the run-up to the European Parliament elections. Even as the EU elections may start to matter to more citizens, they are poised to become a battlefield for “a European civil war,” as Macron recently put it. According to this prevailing narrative, such a war is currently being fought between the supporters of deeper EU integration and liberal values, on the one hand, and those who intend to pursue an EU of independent, illiberal nations, on the other.

In other words, due to the fluidity ushered in by Europe’s new transnational movements, the 2019 elections may be deeply polarizing. Both mainstream and new parties will need to seek alliances, and both groups will be pushed to do so on the basis of a dichotomy pitting pro-EU elements against radical alternatives. While this will likely engender citizen interest and increase electoral turnout, this engagement will not center on the subtle, nuanced debates about reforming the union that are so needed. There is, therefore, a real risk that this unprecedented, embryonic pan-European political debate will not be about what kind of Europe is wanted, but whether the EU should exist at all.

Regardless of the outcome, the manifestation of transnational movements appears to be one of the major novelties ahead of the 2019 European Parliament elections. Their mere presence may eventually nudge all political parties to compete for ideas, votes, and seats on a pan-EU scale. As such, their continuation must be encouraged. Transnational parties are the fertilizer for a truly European polity.

Alberto Alemanno is the Jean Monnet professor of EU law at HEC Paris and author of Lobbying for Change: Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society (Icon Books, 2017).