Monday 9 August 2010

PES Primaries and a Parliamentary EU

Jon Worth has picked up on a campaign of Desmond O'Toole's for the introduction of primaries in the Party of European Socialists (campaign blog here). With Jason O'Mahony recently writing for a presidential style system, there's been some very interesting talk about how to make the Commission more democratic and reverse the "democratic disconnect" with citizens.

I highly recommend reading Desmond's comments and blog, as well as this paper (PDF) by Dr. Anna Skrzypek on models of selecting a candidate (warning - it's 54 pages long).

These are great proposals, and I would strongly support a primary selection system that involves party members (though there should be some balance to prevent over-dominance by the bigger national parties). This involvement would encourage greater participation before the elections from members (promoting engagement from members who aren't usually interested in EU affairs. This would also help equip them better for the campaign); give a higher profile for the Europarty campaign and, if done well (which is always the qualifier), boost turnout; and force more serious policy competition at a European level, increasing the accountability and transparency of EU politics.

If done well, is a strong qualifier - especially when it comes to European politics. We are all used to uninspiring and unsatisfying decision-making and politics, and it's hard to see any initiative as a sure cure for the falling turnout numbers and lack of engagement. However, institutionalising the selection of a presidential candidate for the Commission would provide the platform for a real debate that can grow and develop over time (all campaigns are different, and of varying quality). There would be 2 key aspects of them: 1. it would force the PES to select a candidate for each election, therefore not leaving it up to national party executives (particularly as the members will [hopefully] have a feeling of ownership over the process/entitlement to vote), and there would be pressure for similar moves in other parties; 2. it would change the nature of the Europarties themselves by forcing regular, very public, debate on policy.

I think the second aspect is one that has been overlooked by supporters of a more explicitly presidential system. Arguments against the parliamentary system are: the EP doesn't really represent the citizens, the Europarties are too heterogeneous to provide real competitive politics, and that the main parties are in coalition a lot of the time. Supporters of a presidential system say it will give a clear choice compared to EP elections.

I think this overlooks the changes in EP politics recently. Simon Hix has written on the cohesiveness of the Europarties, and has concluded that they are more cohesive than their US counterparts. Hix and Votewatch have also looked at the voting patterns of the parties and found that there's a lot more left-right competition than some might expect (Votewatch found a left-wing winning coalition for civil rights, and a right-wing winning coalition on justice and home affairs). It's true that the EP sees a lot of coalition between the 3 main parties, but it is increasingly based on blocking one of the others out. This isn't the same as national parliaments, of course, which see more competition. However, elections with a presidential candidate (elected by the EP) encourage more cohesion, more joined-up policy thinking (or hopefully rewards such thinking), and promotes critical scrutiny of policy on a more European level. Because the Commission and the president(ial candidate) depends on the EP, and, more specifically, his/her coalition in it, this promotes a more pro- and anti- government set up of the EP and mitigates against grand coalitions (though it doesn't rule them out entirely).

The charge of grand coalitions making democracy unengaging in the EP and the EU as a whole is serious, but would a purely presidential system cure this? Not in my opinion. A presidential system would produce presidents who would have only their political capital to work with, and any support base in the EP could dry up quickly, as it isn't necessarily in their electoral interests to make the presidency a success. In other words, more grand coalitions, more national compromises (as the Commission would need the backing of the Council or EP to have a strong position). And how will people react to a President who has to balance grand coalition interests? I doubt it would be greeted with much enthusiasm on polling day.

So I think parliamentary politics are more in keeping with Europe's political traditions (generally). The EU is a wide based project, and a wide based parliamentary approach diffuses the nationality question of the candidates (to some extent), and re-focuses the debate on the ideological and policy positions of the Europarties in which more people can participate - and help shape. The EP would be changed by them - Europarties would could change as they might break up and reform along more ideologically coherent lines, or change long established policy to appeal to voters, as well as more distinct voting coalitions and coalition preferences in Parliament.

In the last European election, for all my blogging, I wasn't active in a campaigning or party role. If a (left-wing) Europarty ran primaries - in other words, offered more opportunities for engagement - then I would have got involved. But that might be looking at things backwards. Maybe I should get involved to try and open up those opportunities.

Would you?


  1. Hi Connor and thanks for publicising and commenting on the "Campaign for a PES Primary".

    The question you raise about presidential over parliamentary systems within the EU is hugely important. Clearly, I would come down on the parliamentary side, not least because further democratisation in this area is less dependent on treaty changes (with all the issues that brings) than instituting direct elections for an executive presidency such as exists in France, the USA or Russia.

    We've been taking about democracy in the EU for so long, I'd rather not wait another generation before we, the people, get around to (s)electing someone at the top of the Euro-tree!

  2. Thanks for your reply & the link on your blog.

    I agree. I haven't gotten involved in the PES before, but it's a great initative and I'm willing to take part and help.

    The campaign is young and web-based. What are the plans for the campaign - is it focused on members and the leadership, or will it be trying to get non-party members to join in beyond the Facebook page?

  3. All three audiences, Connor. Clearly we need to address the party leaderships and officials because they are the people who will get to take the decision on whether to extend the franchise to party members. However, we need to generate interest and pressure from amongst PES activists in order to make the case for more democracy in the PES. A campaign like this also shows activists how we can work together and independently across borders. If we can do that in internal party issues, then we can do it on public issues that directly address concerns about social justice, equality and human rights.

    And I think it is hugely important that this campaign is also open to people outside of formal party structures who are friendly to the PES. The process by which the PES constructed the manifesto for the last European elections broke new ground by opening the process up to people and organisations outside our political family. I'd like this campaign to continue that approach.

    On the next steps in the campaign ... we're about to launch the next phase and I'll make sure I give you a heads up on what is planned.

  4. EUobserver, one of Europe's leading on-line news agencies, has published an article today on the Campaign for a PES Primary entitled: "Socialists want US-style primaries for commission president candidate"

    Their reporter, Leigh Philips, writes:

    "EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - European social democracy is in the doldrums and the members of the continent's centre-left think that a major change at the top of the Party of European Socialists is the solution.

    After a rout of the centre-left in last year's European elections, activists with the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) have launched a campaign to push for US-style primary elections within the party to select their candidate for the presidency of the next European Commission in 2014.

    Frustrated with the failure of the PES to nominate any candidate at all ahead of the June 2009 elections, a pair of long-time activists have rolled out a movement that is proposing that the members of the various social democratic parties across Europe vote to choose who the party will nominate as its presidential candidate.

    The "Campaign for a PES Primary" was kicked off on 26 July by Desmond O'Toole, a member of the Irish Labour Party's Central Council, and Jose Reis Santos, a Lisbon city councillor, and, according to the pair, has met with a "huge response."

    Rest of article at:

    Regards ... Desmond.
    Co-ordinator, PES activists Dublin.

  5. Thanks for the update Desmond!