27 September 2023

Democracy Technologies: You were involved in researching how to influence the European party manifestos ahead of the EU elections for The Good Lobby. Could you tell us a little about that?

Alberto Alemanno: The Good Lobby introduced this initiative to increase awareness about an incipient European political space. 

Few citizens are fully aware of how their vote will influence the political colour of the new European executive, notably the Commission and directly the political majority of the European Parliament. While the EU doesn’t have a fully-fledged parliamentary system, the President of the European Commission and her team must be approved by the Parliament. Without a majority in Parliament, the Commission does not see the light of day. 

Even though citizens have quite some influence here, the European elections are not very European: they take place on different dates and rely on national parties presenting national programmes and running national candidates. 

So, it is crucial for citizens to be able to affect the preparation of the European Political Parties programme. Still, European political parties are not visible to the average voter, and prepare their programmes behind closed doors. 

We thought this upcoming election period was a great opportunity to demystify and democratise access to European political parties. Many European political parties have claimed they want to be open to external input this time. Some have prepared formal consultations with specific submission deadlines. And there are also other, less conventional or formal ways to influence European political parties.  

DT: What kind of opportunities exist to influence Europarty manifestos?

Alemanno: We are not necessarily speaking about organised or formalised channels of influence. There are very public, open consultations through specific ad-hoc meetings with candidates and leaders of political parties.

I would say the European Greens, as well as the Alliance of Liberals, have a longer tradition of organising online public consultations. The Liberals, for example, schedule consultations ongoing from April to September 2023, but there are also other opportunities for encounters like town hall meetings taking place in different member states.

The European People’s Party has a party congress but doesn’t have formal opportunities for external input, as those are not part of the political culture. And this is even more so with the European conservatives, who have not planned any opportunity for citizens to be included. We decided not even to mention them in our research because there’s no way you can influence those parties.

DT: In the case of those very open consultations, how could you measure whether they have made a difference and whether things from the consultations have ended up in the manifestos?

Alemanno: There is quite some evidence suggesting that ideas floating outside of the European party families have somehow been integrated into the European political programmes, from specific policy to institutional changes that might be necessary for European decision-making. We have seen, for instance, how animal rights organisations were able to sensitise several progressive parties to the need to mention animal rights and animal well-being in their manifestos.

These programs matter and will matter more in the future. Although the electoral system hasn’t changed much in Europe, the zeitgeist certainly has. As a continent, we face more pan-European challenges, from the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine to the climate crisis. The European political parties’ willingness to listen will probably be higher in 2023-2024 than in the past.

DT: And who do the parties listen to? Is this primarily organised civil society organisations, or do individuals who participate in the consultations and put forward their ideas also have an impact?

Alemanno: I would say it is mostly civil society organisations. There is a major stumbling block to the possibility of individual voters influencing the European political space: individuals can only be involved if they are members of a European party. This is a contested issue because there are limited options to be an individual member of a European political party. It’s often not legally recognised by these parties.

Citizens need to be a member of one of the national parties that then become a member of one of the European political families. And then these parties organise themselves into groups once they’re going to get elected. And there is no complete overlap between European political parties outside the Parliament and European political groups.

So, there are structural reasons why individuals might not feel encouraged to contribute to preparing these political manifestos, mainly because the European political parties often have no visibility on a national level.

DT: How would you explain the differences in how open the different parties are to this external influence?

Alemanno: I would say there’s a major cultural divide between progressive and conservative forces regarding the notion of representativeness.

During the policy cycles in Brussels, conservatives have often claimed that political representatives don’t necessarily need constant contact with their constituencies. They can afford to interpret their electoral mandate.

The progressive forces, including partially the liberals, have a more nuanced understanding of what representativeness means today. They are aware that the vote might not sufficiently capture their electoral legitimacy, and therefore, they need to remain in contact with their base beyond the electoral cycle. 

DT: Do you think this shift in political culture has been influenced by events such as the Conference on the Future of Europe, or other opportunities to influence EU politics with a participatory process?

Alemanno: No doubt. While the Conference on the Future of Europe didn’t necessarily capture the attention of the average European citizen, it played an important role in showing that it is possible to develop pan-European political conversations across the political spectrum. This has been refreshing to witness, but there has also been tension within the political elites.

We have these competing legitimacy claims. On the one hand, these citizens were presented at the Conference as representatives of panels who claimed that since they were chosen randomly, they are, on average, more representative than the political class. They represent different demographic backgrounds, levels of education, race, etc., whereas the political elites have been working within the political party systems for years and tend to be whiter and wealthier than average. 

In response, many conservative European political leaders argue they have more legitimacy to make decisions because they have been democratically elected. They may see events such as the Conference on the Future of Europe as an obstacle or even an attack on their democratic legitimacy. 

The Conference on the Future of Europe made us realise not all political forces are ready, culturally speaking, to understand that citizen input might strengthen political representation today instead of weakening it. This divide will possibly stop the recommendations from the Conference on the Future of Europe from being taken up within the European Parliament itself and among the member states. 

DT:  Isn’t there an even more significant divide regarding the kind of citizens who would participate in these initiatives at a European level? Even if there was an ideal scenario with many opportunities, it is already a very elite group that engages in these kinds of opportunities locally.

Alemanno: I’ve been doing a lot of research on the realities of participation in the European Union and always want to challenge this perception that the European Union is not open to citizens’ input as an institutional system. I’ve been demonstrating that, on paper, the European Union is more open than member states such as Germany, France or Italy and in Central European countries.

The reason is that the EU realised it needed to allow actors besides the Commission to set the agenda over time. For example, any citizen can lodge petitions to the European Parliament – including non-resident citizens, migrants and people without a passport. The EU is mandated to launch public consultations for every single initiative. Also, we have the European Citizen Initiatives, which allow seven European citizens to set the agenda by asking the Commission to propose a specific policy.

I always ask myself what Europe would look like if more citizens knew about these participatory channels and took full advantage of them. It is a bit of a moment of truth now. There is growing awareness that unless citizens find their own space for involvement, either through the electoral system or the participatory process or through both, the European project won’t be able to have enough democratic legitimacy to continue. 

And we see this happening more, where European policy decisions are contested but we don’t have a European public sphere that allows for the average citizens to understand who is responsible for decisions or the lack thereof in major political scenarios that are unfolding in Europe today.

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