UK Politics

European Parliament bid to boost Europe-wide parties

Plans to get people to vote for Europe-wide - as well as national - political parties in the next European elections have passed their first hurdle, but the plans still face much opposition. So what chance is there for a new breed of European MEPs?

Conservative? Labour? Liberal Democrat? SNP? Asking someone in the UK to name political parties would probably include these names.

Image caption The number of MEPs could increase if proposals for a EU-wide constituency are passed

But what about the European People's Party? The EU Democrats? The European Free Alliance.

These are all examples of European political parties - and under proposals being put forward by Euro MPs, they could become much more significant in European political life.

At the moment, European parties are made up of affiliates from national parties. For example Labour belongs to the Party of European Socialists, whilst the Conservative Party is part of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists.

A first formal reference to European political parties appeared in the 1991 Maastricht Treaty, which said that "Political parties at European level are important as a factor for integration within the Union. They contribute to forming a European awareness and to expressing the political will of the citizens of the Union".

Their role has developed on a piecemeal basis over the past two decades, with the most significant milestone being a 2003 regulation that defined what a European political party actually is, and set out rules on their funding.

To qualify as a European political party, an organisation must fulfil a number of criteria. These include observing the founding principles of the EU - such as respect for democracy and the rule of law - as well has having representation in at least a quarter of all EU member states, either by obtaining at least 3% of the vote in the most recent European Parliament elections, or simply by having national or regional representatives in these countries.

In 2009, funding for the Europarties was fixed at €10.8 million from the EU budget, divided proportionately depending on the size of the party.

However, a report adopted by MEPs during their most recent session in Strasbourg calls on European political parties to be given an even greater formalised role.

The report, drawn up by Greek centre-right MEP Marietta Giannakou, says that the parties should be given formal legal status under EU law, rather than the more "ad-hoc" status they have at the moment. She also advocates a change to the regulations to ensure that a legally recognised European political party must have at least one elected MEP, a move that critics say could exclude smaller parties.

In terms of financing, MEPs have voted to raise the limit on donations from €12,000 to €25,000, with Ms Giannakou claiming that "the party's ability to self-finance is a sign of their vitality".

A European constituency

But even if the measures proposed in the Giannakou report are adopted, supporters of European political parties say they still won't have the public recognition that they seek.

Therefore a group of Euro-enthusiasts, led by British Liberal Democrat Andrew Duff, are proposing that European political parties stand in their own right in future elections to the European Parliament.

Under the proposals, a new "pan-European" constituency would be created, represented by 25 MEPs. EU citizens would therefore have two votes - one for their domestic MEP, and one from the transnational list. And it would be up to the European Political Parties to select their candidates for the EU-wide constituency.

National authorities would report the results to a new EU electoral authority that would have to be created to oversee the EU-wide elections. The 25 MEPs elected from the transnational lists would join the 751 MEPs chosen from national ones, meaning a rise in the overall number of MEPs to 776.

According to Mr Duff this would turn EU parties into "real campaigning organisation". There has been continual frustration amongst EU-federalists that elections to the European Parliament are treated as 27 different national elections, rather than one EU-wide plebiscite.

The proposals have been backed by the European Parliament's Constitutional Affairs Committee, and now go on to be scrutinised by the Parliament as a whole, during the plenary session in June.

However the move has been criticised by MEPs opposed to deeper integration.

Ashley Fox MEP, the Conservative Party's Constitutional Affairs Spokesman in the European Parliament has accused federalists of trying to "force a European identity" onto EU citizens.

"At a time of economic austerity", he said, "the last thing the British taxpayer wants is to pay for an extra 25 MEPs elected across Europe, plus the cost of a European electoral authority to oversee the process".

Supporters of developing EU political parties hope the rules changes will be in place in time for the 2014 European Parliament elections. Under the Lisbon Treaty, changes to membership of the European Parliament need to be initiated by MEPs themselves.

However as some of the proposals would require changes to the EU treaties, they will require unanimous agreement by all national governments.