Commentary | A European Spring: The Campaign for a Federal Europe

Commentary | A European Spring: The Campaign for a Federal Europe

Pascal Letendre-Hanns.png

Pascal Letendre-Hanns

- European Affairs Specialist,
The International Scholar
- Foreign Policy, European Affairs, EU Policy, UK Politics, and Brexit

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London — As the proverb goes, you wait ages for one bus and then two come along at the same time. That certainly appears true for pan-European political platforms in the European Parliament elections. In 2019, not one but two groups will be running common policy platforms across all countries where they are running candidates, placing heavy emphasis on pan-European issues – much more than is typical. Both “Volt Europa” and “European Spring” hope to leave their mark on Europe and fundamentally change the nature of the 2019 elections. What has so suddenly brought about such fervour and collective action and what does each group hope to accomplish?

Many people feel that European unity and the European dream are under threat. Weary of politicians who refuse to advance the European project and the appeasement of populists and nationalists, Volt Europa and European Spring decided to launch their own political movements. Facing an ostensibly existential crisis, they seek to re-envision Europe upon a new, stable and durable constitutional footing. Convinced that the future of Europe is in peril, each is prepared to take radical action to prevent the collapse of the European Union. 

That is not to say that Volt and European Spring are the same. The former is only a year old and was founded by three young would-be visionaries – Andrea Venzon, supported by Colombe Cahen-Salvador and Damian Boeselager – who, previously, were only peripherally involved in politics. European Spring, on the other hand, grew out of DiEM25 – the initiative launched by former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis in 2015.

In structure alone, the two groups are quite different. While Volt Europa is single European party, running candidates in multiple countries, European Spring is a more traditional transnational alliance between a number of different national parties. The difference in approach is reflected in and is reflective of several policy differences. Most notably, Volt explicitly calls for the foundation of a federal Europe with a European government. The European Spring movement remains more open-ended about its vision for the structure of its future Europe, insisting instead on a constitutional convention (even if, implicitly, this would seem to trend towards a future federal Europe).

Federalism is by no means the only serious policy difference between the two movements. A brief comparison of the two manifestos would leave you with no doubt that European Spring is squarely to the left of Volt. 

Yet the reality of their shared goals and the common circumstances of their creation mean that their policy platforms have much in common. Though the conclusions they draw are distinct, their political direction is very much the same. Both advocate:

  • A larger role for European institutions in policymaking and governance. 

  • Greater involvement for European citizens at the European level. 

  • Direct democratic control of European institutions.

  • New financing mechanisms for a larger European budget.

  • A focus on environmentalism and combatting climate change.

  • Preventing international tax evasion by multinational corporations. 

  • Commitments to transparency.

  • The creation of legal mechanisms to tackle corruption.

It would be easy for the two groups to stereotype one another as “neoliberals” or “far-left” but in practice they have extensive common ground. While the impact of these movements in the upcoming European elections remains to be seen, each has the potential to leave a significant mark on the course of European politics.

To the average European citizens, it is plausible that neither Volt Europa nor European Spring have much appeal. If neither group can achieve some kind of breakthrough in the elections then their impact on European policymaking will be minimal and European politics will likely be shaped by other players over the next five years. 

As new movements they face the same challenges that all new entrants in face in politics. Acquiring name recognition among voters is often an arduous and time-consuming process. The press is less inclined to cover their activities, both a cause and a consequence of low visibility. Smaller groups must also contend with the reality that voters are often reluctant to risk ‘wasting’ their votes on a less-renowned party that may not win much, or any, representation. 

To achieve any representation at all in the European Parliament would be hailed a victory for both European Spring and Volt Europa. European Spring may have the advantage as it is premised on the success of existing parties that already have a voter base in their respective countries and can more easily expand into other EU states. Yet the argument can be made that Volt Europa benefits from more effective central planning through the infrastructure of a single party, allowing it to better prioritise and allocate political and financial resources. Which method prove more effective remains an open question. Analysing the difference in difference in performance between the two groups may serve as a real-world experiment that future European federalists can learn from. 

In terms of European elections, the real hope for European federalism in 2019 is that the concept manages to break out of its liberal-progressive straitjacket. By presenting European federalist visions from different political standpoints, the idea may disseminate through society and cross political divides more effectively. In this regard, competing federalist perspectives offers something of a double or nothing gamble for the cause of European federalism. 

The risk, of course, is that European Spring and Volt Europa find themselves competing over the same group of voters and frustrate each other’s chances for success. The alternative, however, is that each, rather than fighting over a set group of European federalists, instead target different sectors of voters. Volt Europa may evolve to advocate European federalism to a more centrist audience as European Spring continues to pitch to the left-wing. In that event, rather than splitting the existing European federalist camp, they might succeed in expanding it to cover a wider political spectrum. 

At any rate, if either group does win some seats in the European Parliament, their victory will likely remain symbolic in the short term. Although a victory of this kind will help rally others to their cause, the electoral impact of Volt and European Spring will likely be minor.  

On a different level, however, these movements have greater significance. In the context of the interminable debate over the existence of a European public space and European polity, it is worth considering what the mere existence of these groups represents. 

Within the manifestos of European Spring and Volt Europa there is a clear sense that, although they grew out of different geographic areas and though they differ in ideology, they are speaking the same political language. They agree on the challenges facing Europe. They agree on the terms of the political debate. We are witnessing the creation of a uniquely European politics, complete with competing parties and political divides on the questions familiar to us at the national level.

In the context of the interminable debate over the existence of a European public space and European polity, it is worth considering what the mere existence of these groups represents. 

European elections are becoming less about banking unions and international bailout funds – though these issues remain prevalent – and becoming more about taxation, immigration and public services. Rather than an extension of national politics, a set of policies devised by a national government, we are being presented with Europe as the framework for all politics. There is no single “Europe” policy because Europe is a given, it is the world within which policy exists. 

Too often, the question of the existence of a European polity focuses on whether citizens feel European. This abstract notion dominates and largely excludes the practical actions of democratic politics. Are we debating together? Are we forming policy together? Are we voting together?

 Feelings of shared identity have often been chosen in studies examining the formation of a European political space, not because it is the best objective indicator, but rather because it is the most obvious and straightforward to measure. There are more subtle ways to observe this construction through the practice of European politics. Pan-European campaigning on a single platform (and citizens voting for such platforms) is a good example of this kind of action.

It is too early to say whether this shift in perspective to Europe as a society rather than merely a project is decisive or widespread but it is real. For Volt Europa and European Spring, it is a signpost to the future. As European elections near, they may become the light that dawns a federal Europe.

All views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not represent the views of The International Scholar or any other organization.

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