The Green Primary was an unprecedented democratic experiment at a European level. It allowed green sympathisers everywhere in Europe to participate in the process of selecting the leading candidates of the European Green Party in the May 2014 European elections. A transnational assessment of the primary from the perspectives of France, Germany and Spain.
“This time, it’s different” was the European Parliament’s slogan to campaign for the idea of leading candidates. And indeed, as Jean-Claude Juncker overcomes a few last obstacles, the small democratic revolution is won. In five years, European parties will have to present leading candidates again as voters will be more aware of their newly gained power; this is democratic institution building in action. Yet, most EU citizens were not convinced by this process and abstained or gave their votes to a growing number of populists. The rest of the European parties did not care about European issues and seemed only to speak from national perspectives. Without involving European parties in the process of building European answers, our continent will remain split, between creditors and debtors, north and south, and winners and losers of Globalisation and the EU common market.
European Lists Have to Follow the European Top Candidates
The next necessary step in European institution building is transnational lists. The Duff Report from the European Parliament proposed an additional constituency of 25 MEPs, for whom citizens everywhere in the EU could vote, in addition to the MEPs in their respective countries. The aim was to encourage voters throughout the EU to identify with the European project as a whole, rather than just using the MEPs as national delegates representing national interests. The hope was that this would be in place by the 2014 election – however, to date, there has been no agreement even on this small number of extra MEPs.
Without involving European parties in the process of building European answers, our continent will remain split.
Had the citizens had the chance to vote for transnational lists as well as their national parties, the focus might well have shifted to the European political options on offer, their proposals, and their performance historically. It would have been a first step towards changing the narrative to “what Europe do we want” rather than “is my country getting more out of Europe than it’s putting in”. The populist discourse revolves around national identity, but without truly European programs negotiated inside European parties, there will not be a convincing counter narrative.
The Green Primary as a Transnational Campaigning Experiment in Comparative Perspective
People in different countries coming together for a common objective is not something new. From anti-nuclear movements to protests against war, the first successful European Citizens’ Initiative ‘right2water’ or even campaigns by international NGOs, it has been possible to mobilise people in different countries simultaneously. However, the Green Primary was the first transnational primary in history. Despite being a transnational project, different national contexts and perspectives shaped it in different ways.
German voters had little previous experience of Primaries. The German Green party Bündnis 90/Die Grünen had already chosen their leading candidates for the 2013 national elections in a poll put to all its members. Yet the turnout remained modest and it did not keep Merkel from winning another term. The Green Primary came at a time when the party was experiencing a period of soul-searching.
Yet, in absolute terms, more votes came from Germany than from any other member state in the primary. However, this was accounted for by the comparatively large overall population and numerical strength of its party membership. In relative terms, other countries had a higher turnout. Some regional European affairs working groups started mobilisation campaigns inside the party, e.g. by demonstrating how and why to vote in local groups.
Overall, the discussions as to why engaging with this process might be beneficial came too late. There was a lack of communication following the Council of the European Green Party of April 2013, when the idea of a Green Primary was first decided, between the delegates who attended and the general party membership. Although this was a useful first experience, it is clear that the procedures for campaigning and voting will have to be started earlier and made technically easier to persuade more people to participate next time.
For French citizens the concept of primaries is also a relatively new one. Traditional political parties always nominated their candidates through internal procedures which lacked transparency. The 2012 presidential elections represented a major change in this respect. Europe Ecologie Les Verts organised a primary to select their candidates, which was also opened up to non-party members. This proved highly successful as more than 35,000 people registered for the vote (including around 15,000 party members). Four candidates were selected, of which, two were party members and two were not.
The Socialist primary organised in autumn 2011 to select their own presidential candidate was completely open to non-members. The turnout was impressive, numbering 2,661,231 and 2,860,157 for the first and second rounds respectively, proving to be an asset for Socialist candidate François Hollande. The primary was extensively followed by the media, including TV debates and both became important models for the Green Primary. Even the right-wing (UMP) is now expected to follow suit when choosing their candidate for the 2017 presidential election.
The Green European primary therefore took place in a context in which the popularity of primary elections is growing. The media coverage was modest but rather positive in France, probably due to the popularity of candidate and green MEP José Bové. The main difficulty for the Green European Primary was that it took place during the campaigns for local elections which ultimately drew away attention leading to a disappointing turnout.
Primary is a popular word in the Spanish political arena. It is seen as a way to promote transformation in the political system and stop party elites from becoming too entrenched. Most of the recently-created parties in Spain (such as the liberal UPyD, the Green party EQUO and the left party Podemos) set out to choose their candidates by primaries from the start, and there is strong pressure on the older parties on the left (Socialist Party and United Left) to introduce them. The popularity of primaries in Spain may help explain the relatively high participation in the Green Primary (being the third largest contributor of votes) despite a small Green presence and little visibility of European issues in the campaign.
Primaries are not an automatic path to success, however. EQUO has been organising primaries – and other methods of direct participation – since its inception (around three years ago). It has had substantially less success than Podemos, a party which ran a primary already knowing who the winner was going to be, yet reached around 30,000 votes in the primary and over a million votes in the European election – in comparison, EQUO attracted around 3,000 votes.
We can view the Green Primary as a starting point for the building of the genuinely European party structures we will need.
What the Green Primary Teaches Us
The careful framing of the Green Primary as an experiment in European inner-party democracy turned out to be a wise choice. Attempting to involve people in choosing top candidates who were unfamiliar to them proved to be an uphill battle. Yet a comprehensive evaluation of the primary can be a rewarding and valuable exercise. We can view the Green Primary as a starting point for the building of the genuinely European party structures we will need, even more so for transnational lists when it will not just be the top candidates but perhaps all the candidates who will be selected by members and delegates from all over Europe.
We distinguished several positive aspects emerging from the experience of the primary upon which Greens can build for the future:
(1) The Primary did prove the European Green youth branch, the Federation of Young European Greens (FYEG) to be a reliable and effective structure for campaigning, as Ska Keller’s selection testifies to.
(2) Many member parties already comprise EU affairs working groups. Such groups e.g. Belgian Ecolo, Dutch Groen Links and (German) North-Rhine-Westphalia’s Die Grünen have already used their close proximity to each other to organise joint events.
(3) Every few years the European Green Party should assemble the Congress, through which we could elect a truly transnational European Green list. There are potential problems, such as funding and a lack of experience in how a Congress should operate on such important matters. Up until now, the delegates exist only when Congress is about to assemble – we need to give Congress delegates an online presence in the time between the real assemblies. As a representative group, they can be invaluable when it comes to feedback to the EGP.
Symbolising the Green approach to ‘opening up’ politics for everybody, the Green Primary also entailed challenges related to harmonising very heterogeneous procedures and membership structures between parties. It is clear that developing the procedures will be a long-term investment that will take up considerable time, energy and other resources. Successfully taking up this challenge will depend on how strong our commitment is to becoming a genuinely European movement.