More by Manuel Müller

In most democratic countries, this is how an electoral campaign goes: First, all parties publish an electoral programme in which they announce what measures they want to implement if they win. Then they appoint a candidate whom they support as head of government. Then they go out and advertise their programmes and their candidates with posters and events. And finally, voters decide at the polls which party they support.

At European level, by contrast, for a long time electoral campaigns went like this: Instead of a single programme, the European parties published several dozen – one for each Member State. There were no European top candidates, the Commission President was chosen after the election in the back room of the European Council. The posters and events often dealt with purely national issues that had nothing to do with European politics. And in the end, ever more voters decided simply not to go to the polls.

European candidates, European issues

This year, however, everything is going to be different. For the first time, the major European parties have nominated top candidates for the post of Commission President: Martin Schulz for the Party of European Socialists (PES), Jean-Claude Juncker for the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), Guy Verhofstadt for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), Alexis Tsipras for the European Left (EL), and Ska Keller and José Bové for the European Green Party (EGP). Only the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists (AECR) decline to participate in what they consider a “federalist scheme”.

These pan-European top candidates increase the chances that the major topics in this year’s electoral campaign will be pan-European. Whether it’s the financial crisis, climate change, foreign policy, migration, or the future of democracy: The European Union has become a central actor in so many important areas that there is little reason to switch to national sideshows instead. Moreover, European parties are no longer the heterogeneous alliances they used to be. The groups in the European Parliament take an increasingly cohesive stand and can thus represent clear alternatives for the citizens to choose from.

The European electoral manifestos

As a consequence, the pan-European electoral platforms gain importance. Although the European parties adopted joint manifestos since the first European elections in 1979, these were usually kept in rather general terms and were overshadowed by the national programmes adopted by their member parties. This general constellation has not changed in 2014. However, the increasing group discipline in the European Parliament makes clear that what matters in a European election is not the national platform, but the common European manifesto of each party.

Depending on the party, the format of these manifestos differs significantly. While the EGP has adopted a fairly detailed text (18 pages), ALDE and PES keep it rather short (8 and 4 pages). The EL has not adopted a manifesto, but a 15-page “political document”, which includes not only policy proposals, but also reflections on the future of the party. The EPP offers even two texts – a rather nondescript 4-page “manifesto” as well as an exhaustive 40-page “action programme”. Several of the smaller European parties have also adopted their own manifestos, such as the centrist European Democratic Party (EDP), the regionalist European Free Alliance (EFA) or the right-wing European Alliance for Freedom (EAF). AECR, in turn, has no joint platform.

And how, then, do the policy proposals of the major parties differ? What alternatives do they offer to their voters? In the following, I shall present a comparison of their stances regarding three of the most important issues facing the European Union: the financial crisis, ecological sustainability and a democratic reform of the European institutions.

European parties are no longer the heterogeneous alliances they used to be. The groups in the European Parliament take an increasingly cohesive stand and can thus represent clear alternatives for the citizens to choose from.

Causes of the financial crisis

When it comes to the financial crisis, the discrepancies between the parties already start with the analysis of the causes. The most detailed explanation is offered by the Left: For them, the euro crisis is explicitly not the consequence of “mismanagement on the part of the southern European countries”. Rather, it is an – albeit special – manifestation of the “global crisis of capitalism”, “the result of a predatory process aimed at socialisation of losses and privatisation of anything capable of generating profits”. According to the EL, the crisis made “class confrontations become palpable”.

Although EGP and PES use a less aggressive tone, they too see “[n]eo-liberal deregulation” (EGP) at the root of the crisis, which then was exacerbated through the “[a]usterity only policy” (PES) in Europe. The EPP manifesto, on other hand, sees national debt as the primary cause of the crisis: “The spend-now-and-pay-later policies of our competitors caused the crisis in the first place, and increase the risk of another crisis down the line.” In their action programme, however, they are somewhat more differentiated and speak of “a diverse range of factors, including excessive public and private debt, a lack of competitiveness in certain Member States, flawed regulation of financial markets and insufficient integration in the Euro area”.

Unemployment and public investment

Despite these differences in their root-cause analysis, the parties are largely in agreement about what is the main challenge today: The high unemployment is one of the “key elements for injustice” (EGP), “a danger for social cohesion” (EPP) and the “greatest social and economic crisis now facing Europe” (ALDE). More employment is thus “top priority” for the Liberals and “first and main priority” of the Social Democrats.

And how do we reach this goal? In particular for the parties of the centre-left, one solution is more public investment. In the context of the “European Green New Deal”, for example, the EGP wants to increase the EU budget and create “financial solidarity instruments aimed at helping to finance the economic recovery”. Through investments in energy and resource efficiency, the Greens intend to “create many new quality jobs”. PES and ALDE also support the promotion of green technologies with public funds. In addition, the PES demands an “ambitious European industrial policy” and an expansion of the European Youth Guarantee. One step further, the EL speaks of a “public re-appropriation of strategic sectors” and wants to finance investments through a “European public bank”.

On the other side, the EPP remains sceptical. According to them, “[i]nvesting in unreformed economies never generates sustainable growth” and “more government spending is not the answer”. Thus, the EPP only supports “targeted investment, developing EU networks in the fields of energy, transport and Information and Communication Technology (ICT), in particular through Public Private Partnerships”.

Structural reforms and internal market

Otherwise, however, the Christian Democrats bet fully on “structural reforms”, which in their eyes “are necessary today to ensure the right conditions exist to create new jobs”. In particular, the EPP wants to address “the health sector, pension systems, labour markets and education systems” and introduce “inclusive and active employment policies” as well as “modern, life-long learning training systems”. How these reforms should exactly look like, however, is not revealed in the action programme.
Finally, EPP and ALDE propose the completion of the European internal market in order to “stimulate entrepreneurship” (EPP) and “simplify doing business in Europe” (ALDE). Both parties want to create jobs by “encouraging economies to facilitate more labour flexibility and mobility” (EPP) and “further facilitating the free movement of services and workers” (ALDE).

Public debt

The question of public debt management again shows a clear contrast between the parties of the left and right. Thus, EPP and ALDE insist on less government spending and call for “better control mechanisms and more automatic sanctions when the stability and growth pact is broken” (ALDE). The PES, by contrast, demands “more room for manoeuvre for investments through national budgets” and supports “mutualising responsibility and rights within the euro zone”. The EGP is in favour of “setting up a debt redemption fund and gradually issuing common debt instruments (Eurobonds) under clearly defined and realistic common fiscal discipline rules”.

The EL, finally, supports “a European convention on public debt, which will decide on the abolition of the biggest part of the – unsustainable – public debts of over-indebted states, along with revised repayment terms, such as a ‘growth clause’”. Moreover, they want the European Central Bank “to be lender of last resort, that is to say, lending directly to states”.

In contrast, the need for better macroeconomic coordination has a consensus among the major European parties – even though they remain rather vague about what exactly should be done. For the EPP, “[f]urther coordination of fiscal and budgetary policies should be considered”. The PES wants a “real coordination of the economic and fiscal policies in the Eurozone”, although the “national Parliaments must keep their sovereignty”. The EGP, finally, speaks of “new instruments developed to mitigate larger differences in economic cycles including unemployment rates”, which seems to be an allusion to the much-discussed European unemployment insurance – only that it is put in such a roundabout way that probably no-one will notice. Moreover, EPP and ALDE explicitly mention that non-euro countries are to be included in the common economic policy, too, since “our economic futures are inextricably bound together” (ALDE). According to the EPP, “the EU and the Euro area should eventually converge”.

Another idea that has broad support is that the financial sector has to be regulated more tightly. The European banking supervision and the Single Resolution Mechanism, by which the “vicious link between sovereign debt and bank debt” (EPP) is to be broken, enjoy general support. In the details, however, the claims of the parties do differ. For example, the EGP is the only party to require not only a common resolution mechanism, but also a “common system of insurance for deposits up to €100,000”. The PES is in favour of “firewalls between Commercial and Investment Banking” and of an “independent and public European credit rating agency”. The EPP, in turn, presents itself as the guardian of subsidiarity: While they want “all systemic and trans-boundary working major banks” to be monitored by the European Central Bank, “[f]or smaller banks such a strict supervisory system is not necessary”.

Also as an effect of the crisis, all parties have now discovered tax policy as a European activity. However, once more we can see significant differences between left and right. The most radical position is taken by the EL, which warns against “plans for the creation of ‘Special Economic Zones’ on European soil” and summarises its demands in the sentence: “The rich should pay for the crisis!” But also the Greens aim to “restore tax justice and efficiency”. For this, they require less “tax burden on labour” and more taxes on “pollution and waste”. Moreover, the EGP calls for common minimum rates of corporate and property taxes in all member states, and also the EL advocates “generalising taxes on capital in the various countries”. In addition, EL, EGP and PES all demand a financial transaction (or “Tobin”) tax.

In turn, the Liberals and the EPP also want to redesign the tax system, but only in order to “encourage the setting up of new businesses” (ALDE) and “stimulate entrepreneurship” (EPP). And when it comes to equilibrating national budgets, the EPP expresses “a clear preference for trimming unproductive expenditures over increasing rates of taxation”. By contrast, cross-party unity exists in the fight against tax fraud and tax evasion, which also the EPP considers “unethical and unfair”. Moreover, most parties want to take action against “tax havens”. Only the ALDE declares itself “committed to the principle of tax competition” and criticises only “tax avoidance and evasion”, but not tax havens.

The EGP is the only party to require not only a common resolution mechanism, but also a “common system of insurance for deposits up to €100,000”.

Social Europe

Another issue on which the left-wing parties make their mark is European social policy. Although the EPP also calls for “upward social convergence between EU Member States” and “progress in the fight against poverty and social exclusion”, their concrete proposals remain rather modest. For example, they only want “country-specific minimum wage levels implemented according to national labour laws” – unlike PES and EL, who outright demand European minimum wages. Moreover, PES and EGP promise to fight against “social dumping”, want to strengthen European trade unions, support the conclusion of European collective agreements, and favour a ban on “precarious contracts that harm many Europeans” (PES). With a “European social card”, the Greens intend to improve the portability of social benefits between Member States. Last but not least, PES and EGP both want to amend the EU treaty with a “social progress clause”, according to which “economic freedoms cannot outweigh social rights” (PES).

Environmental policies

From the financial to the environmental crisis: Here again, all parties are in broad agreement that a sustainable energy policy and more resource efficiency are key tasks for the future. In detail, however, their rhetoric differs. While the Greens warn urgently against “catastrophic climate change”, the EL considers ecology as “an affair of popular sovereignty and democracy”. For ALDE and EPP, the main objective seems to be “less dependence on fossil fuel imports” (EPP).

When it comes to concrete demands, these nuances are present, too. While all parties agree that the EU must further reduce their carbon emissions, only the Greens propose specific figures: Compared to 1990 levels, they aim to reduce emissions by 30% by 2020 (rather than by 20%, as current legislation provides), by 55% until 2030, and to achieve a “carbon-neutral society” by 2050. To this end, the EGP calls for the European Emissions Trading System (ETS) to “be radically reformed” or, if that fails, the introduction of “national carbon floor pricing”.

In contrast, the other parties remain much more general. The EL also criticises the poor functioning of the ETS, but does not mention any alternatives. The ALDE sees an “effective and well-functioning carbon market” as “a key tool to reduce greenhouse gas emissions cost-effectively” and wants to “strengthen” the ETS. The PES demands “further binding targets on the reduction of carbon emissions”, but doesn’t propose any numbers. Even less enthusiastic is the EPP, according to which “[b]inding, but realistic, EU level targets for 2030 could be proposed for those policy areas where they provide a proven added-value in terms of investor certainty, as well as cost-effectiveness”.

Renewable energies and energy efficiency

A similar pattern can be seen in the promotion of renewable energies and energy efficiency. Once more, all parties agree in principle: The PES calls for “further binding targets on […] the increased use of renewable energy and improved energy efficiency”. The ALDE wants to “increase energy efficiency” and “decarbonise energy generation” by “building even more upon renewable energy sources”. The EPP is for “moving away from our dependence on fossil fuels”.

But again, the Green manifesto is the only one that gives concrete numbers. By 2030, the EGP wants to reduce energy consumption by 40% and make renewable energies account for 45% of energy consumption. This is to be achieved through the promotion of green technologies, an end to public subsidies and investments in fossil fuels, as well as a new “European Renewable Energy Community” (although the proposed functions of this Community remain rather unclear). In addition, the Greens also advocate a “phase-out” of nuclear energy in Europe. Here, too, they primarily want to reduce direct and indirect subsidies, in particular by making power plant operators fully liable in case of nuclear accidents. Finally, “fracking” – the controversial extraction of shale gas – is explicitly rejected in the Green manifesto. Apart from the Greens, the party that is most outspoken about its energy strategy is ALDE. The Liberals also want to “phase out environmentally harmful subsidies, including those for fossil fuel production and consumption”. At the same time, they are the only party that promotes “carbon capture and storage technology”. The expansion of pan-European electricity networks, finally, is a common goal of EGP, ALDE and EPP.

There is another issue, however, in which only the two largest parties seem to be interested: Both the PES and the EPP don’t want to see energy prices rising. However, there is an interesting difference in their emphasis. While the PES wants to “fight energy poverty” and “guarantee minimum access to energy for everyone”, the EPP cares mainly about “preserving Europe’s industrial base through affordable energy prices”. The solution offered by the EPP is the “completion of the internal energy market”.

The question of how green technologies can be promoted is also answered differently by the parties. Once more, the most radical proposals come from the EL, which mentions the “ecological transformation” in the context of its demand for a “public re-appropriation of strategic sectors”. Social Democrats and Liberals, by contrast, are mainly focused on public investment. While the PES wants to “promote the implementation of Project Bonds to finance good investments in the green economy, renewable energy and technology”, the ALDE wants a “shift of EU support under structural and cohesion funds towards research and investment into future oriented sectors such as the renewable energy sources sector”. The EPP, on the other hand, looks mainly at the private sector and wants to “create opportunities for European businesses to develop new sustainable technologies”.

While all parties agree that the EU must further reduce their carbon emissions, only the Greens propose specific figures.

The Greens, finally, propose a whole bunch of measures: “promoting eco-design rules, public procurement, state aid rules, private investment, small and medium sized enterprises and cooperatives, better funding for research, development and education, promotion of entrepreneurship, and in particular social entrepreneurship, good industrial relations, workplace democracy and fighting corporate vested interests”. Moreover, they are the only party to put an emphasis on European transport policy, where they want to reduce resource consumption by enhancing cross-border rail links and promoting energy-efficient cars and public transport. An aspect on which EPP, PES and EGP agree is that environmental policy is not a purely European affair. All three parties strive for a “close cooperation with our global partners” (PES) in order to reach “a global solution to climate change” (EPP). For this, the Greens place their hope on the United Nations and propose to merge all existing UN environmental agencies into one “World Environment Organisation”. By contrast, EPP and PES seem to regard environment protection primarily as a kind of international championship. For them, the EU should “regain global leadership on the protection of nature and natural resources” (PES) and “remain the world leader in this area” (EPP).

Democratic policies

The euro crisis did not only put economic policy on the top of the political agenda, but also the demand for a democratic reform of the EU. The left-wing parties were especially harshly critics of the crisis management of the Troika and the European Council. In recent years, thus, the possibility of a new European Convention, which would prepare the first major treaty reform since Lisbon, has been a recurrent issue in European politics.

ALDE, EL and EGP support this demand in their manifestos – albeit with slightly different rhetoric. While the EL claims for “breaking the frame of the treaties […] which are binding ECB and EU to neoliberal policies”, the Liberals more moderately “support the calling of a Convention to develop the Union further in a democratic direction”. Finally, the Greens call for “a fundamental political reorientation and for a democratic renewal of the European Union” and propose not only “a new democratic convention […] or a constituent assembly”, but also a ratification of its results “through an EU-wide referendum”. PES and EPP, by contrast, don’t mention the Convention in their manifestos – which is certainly not a good sign for the proponents of treaty reform.

Strengthening the European parliament

And what should a more democratic EU look like? For most parties it is clear that the European Parliament needs to be strengthened. Their concrete proposals, however, remain rather vague. The PES seeks “a prominent role for the European Parliament”, the EL wants “a European Parliament with full powers and jurisdiction”, the ALDE suggests “greater involvement of the European and national parliaments in decision-making”. Only the EGP gets more specific and proposes to give the Parliament “the right to initiate legislation”, “to co-decide on the priorities of economic policy coordination” as well as “some competences concerning tax policy and social policy”.

The Green manifesto is also the only one that calls for changes in the European election system: The EGP not only wants to lower the voting age to 16 years, but also proposes to “introduce pan-European lists with transnational candidates”. Finally, ALDE and EGP agree that the European Parliament should have only one seat and “stop the travelling circus between Brussels and Strasbourg” (EGP).

Commission and council

The European Commission is also seen in need of reform by most parties, even if it is not always clear what they actually want to do with it. Thus, the Greens request the Commission to “be held accountable for their actions”. For the EL, “[t]he European Commission must transfer its powers to the European and national parliaments and its role must be limited to its executive duties”. ALDE and EPP want to reduce the number of portfolios in the Commission. However, the EPP insists that the principle of “one commissioner per country” should not be abandoned.

As to the Council, Greens and Liberals agree that more transparency is needed, “for example by publishing all voting results” (EGP). More detailed reform proposals come from the EPP, for which “[t]he Council should be reformed into one central formation that takes all legislative decisions prepared by the different Councils of Ministers”. Both EPP and EGP also want to reduce the national veto rights in the Council, the EPP mentioning specifically “the fields of foreign policy and justice and home affairs”.

Other institutions

Another wide-spread demand of the manifestos is to strengthen the national parliaments, although once again the concrete proposals for this remain very unclear. Thus, the EL simply demands “powers to national […] elected assemblies”. For the EPP, “[n]ational parliaments must become more pro-active and involved in European decision-making within the framework of national constitutions”. The Greens want to “strengthen the national parliaments’ opportunities to react when the EU exceeds its authority by not following the rules on subsidiarity”, have them impose “better control over their governments’ actions in European affairs” and give them “more avenues of cooperation with the European Parliament”. A reform of the European Central Bank is proposed by EL and EGP. Both want to increase democratic control and include employment promotion among its policy objectives. Moreover, the EL wants the ECB to lend “directly to states”, which is not considered by the Greens.

The ALDE in turn is the only party that is also interested in the secondary organs of the EU – but only in order to abolish them: For the Liberals all organs should “contribute significantly to the decision-making process […] of the Union”, which is why they support “restructuring” the Committee of the Regions and want to dissolve the European Economic and Social Council. Moreover, the Liberals call for an “audit of all existing EU agencies” and propose to abolish “[t]hose that do not deliver significant added value”. The criteria by which this “added value” is to be measured, however, are not specified in the manifesto.

Another great challenge of the EU is how to deal with member states violating democracy and the rule of law on the national level. Cases like Hungary or Romania have shown that the current mechanism in article 7 TEU is not sufficient to secure generalised respect for the common values of the Union. However, only ALDE and EGP address this in their manifestos. Thus, the Greens call for “effective monitoring and sanctions when there are violations of our values in the member states” and propose a new “Copenhagen Commission […] to make sure that the democratic demands that are put upon candidate countries […] are not followed by backsliding into authoritarianism and cronyism once a Member State has joined the EU”. Similarly, the Liberals want “a mechanism to monitor violations of fundamental rights and civil liberties in the EU and enforce sanctions, on the basis of objective criteria, free from political interference”.

 Finally, the Greens also emphasise the idea of direct and participatory democracy on the European level. Thus, they want to make the European Citizens’ Initiative “more efficient and citizen-friendly” and intend to “create a legal basis for EU-wide referenda”.


The electoral manifestos of the European political parties are not in every respect as precise as one might wish – but on the important issues they are still clear enough to allow the voters to make an informed decision. Above all, there is a clear left-right contrast when dealing with the euro crisis. While PES, EGP and ALDE place emphasis on public investments and the EL even proposes to completely nationalise some sectors of the economy, the EPP takes a very sceptical stand on public spending and focuses primarily on structural reforms. Moreover, there are also clear differences in tax and social policy between PES, EGP and EL on the one hand and EPP and ALDE on the other.

Larger agreement exists in environmental and climate protection, where all parties support the transition from fossil to renewable energies. However, when it comes to concrete proposals it is mainly the EGP who underpins its claim to be the ecologist frontrunner. Finally, the EU’s democratic future seems to be a priority especially for the smaller parties – ALDE, EGP and EL –, whereas PES and EPP hardly mention this issue in their manifestos. In any case, whatever the voters decide on 22-25th May, it is already clear that their election will make a difference.

More by Manuel Müller

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