Political parties connect citizens to the state. For this reason, any political party at the EU level is going to find itself in an unusual situation as the EU is currently not a state. How then should the Party of European Socialists (PES) aim to connect with citizens and how can it make itself relevant to the debate at the future of social democratic politics?
The PES is made up of 33 full member parties and as a result it can feel like an artificial construct. It has tried to find numerous ways to connect with European citizens. The 2009 European Parliamentary elections are a good example, when the PES used social media tools such as Facebook, Twitter and blogs to try and involve citizens in the various campaigns and to engage party members in constructing the manifesto. The project to Re:new the party focuses on exciting developments such as Initiatives and City Groups, with the aim to bring together grassroots political activists and connect them to the PES leadership.
All this is laudable but the problem still remains one of visibility. To really connect with party members you need to get them to realise the PES exists. To do that you need to get past the gatekeepers: national political parties. The problem is that contributors to the Initiatives need to see a connection between what they suggest and what emerges from the PES. If member parties veto or water down proposals (as they have in the past), how long will this spirit of engagement last?
The dream of creating a mass European party with individual members still exists, yet this dream seems to be at odds with the current literature on party membership. The PES strategy is to engage national party members in an organic, grassroots way. Clearly MyPES and other such initiatives are interesting but how well do they connect with the broader party membership? Take up is impressive but minute in terms of the EU as a whole. The big problem is that the link between being a member of a national party and membership of the PES remains opaque at best amongst many party members. How then can the PES overcome this visibility gap?
The lack of the PES logo on national membership cards, party websites and especially election manifestos does not help. A great deal of credit must go to the PES for pulling together a common manifesto but all this work in undermined by the lack of PES visibility on the final document. There might have been a high degree of compatibility between the message that the PES produced in its European manifestos and the one that emerged on the national level in election campaigns, but if the PES is not visible to citizens who are members of PES member parties, how can it be seen to be relevant to the broader citizenry? If the member parties regard PES membership as worthwhile (and I think they do), then they must allow the PES to grow.
Acknowledging that they belong to a European party of social democrats may not always be what the party leaders want to admit in public for a whole variety of (usually) electoral reasons. However, the need for social democratic unity and a common European message in this time of financial crisis and electoral difficulties is vital. Hiding behind national boundaries will not help tackle the social, environmental and political challenges faced by citizens in the EU. The PES can play a role in connecting party members to the European level if the national parties will allow it.
This piece suggests that small steps are necessary to connect the PES to European citizens. This message is hardly the type of message that fires the passions but the spillover method is the only practical way to connect the PES to firstly, national party members and then European citizens. If these small steps cannot be achieved, then the broader aim of European lists of candidates, European election manifestos with clear and genuine policy alternatives and even a common candidate for a possible elected President of the EU are a long, long way off.