Back in November, the Policy Centre for European Affairs ran a Hackathon on “European cohesion in the age of populism: How should the EU strengthen European identity to counterbalance Eurosceptic forces?”. Euroscepticism and populism aren’t the only forces causing division in Europe and threatening the European project, but the motivation behind this event was to try and understand in what ways the European Union (EU) could strengthen its internal ties in order to secure its future. This is a hard question, because the EU is not in the best position to fight these forces. The EU is clearly more than a conventional international organization, but it has not yet become part of policy discussions at a state level. Even if it wished to increase its influence and assert its leadership position, there would always be strong opposition to giving EU institutions the kind of powers it would need to do so. Perhaps the solution for the future of the European project may not exist via top-down approaches championed by EU institutions. Instead, a bottom-up political movement may be needed.
In the wake of Brexit, a pan-European movement was formed, with the goal of becoming a party for the whole of Europe, making politics on a local and national level. Today Volt Europa has 29 national subsidiary parties (including one in the UK and one in Switzerland), and many have already participated in local and regional elections. In the long term, Volt Europa envisions a federal Europe, but for now they seem to be slowly trying to gather local support across Europe. The question explored is how Volt Europa aligns with EU strategies and if this movement can indeed strengthen the European project and tackle the national divisions across Europe.
Currently, main priorities of the EU include:
- Providing a European Green deal in order to combat climate change while making the EU’s economy sustainable.
- Fostering a digital future in order to strengthen digital sovereignty and empower people and businesses.
- Working for an economy that can respond to the needs of all EU citizens.
- Promoting and strengthening European democracy.
The EU develops these goals collectively within its institutions. These initiatives are based on extensive research and are carefully designed with clear benefits to citizens in mind. Yet, the resulting policies don’t always percolate down to the national level because national governments may not necessarily have the same priorities. The vision of Volt Europa on the other hand, set’s out very similar priorities, which all subsidiary parties support. Volt priorities include:
- Establishing policies in line with the Sustainable Development Goals, including combating climate change.
- Working towards the “smart state” which include the digitalization of public services, guaranteeing digital rights and freedom as well as modernizing education systems.
- An “economic renaissance” for society’s progress, including the proposal of a Europe-wide corporate tax.
- Improve the EU project, reforming institutions for a more democratic, transparent and federal Europe.
Clearly, the priorities of the EU and Volt are closely related, this is unsurprising considering Volt is a pro-European organization. Yet, the initiatives put forward by the EU are typically ambitious and complex (for example, reaching net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050) and as a consequence no single body could easily implement such plans. The decision-making is too dispersed, and action is needed at all levels of government, from local planners and national legislatures to EU institutions. Since Volt’s subsidiary parties work on a national level, many of the dimensions and requirements for the implementation of such policies can be overcome with more ease. The opportunity presented is a more frictionless conversion of EU initiatives to national policies.
This approach to European politics taken by Volt is a relatively new one, and although they have enjoyed early success, with Damian Boeselager being elected as a member of the European Parliament and Volt Netherlands winning three seats in the national parliament, the movement faces many obstacles. Most members from subsidiary parties are young students or professionals, and many of their supporters are equally as young. With young people’s participation in votes tending to be low, the movement may struggle to obtain the support they need from the broader population. Furthermore, Volt’s pragmatic approach, lacking a strong ideological or politically positioned message, may hamper their ability to foster support and stand against established national parties who focus on more immediate issues and support a nationalist or populist rhetoric.
Since the 1990’s interest in European matters has increased across Europe, however, the actual state of EU integration at the national level of member countries has not shown an equally clear trend. In fact, many argue that the European project maintains a technocratic character, with elitism remaining a common presumption defining the European Union. Perhaps, grassroot movements like Volt Europa could be in a position to counterbalance these drawbacks and bring the EU closer to its citizens by bringing EU issues into the national debate and bringing EU initiatives closer to fruition.
By João Pereira
Joao is a Robotics Masters student at the Faculty of Natural and Mathematical Sciences and is the Liaison for the European Affairs Policy Centre at the King’s Think Tank. His interests include European integration theory and the relationship between European citizens and the European Union.
Image: People attend a pro–European Union rally in Budapest, Hungary, on May 1, 2017. Photo credit: © Bernadett Szabo/Newsco
M. Seiler, J. Decker, “The Split Self: Europe in the Age of Populism European Affairs Event Review” (King’s Think Tank, 2020)
John McCormick, “Understanding the European Union” (London: Red Globe Press, 2017), xiv. https://www.macmillanihe.com/page/detail/Understanding-the-European-Union/?K=9781352011203
Volt Europea: About Volt. Online: https://www.volteuropa.org/about
Ursula von der Leyen , “A Union that strives for more My agenda for Europe”. Online: https://ec.europa.eu/info/sites/info/files/political-guidelines-next-commission_en_0.pdf
Volt Europa A.S.B.L., “Mapping of Policies” (2019). Online: https://assets.volteuropa.org/inline-images/ayLlM6BjF5zSmulr1boU5wFLMFDD81eyCXZxA63BjrwuZsNKhz.pdf
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