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Establishing a trans-national political sphere – the work of European-level political foundations

How can European-level democracy work in reality? How should it relate to the established national political spheres and identities in Europe? How can a European political sphere be established?

As a Euroculturer, you will have certainly come across these and other questions on the legitimacy of the European integration process. The following article presents how European-level political foundations concretely work with these issues – and how you can perhaps contribute to their projects as an intern.

GEF EU training for young Green activists © Juan García López

GEF EU training for young Green activists
© Juan García López

Daan Hovens │ daanhovens@gmail.com

Political foundations exist on both the national and the European level. They are organisations that are allied to, but independent from, political parties. The size, functioning and societal impact of political foundations varies widely, but their core tasks are usually based around political education, in the broadest sense of the word. This includes, for example, organising seminars, conferences and public discussions, as well as disseminating publications, launching websites and running social media accounts. With some political foundations, tasks can even go as far as political consultation, international development cooperation, and distributing education and research scholarships.

“The core of political foundations’ tasks are usually based around political education, in the broadest sense of the word.”

Political foundations are almost entirely financed by public money, which should make it possible for them to work quite independently and based on the political ideology they identify with. Due to this independence, political foundations can help to insure that a variety of ideological perspectives is represented in the public sphere, and that citizens’ political education is not dominated by only one single ideology. Since political foundations also contribute in engaging citizens in general, some people view these foundations – at least in theory – as crucial elements in the establishment of a democratic political culture.

Why European-level political foundations?

Yet, in different national contexts, citizens and authorities have different ideas about the added value of political foundations. As these foundations are mostly financed with public money, their size differs widely across countries. Perhaps not surprisingly due to its 20th century history, Germany stands out as a country where political foundations are strongly subsidised by the state and therefore relatively powerful.

Concerning European-level political foundations, the European Parliament has financed such foundations since 2008. The motivation behind this seems obvious as the European political sphere is still weak while European-level decision-making has become ever more meaningful for the daily lives of EU citizens. The main goal of European political foundations can be defined, in other words, as to bridge the often experienced ‘gap’ between the EU and its citizens.

“The main goal of European political foundations is to bridge the ‘gap’ between the EU and its citizens.”

Naturally, Eurosceptics could put this in a different perspective: questioning the assumed ‘general interest’ of establishing European-level political foundations, and criticising the legitimacy of European-level foundations having an impact on the national political sphere. On the other hand, Eurosceptics can also make use of the right to establish European political foundations in order to spread their own ideological perspectives. This has already been done in the shape of, for example, “New Direction, the Foundation for European Reform”.

How much should ‘Europe’ spend on European-level political foundations?

Still, legitimating the use of public money – and more importantly, how much public money – to subsidise political foundations can be a sensitive issue in current European debates. In reality, although the budget of European political foundations has gradually increased since 2008, this financing is still limited to a maximum of about 4 million euro – the amount received by the political foundation allied to the largest political group in the European Parliament (the centre-right European People’s Party)[1]. This is more than the money that, for example, the Dutch authorities spend on their national political foundations[2], but it is only a fraction of the annual subsidies received by the German centre-right Konrad Adenauer Foundation, which is more than 100 million euro[3].

“Although the budget of European political foundations has gradually increased since 2008, this financing is still limited to a maximum of about 4 million euro.”

An advantage of the limited budgets is that they encourage European foundations to cooperate with national foundations, which could bring the political discussions on both levels closer together. A disadvantage, on the other hand, is that due to the strongly differing national circumstances, national foundations from states that spend much money on these foundations (such as, as mentioned above, Germany) might hold a rather powerful position within the European networks this way, as the possibility of carrying out certain projects could become financially depending on their willingness to cooperate.

“Another criticism comes from the fact that the current system may help, in other words, to conserve the existing power division.”

Another criticism towards the financing system of political foundations comes from the fact that the amount of public money that a foundation receives depends on the size of the foundation’s affiliated political party in the European Parliament. This means that the current system benefits the spread of ideological perspectives of parties that are already well-represented in the Parliament, whereas it is more difficult for new and smaller parties to present their ideological perspectives in the public sphere. The current system may help, in other words, to conserve the existing power division. Yet, it seems difficult to come up with a financing system that appears fairer, as the current situation can at least be legitimated by the outcome of supposedly free and open democratic elections.

What concrete projects do European political foundations work on?

“Let’s have a look at some of the projects carried out by these foundations to tackle the questions…”

Another way to tackle the question of the legitimacy of spending public money on European-level political foundations is to have a look at the concrete projects carried out by these foundations. I will name three examples of projects here that I have contributed to myself as an intern for the Green European Foundation (GEF) in 2012.

GEF publications © GEF

GEF publications © GEF

First of all, GEF runs a website called the “Campaign Handbook”, on which it gathers campaign experiences of (mainly) European Greens and NGO actors. Together with some theoretical information on how to set up an effective campaign, this serves to inspire and help anyone who is interested in becoming politically active – especially in those countries where Green issues do not play a prominent role on the political agenda.

Secondly, GEF organises an annual seminar, the so-called “Toolkit for the European Green activist”, which brings together young Green activists from all over Europe for three days of workshops, discussions, interactive classes and guided tours in Brussels. The idea behind this is to make young activists with different national and regional backgrounds more aware of the functioning of European-level decision making, as well as their own opportunity of engaging in this decision-making process. Within this context, the annual seminar can also serve as a potential for young Green activists to set up a European network.

© GEF

GEF expert seminar © GEF

Lastly, GEF regularly organises expert seminars, for example a seminar on “Populism in Central and Eastern Europe”. Since populist parties have become quite prominent in several European countries in recent years, it can be useful for Green actors throughout Europe to exchange opinions on whether one can speak of this recent populism as a truly ‘European’ (or perhaps rather ‘Western European’ and ‘Central/Eastern European’?) phenomenon, and to exchange experiences on how to deal with the political challenges that Green parties face when dealing with populism. With these goals in mind, the seminar is mainly aimed at an academic audience, as well as certain people involved in Green politics. After the seminar, a publication reflecting the input and conclusions from the seminar discussions is made publicly available by GEF.

Interested?

If you are interested in different European-level political foundations and if you want to know more about their activities – and perhaps even look for the possibility to work as an intern there – you can find the websites of all thirteen European political foundations via the following links:

Centre Maurits Coppieters: http://www.cmc-foundation.eu/

Centre for European Studies: http://thinkingeurope.eu/

European Christian Political Foundation: http://www.ecpf.info/

European Foundation for Freedom: http://www.eurfreedom.org/

European Identities and Traditions: http://aemn.eu/

European Liberal Forum: http://www.liberalforum.eu/

Foundation for EU Democracy: http://www.europeandemocracy.org/

Foundation for European Progressive Studies: http://www.feps-europe.eu/en/

Green European Foundation: http://gef.eu/home/ (other GEF project websites, such as the mentioned Campaign Handbook and the Green European Journal, can be found via this link as well)

Institute of European Democrats: http://www.iedonline.eu/

New Direction – Foundation for European Reform: http://newdirectionfoundation.org/

Organization for European Inter-State Cooperation: http://oeiceurope.com/

Transform Europe: http://www.transform-network.org/home.html


[3] See: http://www.kas.de/upload/dokumente/jahresbericht2012/Namen_Fakten_Bilanzen.pdf

Daan profileDaan Hovens, Contributing Writer

During the first 18 years of his life, Daan practically lived on the Dutch-German border (just slightly at the Dutch side), in a village called Tegelen. Having this in mind, it may not come as a surprise that he has studied Euroculture and German. Besides that, he has a background in Scandinavian languages and cultures, which he decided to study out of his love for films, music and languages from Northern Europe. Daan’s two Euroculture Universities were – for obvious reasons – Göttingen and Uppsala, and he also did a research track at Osaka University. The internship for the Green European Foundation in Brussels was Daan’s first work experience after graduation.”

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