What MEPs want: 10 tips for planning your 2024 European Election campaign
Just a few months after the half-way point in its mandate, the 2024 European Parliament Election season has begun. Players in the EU Bubble – from think tanks to NGOs, businesses to agencies – are already planning their own activities around one of the world’s largest democratic exercises.
Yet many of these campaigns will fall flat and not connect with policymakers.
Our Head of Political Engagement, James Holtum, sets out ten things to consider when designing your 2024 activities:
1 ‘What’s in it for me?’ What will MEPs and candidates gain from engaging with you? Candidates are inundated by groups asking them to sign up to their specific issue, so think about what their campaign gains from supporting your initiative – can they turn it into votes or a media opportunity?
2 Selection often trumps election. The fate of candidates is often sealed months in advance by their Party’s internal selection processes. Especially in countries with closed party lists (meaning voters cannot vote for an individual candidate), candidates’ ranking within their Party is particularly important. National parties have differing processes, from democratic membership votes to selection by Party leadership. Understand these processes and the likelihood of your target candidates being elected. That way you can be more efficient with how you allocate your resources.
3 All politics is local. Brussels will focus on pan-European parties – but Brussels is not Europe. Many voters still vote on national lines so if you’re pushing a localized issue, there is little point raising it at the European level. However, if raising an EU-wide issue your campaign needn’t be waged in every town across the EU, because…
4 ‘Brussels’ is supra-national. Pan-European political parties are transnational, consisting of national parties from within the EU and aligned with parties further afield. These parties usually align with their respective groups in parliament and will have their own manifestos, which are more likely to be carried over into the European Commission’s priorities. Influencing their thinking will be crucial and most will be seeking ideas in the coming weeks, so are likely to be eager to engage with you.
Each party may nominate a lead candidate to run for Commission President. This process does not always produce the nominee (Juncker was a Spitzenkandidat in 2014 but t in 2019, Manfred Weber, was passed over for Ursula von der Leyen). Nevertheless, the candidates may give your issue profile, and securing support from even-unsuccessful candidates may still advance your cause, because…
5 The campaign doesn’t stop once the votes are counted. The post-election period can be important for getting your issue on the agenda. After the elections, the EU enters a frenetic political period including the re-formation of pan-European political groups and a ‘mating season’ where the groups jostle to hold on to wavering political parties and attract new delegations or Members. For each group, this is also a trade-off between maintaining cohesion and numbers (which become critical for influence throughout the rest of the term).
6 Political Guidelines – The European Commission’s Directorates-General, alongside others, will work with the President of the European Commission to draft a set of Political Guidelines, where the Commission President-delegate will set out their stall at the start of a mandate. While this is usually high-level, engagement with the relevant Directorates-General of the European Commission could be beneficial to delivering your objectives. However, if this fails….
7 Catch the Commission while the tables are turned. In the confirmation process for the President and Members of the Commission, MEPs get a confirmation vote on the President and the whole College, giving them significant influence. After being nominated by the European Council, the Commission President is formally confirmed by MEPs based on their Political Guidelines. Political groups in the European Parliament often put forward their shopping lists for policies upon which their support will be dependent, therefore getting your initiative included would most likely see it included in the Guidelines.
The confirmed President then delegates each of the 27 Commissioners-designate a policy portfolio and a Mission Letter, containing the key political priorities laid out within the Guidelines. If your idea is not included, all is not lost as the Commissioners-designate must be confirmed by the European Parliament. Here, the nominees meet with the relevant MEPs to hear their priorities before a formal hearing with the relevant committee(s) of MEPs. The parliament cannot reject an individual Commissioner but it can reject the whole College – so a negative opinion towards a candidate may result in the President withdrawing them and asking the respective capital to re-nominate. Finding the MEPs who know how to leverage their influence will be crucial to your campaign’s success.
8 Find the right champions. No two MEPs are the same: some get elected to campaign on one issue, some see the European Parliament as a natural progression from national politics, and for others, it kick-starts their career. Why does this matter? It gives you a hint as to each MEP’s motives. A stalwart MEP may be interested in the detail of a file and might have seen the Directive you’re lobbying on pass through their committee before. A young MEP will be seeking issues to build a profile on, but often lack the experience to deliver and build support. An MEP who held high office usually carries gravitas but may be more interested in geopolitical big questions. Finding the right profile(s) to take forward your issue will be critical.
9 Size Matters, sometimes – in European Parliament, not every mandate is the same. Several factors determine whether an MEP can push your item to the top of the agenda. Partially determined by their experience of navigating the parliamentary system, this can also be influenced by their political group and whether they hold major positions of influence. The top positions of authority in parliament are divided according to the d’Hondt formula which distributes positions proportionally according to group size.
This doesn’t mean you should go to the highest-profile MEP in the largest group. The larger groups can have more bureaucratic procedures for getting items on the agenda whilst smaller groups could represent the ‘kingmakers’ in parliament. Traditionally this role has fallen to the Liberal/Renew Group which can support either a left or right-backed majority. The dynamics of the next parliament are likely to be very different to the 2019-24 legislature, so knowing who exerts influence will be key.
10 Make life easy for them. If you want policymakers to take up your issue, know your stuff, understand procedures, and make useful suggestions. Build relationships with the often-overlooked MEPs’ assistants and advisors in the political groups.
Hopefully, these ten steps will help to hone a campaign whilst highlighting the complexity of EU decision-making. Knowing your way around the procedures, personalities, and politics of the Brussels bubble is critical to achieving success. This is why the 11th consideration should be, 11) Seek Help From The Experts!
by James Holtum