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European political life at risk of fossilization

EUOBSERVER/BRUSSELS - The European Parliament's administration this week kicked-started a new payments scheme which for the first time allows European political parties to benefit directly from the EU budget.

In total the political groups, of which six will benefit, will get 6,5 million euro in 2004. 

However, not all are in favour of the new scheme.

German Public Law professor Hans Herbert von Arnim warns that it could widen the gap between EU politicians and the citizens.

"With growing public funding the political parties will be able to live their own life. They will no longer need the involvement of citizens", says the professor, from Speyer University, in an interview with the EUobserver.

Six parties ready for public funding

Six party alliances in Europe have so far qualified to benefit from the public sponsoring: The Party of European Socialists (PES), the European People's Party (EPP), the European Liberal Democrats (ELDR), the European federation of Green Parties (EGP), the European Free Alliance (EFA) and the Party of European Left (EL).

The total of 6,5 million euro to be paid this year is not a huge sum, Professor von Arnim concedes.

But he points out that the amount is not limited by the regulation and that it could be increased year-by-year by the very parties that benefit from it.

An increased budget would need formal approval by the council, but an inter-institutional gentleman's agreement actually hinders member states from blocking an increase of the party funding if the European Parliament wants it, he says. 

Next year the budget is set to grow to 8,4 million euro.

Martin Schulz, president of the PES-group in the European Parliament put it this way in an interview with ARD-Magazine last October: "There is a German saying that the squirrel earns an honest living and has to start off small. A first step has been taken. I do not think that that is enough. In the long run we will need more money. But all beginnings are difficult."

Risk of fossilization

There are certain criteria attached to the money. The party must observe - both in its programme and in its activities - the principles on which the European Union is founded, says the regulation. 

In addition, the political party must have gained seats in at least a quarter of member states (now seven) in national or regional elections or it must have received at least three per cent of the vote in European elections in one quarter of member states. This means that not everyone is entitled to the funds.

"Small parties and new-comers will be subject to unfair competition".

Professor von Arnim believes the threshold was put as high as seven countries in order to protect the established party alliances from competition. He believes the threshold is much too high.

Party of parties

Professor von Arnim also argues that the European political parties do not qualify for the funding according to the criteria of article 191 EC. 

"The European party alliances are no parties, because they do not consist of citizens, but rather of national political parties. They are alliances of parties, they are party parties. Examining the Statutes of the existing European parties, it becomes obvious that citizens as members play no or only a very marginal role," he says.

Moreover, the European party alliances are not real parties because they do not themselves present candidates for elections.

"The regulation defines a theoretical possibility for citizens to establish a real European citizen's party. But it will have no chance to be eligible for public funds. The threshold is much too high."

The professor believes the new funding is a danger to democracy and brings European political life at risk of fossilization.

"The party alliances will no longer be forced to have members or to follow the will of the majority of the people. The political system could soon lose its flexibility and get fossilized".

A case for the Court

However, he admits that the new law also contains a number of positive steps. 

It introduces a ceiling of 12000 euro per year and per donor and obliges parties to declare their sources of funding. They must provide a list specifying the donors and the donations, with the exception of donations not exceeding 500 euro. 

"These are very good principles. But the problem is that there are no legal sanctions if parties don't follow the rules", Mr von Arnim points out.

In Germany dotations for political parties must be published, if they exceed 10000 euro, and parties must return double the sum to the public coffers if they break the rules. 

The German academic is now hoping the European Court of Justice will establish limits and controls similar to those in Germany. 

And this could happen.

A group of twenty-three members of the European Parliament, from five different political groups, decided last year to take the case to the Court of Justice.

They seee the regulation as dicriminatory against the smaller groups in the European Parliament or those parties that oppose European integration.

(aus: EUobserver [www.euobserver.com] vom 12.10.2004, 19:11 Uhr) 

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