Campaigning for a PES primary

What should the Party of European Socialists do in 2014 to avoid a repeat of 2009’s disastrous European Parliament election results, and the mess over the dithering prior to 2009 that resulted in the PES not selecting a candidate to be Commission President?

While Martin Schulz and the Socialist Group in the EP have not been asking himself this sort of question, it has not stopped some enterprising PES activists, led by Desmond O’Toole in Dublin, from raising the issue of a PES Primary. You can also join the Facebook Group here.

So what’s the basic idea?

Essentially the PES should select a candidate for President of the European Commission, and the members of the PES parties – in a one member, one vote postal ballot – would get to decide who that person should be. If the PES parties then were the largest group in the European Parliament after the 2014 elections that individual would be nominate to be Commission President. Simple, straightforward, accountable… and if the PES did it then other parties would surely follow? Also within the PES it would eliminate the dithering and horse trading we’ve seen in the past when it comes to whether to nominate a candidate for Commission President or not.

The chances the member parties of the PES are going to back this are slim to none, and the costs of the ballot would surely be considerable, but it’s vital that this issue is debated and discussed and – with luck – eventually it will happen.

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  1. Blog & Support » Blog Archive » The Week in Bloggingportal: No Representation Without Taxation

    […] AND POLITICS have been amongst the topics discussed by eurobloggers this week. A campaign has started up to encourage the Party of European Socialists (PES) to hold a primary before they […]

  2. Desmond O'Toole

    But you were more comprehensive! I’d not come across that study before, Julien. Thanks for the link.

  3. Julien-223

    Desmond was faster 🙂

  4. Julien-223

    Indeed, a “closed primary” in the US seems to include all supporters (I read that on wikipedia).

    But here I have a very interesting study by Ofer Kenig, Department of Political Science, University of British Columbia, “The Democratization of Party Leaders’ Selection Methods: Canada in Comparative Perspective”. Kenig excludes the USA from the scope of his study.

    He describes 5 levels of party leader selection procedures, ranked by degree of inclusiveness:
    1. Selection by the candidate himself, or by the party elite;
    2. Selection by the Parliamentary Party Group (PPG);
    3. Selection by a specific party agency: Congress, Convention, Electoral Committee…;
    4. Selection by Party Members.
    5. Selection by the Electorate.

    About procedure 4, Kenig says it is “also known as ‘closed primaries’, ‘party primaries’ or ‘one-member-one-vote’ system (OMOV)”. About procedure 5, he says “This kind of selectorate, also known as ‘open primary’”…

    Apparently, the term “primary” is also appropriate for a selection by party members -so, no misuse in this case-, and I think it’s necessary to keep using it because it is far catchier than any other imaginable expression.

  5. Desmond O'Toole

    I take your point, Richard, and thank you for your support. The terminology for the campaign has been taken from a paper written by Dr Ania Skrzypek, Policy Adviser with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (a PES-aligned think-tank). In her paper “Models of (s)electing a pan-European Leading candidate” ( page 32), she describes a closed primary as being one in which only “party members” take part.

    However, importing European terminology but then assigning a completely different meaning to it is also what Americans do. What’s sauce for the goose, hey 🙂


  6. Richard Pond

    It seems the term “primary” is being misused. Even in a closed primary, any registered supporter (without needing to pay a membership fee) can vote on who the party’s candidates should be.

    What people here are calling a primary is actually just a selection contest. It’s a bit confusing to import the US terminology but then assign a completely different meaning to it from what the Americans do.

    That said, I support the initiative.

  7. Desmond O'Toole

    EUobserver, one of Europe’s leading on-line news agencies, has published an article today on the Campaign for a PES Primary entitled: “Socialists want US-style primaries for commission president candidate”

    Their reporter, Leigh Philips, writes:

    “EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS – European social democracy is in the doldrums and the members of the continent’s centre-left think that a major change at the top of the Party of European Socialists is the solution.

    After a rout of the centre-left in last year’s European elections, activists with the centre-left Party of European Socialists (PES) have launched a campaign to push for US-style primary elections within the party to select their candidate for the presidency of the next European Commission in 2014.

    Frustrated with the failure of the PES to nominate any candidate at all ahead of the June 2009 elections, a pair of long-time activists have rolled out a movement that is proposing that the members of the various social democratic parties across Europe vote to choose who the party will nominate as its presidential candidate.

    The “Campaign for a PES Primary” was kicked off on 26 July by Desmond O’Toole, a member of the Irish Labour Party’s Central Council, and Jose Reis Santos, a Lisbon city councillor, and, according to the pair, has met with a “huge response.”

    Rest of article at:

    Regards … Desmond.
    Co-ordinator, PES activists Dublin.

  8. Jon

    Thanks to Julien and Desmond for your detailed comments – good stuff!

    And I very much want this to happen – fingers crossed it will work!

  9. Desmond O'Toole

    Many thanks, Jon, for giving publicity to the “Campaign for a PES Primary”.

    Democratising the PES is part of a wider effort to embed a contested political space within the European Unon where citizens get to make real choices between the policies of the Left and the Right. The “Campaign for a PES Primary” will provide a democratically-selected candidate to front the PES campaign at the EP elections in 2014 who can use that authority to build a popular mandate for a new direction for Europe.

    The Campaign is making no specific demands as to how a primary elections may be organised, but it is our clear demand that whatever system is adopted the members of PES national parties should be the ones to select our candidate for Commission President. The PES is comprised of 33 full member parties and each one has its own democratic processes and political history. Trying to agree a common system for these parties will be a difficult task, however, I believe that the adoption of a common system across all member parties for selecting the PES candidate will create the best conditions for PES success at the European elections in 2014.

    Dr Ania Skrzypek, Policy Advisor with the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS), has written a fascinating academic article on the options available to the PES for the nomination and selection of a candidate for the Presidency of the European Commission in 2014 (available at She has identified three distinct phases which such a process would have to take account of:

    1. a nomination phase
    2. a selection phase, and
    3. an decision phase.

    One could imagine candidates having to secure support from various nominating bodies, e.g. a certain proportion of the S&D parliamentary group, national parties or party members. The selection phase must, however, comprise the democratic involvement of all PES national party members across the EU. Some national parties, such as the UK Labour Party, have different classes of members, but the objective should be to ensure the engagement of the maximum number of individual party members. Once members have voted in their national parties, we would then enter the decision phase. One could make arguments for a straight count of votes cast across the whole of the EU, but this would ensure that the selection campaign would be concentrated in the larger parties. An electoral college where the votes of national parties were weighted according to QMV principles would perhaps deliver a fairer decision and ensure that the successful candidate had a broad spread of support from across the EU.

    These are just my personal views, but they give an indication of just how ground-breaking such an initiative would be. I’m more optimistic than Jon about the prospects for a PES Primary being endorsed and adopted by the member parties, but the next few months between now and the PES Council in Warsaw will tell.

    Regards … Desmond.

  10. Julien-223

    Three questions:
    1. Is it sure that it will be a postal ballot?

    2. I think a closed PES primary (only involving activists) wouldn’t be so expensive. Actually, does anybody have a clue what the administrative costs of a presidential primary are?
    I mean, such primaries happen every day all over Europe to designate leading candidates for national, regional, local elections. Does anybody criticise the costs of such nominations in those cases? Why should it be too expensive in the case of Europe?

    And actually, the PES does already have a lot of the money from the EU and it could use it to finance such a primary. The PES will receive €3.4 million from the EU budget in 2010, plus €2.15 million through its European foundation. This amount has steadily increased over the years, and the costs of the campaign of the European Parliament elections are already eligible.

    What if it is not enough? The overall 2010 annual EU budget for Europarties and their foundations represents €28.21 million. This, in comparison, equals what the EU will spend this year for developing a trans-European energy grid (TEN-E programme). Wouldn’t it be possible to use this huge amount of money more efficiently and dedicate it in priority to parties that accept to organise a primary election, instead of financing all “Europarties” on an equal footing, including those that only serve as a mailbox? This is legally possible, it just requires a measure adopted in codecision, no unanimity, no treaty change.

    And finally, we should not forget private funding. We just need clear rules at EU level for private donors who want to support a European campaign. Once more, simple codecision.
    So, realistic funding solutions are within our reach.

    3. You say “The chances the member parties of the PES are going to back this are slim to none”. I’d rather say “Does PES have the choice between technocracy and democracy?”. The chances that the PES will accept to organise a primary depends on us. Once more, closed primaries happen every day. In my country, they have been the rule since 1995. Rejecting them at EU level would need a very solid justification.