EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - European social democracy is in the doldrums and the members of the parties 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."
Its Facebook group has 540 members and is growing at a rate of about 200 a week. The pair has also set up a Twitter feed to promote the campaign, although Mr O'Toole was keen to stress: "It's not just a few kids playing around with some Facebook group. This is serious."
"Even in the middle of August, we are pleasantly surprised at how this is growing," he told EUobserver, adding that the idea will really take off in September when people return from their summer holidays.
The pair also argues that such a move will go a long way to counter the bloc's infamous "democratic deficit."
"There have long been questions about democracy within the EU and these are only increasing," Mr O'Toole said. "European Parliament elections do mater now more than in the past. But only the [centre-right] EPP put forward a candidate. The PES didn't and we clearly lost out as a consequence. The activists are unsatisfied."
The Strasbourg defeat is only a recent example of European social democracy's steady decline in popular support over the last 30 years.
At the national level, socialists' average level of support in the nineties of almost 30 percent in the then EU12 countries was down from 31 percent in the eighties and 33 percent in the fifties. Over the last decade, the descent has accelerated, dropping to an average of 26.6 percent from 2000-10.
Frustrated with last June's result, the party's annual congress last December in Prague decided that in the future, the PES would always select a European Commission candidate.
"But then this raises the question: How should this person be selected?" Mr O'Toole went on. "This wasn't spelled out, and it's frankly not democratic, it's not good enough if the person is selected by party officials in back rooms."
Mr Santos, writing on the campaign's blog, said this partly explains the falling turnout for EU elections: "Regular citizens are not voting in European and national elections - they just can't feel represented by the politicians in the ballots, as some are chosen behind closed doors, in the clubs and alleys dominated by the party hierarchical system."
They say that a decision on the candidate by the PES Presidium, its executive, or even by its congress, does not go far enough to engage citizens.
"All these options represent old ways of doing politics, and I strongly believe that the European citizens, in particular progressive citizens, do expect more from us," said Mr Santos.
The campaign is hopeful of success as it has yet to meet with any opposition to the idea at any level in the party.
"There is a general feeling that we must do something different. There is a strong value-add for the party. A successful primary campaign, the fight for the candidacy will grab media attention ahead of the elections the way it does in the US and, we hope, give a boost to the party come elections," Mr Santos explained.
The activists believe that such a move will improve democracy not just in their party, but the EU as a whole. Primaries in the PES, they believe, would put pressure on the other parties to make similar moves, so that whoever becomes the head of the EU executive would have a genuine democratic mandate from citizens.
Advocates for more democracy in the EU have long mooted a directly elected president of Europe, or at least of the European Commission. Such a move however would require a treaty change.
"The beauty of this idea is that it requires no such change and takes the treaty where we find it, but achieves a similar end," Mr Santos added.
The campaign intends to take soundings of national leaders and MEPs whom they hope will back the project.
"There is a huge issue about the legitimacy of the EU. Laws are made for us by people who aren't that accountable. Zapatero, Aubry, they are all as aware of this as anyone," said Mr O'Toole.
"The PES is supposed to be the progressive force in politics. Well, let's progress, let's inject some more democracy into the EU."