For her undergraduate dissertation at UCL, Sara Leal de Matos-Powell studied a transnational European party, Volt, to understand what factors influenced its electoral success. Here’s what she discovered.
In the past decade, the European Union has witnessed the rise of transnational political parties and movements vying for parliamentary representation. The 2019 EU elections saw entities like DiEM25 run in nine countries, the Pirate Party in seven, and Volt in six, each with a common programme. Proponents of European parties argue that their transnational nature could solve the Union’s ‘democratic deficit’, where citizens feel disconnected from EU governance.
Yet, as the European Council is set to reject a proposal for transnational lists in European elections, transnational parties will have to garner support elsewhere. Specifically, little attention has been paid to the challenges these parties face in domestic elections, where they must compete with traditional parties for votes. In Europe, studies suggest that transnational parties face different obstacles to their single-nation counterparts. For my undergraduate dissertation at UCL, I studied one European party, Volt, to explore the factors that influence its electoral success.
Volt: a ‘true’ European party
Despite their potential to revitalise European democracy, transnational parties and movements are under-researched. Indeed, in the context of the EU, scholars are yet to agree on what a ‘true’ European party is. The literature points to two defining characteristics: a sovereign European governing body and a widespread presence in Europe. Europarties do not fit this definition as they are composed of autonomous national parties. Volt, on the other hand, has attributes which align with it.
Established in 2018, Volt calls itself ‘the first pan-European party’, with the primary goal of federalising the EU. Its structure is atypical: Volt is comprised of a European team called Volt Europa, which governs its national Volt parties or chapters. Currently, Volt is active in 30 countries across Europe, has over 23,000 supporters and even boasts one German MEP. Volt’s success lies at the national level: over 100 ‘Volters’ have been elected to national and local parliaments. Two thirds of these are in Germany, where Volt’s second-largest chapter claims over a fifth of Volt’s total membership.
Nevertheless, Volt’s electoral success is not evenly distributed. Neighbouring the popular Volt Germany is Volt Austria, one of the party’s smallest chapters. With fewer than 200 members and no elected officials, the Austrian chapter sits on the opposite end of the party’s spectrum for success. Despite having similar founding dates and programmes, the linguistically and culturally-related chapters have made vastly different progress. Two similar cases with opposing trajectories presented an opportunity to conduct a comparative case study. I interviewed six Volters in leadership positions, three German and three Austrian, to identify the factors influencing the chapters’ domestic success, or lack thereof.
My research identified two types of factors affecting Volt’s success: those external to the party and those internal to it. Beyond the party, the country’s electoral system, size, and political culture significantly influence Volt’s electoral outcome. While such factors can affect any political party, Volt’s atypical structure proves more challenging to justify in environments with entrenched political cultures. In Austria, for example, Volt struggles to embed itself in a political bubble which values traditional parties over unconventional ones. The party’s international structure and membership is particularly constraining in these contexts: over half of Volt Austria’s active members are German, which hinders its ability to embed itself in the country’s tight-knit political network.
In Germany, a larger, more populous country with a more decentralised political culture, the environment is more beneficial for a small, atypical party. Germany’s diversity in political parties and opinions allows smaller parties to attract ‘floating’ voters. Likewise, Germany’s electoral system is more welcoming towards smaller parties than Austria’s, especially at the local level where all of Volt Germany’s elected members lie. Like any small party, Volt still struggles where electoral thresholds are in place. This is the case in federal and some state elections in both countries, where neither chapter has triumphed.
Internally, Volt’s European structure and stance serves as a double-edged sword for its national chapters. In particular, the party faces issues of European alignment, mobilisation, and structural and ideological complexity. These factors are beneficial at times, and detrimental at others. However, they are considered less influential than the external factors.
It is difficult for 30 chapters across Europe to reach consensus over policies, especially during elections. For instance, Volt Germany was discredited by competitors during the 2021 Bundestag elections because its anti-nuclear manifesto clashed with Volt Spain’s pro-nuclear position. Volt chapters must achieve member consensus on two dimensions: the national and the European levels. When both levels align, Volt can use its image as an internationally united front to its advantage.
Similarly, Volt’s 23,000-strong international membership can help smaller chapters during electoral campaigns, online and in person. National chapters regularly exchange peoplepower, expertise, funding, and material resources. However, chapters that are not self-sufficient struggle more than single-nation parties when they cannot access these resources. For example, Volt Austria could not mobilise its European community for the 2020 Viennese elections because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Volt’s transnational structure and ideology is also complex to present in domestic elections. Volt does not position itself on the left-right spectrum to avoid cultural differences in the interpretation of these terms. However, in conservative political cultures like Austria, voters prefer to know whether a party is left- or right-leaning. Similarly, a European approach can be difficult to justify in local elections. In more flexible countries like Germany, however, Volt’s original structure and position can entice new, previously apolitical voters.
Pan-European movement parties like Volt may be key to addressing the EU’s democratic deficit. Unfortunately, they have a long way to go to embed themselves in European politics and will continue to rely on domestic elections to exert influence until then. My research shows that their success will vary widely by country due to factors beyond their control. However, Volt can improve its chances by striking the right balance between its European aims and national contexts.
Sara Leal de Matos-Powell read Politics and International Relations at UCL, and is currently pursuing a Master’s in European Affairs at Sciences Po.
Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.
Image credit: Images by Guido Faak, 2021. Volt map by Sara Leal de Matos-Powell, 2023.