Brussels (Brussels Morning) Five years ago, I sat in a small Chinese restaurant in New York, happy to eat my General Tso Chicken, especially because it was for free! An Italian friend of mine, Andrea, had asked me to discuss his idea of founding an Italian political party with him – in exchange for the lunch. But as we all know, there is no such thing as a free lunch.
Now five years later, I have a seat in the European Parliament and Andrea’s original idea has evolved into a fully-fledged European political party called Volt Europa, which is registered in 18 countries, is active in two national Parliaments – Bulgaria and the Netherlands – and currently fields over 70 local representatives all across Europe. What, you may well ask, happened in between?
At the time of our lunch in 2016, a couple of tectonic events had stirred up quite some dust across Europe. In July, the Brexit-referendum had gone south, and in November, Trump won his campaign against Clinton. For Andrea, Colombe (a French friend), and myself these two events were enough to make us question our perspective on politics. Before, we had an implicit understanding that our societies were progressing towards a better and more globalised future. Suddenly, with two events, this changed, and history felt more circular. And that made absolutely no sense, especially for Europe. The challenges of our time seem to require more transnational cooperation and alignment, not less. Just think climate change, migration, supply chains, AI-algorithms, trade and foreign policy – what benefit is served by breaking apart?
But still, when we looked across the pond from the US at Europe, Le Pen was growing stronger, the AfD was about to enter Germany’s Bundestag with 88 seats, and Italy was under the control of a right-wing and a left-populist coalition government.
After our lunch at the Chinese restaurant, we decided to found the very nemesis of the right-wing populist parties: A fully European and fact-based movement across Europe. But we obviously had no idea how to do that. So we sat down, in our different student libraries and our small New York apartments, drafted a first manifesto and guidelines for our political platform, and put all that resulted on a poorly designed homepage. Then we started posting on Facebook. To our surprise, around a 100 people signed up to help us built Volt, all within that first week. Then we started empowering them, forming teams, sharing our responsibility and setting up a timeline for the first big milestone, the European elections of 2019, which fell roughly some two years later.
The first months were extremely exciting and fun. We found ourselves either developing the programme, designing the logos and posts, coming up with a structure for the organisation, or simply trying to reach out to new people across Europe. I personally have rarely ever worked as hard or so much in my life – and before all this I already had a challenging job. But the excitement and challenge of building something new, something with a positive message against a right-wing backdrop was (and is) enticing.
Those two years until the European elections passed fast. Volt grew, and we managed to register it as a political party in seven countries before the European elections. We also wrote 270 pages about the party programme and a shorter election manifesto that was used across the continent. On the side, Andrea and I transferred to Berlin, to finish our Master programmes in a place allowing closer proximity to our teams. When the elections finally arrived, I decided to run on the German list – but I had no idea what was waiting for me or what life as a member of parliament would actually look like.
In the end, we won one seat in Germany, the one that I am sitting in right now. Once I joined the European Parliament, I negotiated with the Greens and the liberals for the committee seats I needed to fulfil our electoral promises. The Greens made the better offer, so I sit with them now. I work on a bunch of issues, including EU reform measures, data and AI policy and migration and asylum policy. I helped negotiate the 672.5 billion euro Corona-Recovery fund, the yearly EU institutions budgets, the European Asylum Agency, the European Tech Visa (BlueCard), the EU Space programme and many other regulations and directives. My core work focuses on trying to reform the EU with a treaty change, but short of that I am also pushing for a better debating culture in the EP, and a second vote for European parties during the elections, to Europeanise our democracy.
Volt’s development outside the European Parliament is even more fascinating. There is not a single party in Europe that is represented in different member states – especially not in two national parliaments. For me, this is the biggest historic achievement that Volt has already achieved. We demonstrated that a united European party is possible in Europe, despite our national divergences and peculiarities. In two-and-a-half-years, Volt hopes to field candidates for the European Parliament in all 27 EU countries – which would again be a historic first.
But why? Why does all this matter? For me, Volt was never about Volt itself, but about changing the status quo for the better, tackling the issues of our time, and ensuring we don’t fall into the populist trap. We are at a cross-roads, whether it’s integration or disintegration, and muddling our way through in Europe won’t work any longer. Poland’s Prime Minister openly attacks and blames the EU (and Germany, specifically) while Hungary has given up pretending it cares about such EU values as freedom of press for some time now. In addition, key challenges like migration cannot be directly addressed, because the EU is set up in such a way that single countries can block or veto EP majorities.
Volt can help in this context in a number of ways: First, it can counter the general political passivity that many in my generation – especially centrists – have arrived at. Today, few reform-motivated people feel like entering a political party, and that needs to change. Second, winning or stealing seats from other parties drives change in rival parties: In Germany and the Netherlands we can already see that other parties adopted a more positive approach towards European integration. This needs to happen in all EU member states. And importantly, once elected, we can fight for the causes that we care about, be it EU reform, a humane asylum system, a more innovation-friendly data economy, or any of the other issues that brought us into the political arena in the first place.
My key learning from these last five years is that politics can be changed. We often feel powerless to tackle the issues we care about. But we are not powerless. I would never have dreamed, when sitting in that Chinese diner, that I would embark on a journey ithat would take me to a seat in the European Parliament. But here I am, working on the biggest EU spending programme ever, the Corona-recovery funds with 672.5 billion euro. Why am I reflecting on this? Because there is a lesson to be learned: We all have the power to change politics. Keep in mind that party membership has halved across Europe since the 1980s, leaving traditional parties weakened, making it all the easier to join one. Just imagine persuading your 10 best friends to join the local chapter of a party, any political party, and consider how likely it might be that you and your friends could become the core group in that local chapter.
We have power. You have power. Don’t waste it solely on reading about politics in the newspaper. Go out and join a party that is close to your ideals. Get up from that sofa, Google the party you were thinking about and ask them about the next local meeting. We need people not just to watch what’s happening, but to take responsibility – and that can mean just sending a short email. We live in party-democracies. Parties put forward candidates. Candidates become chancellors, ministers, and parliamentarians. Don’t leave the field to the extremists. Come, especially if you have a pluralistic world view and don’t always know the answer right away. Come, especially if you are a centrist, someone looking for pragmatic solutions. Join political parties, and our societal, environmental, economic, and social issues will be solved.