Volt. For a Europe that smiles forward

Luigi Vitali in conversation with Damian Boeselager 

Damian Boeselager is 36 years old, he’s from Frankfurt and has been sitting in the European Parliament since 2019 as a representative of Volt: a progressive, European federalist political party established in 2017 in response to the rising tide of populism and the challenges faced by the European Union. Volt is the first pan-European movement with branches acting as local national parties running the same program across Europe—including Switzerland, the UK, and Ukraine. The political idea led by Damian Boeselager and his movement transcends traditional ideology and partisanship. Their focus is on pragmatic, evidence-based solutions designed to engage a new generation of Europeans in politics and decision-making. If there’s a vision of Europe that resonates most with us, it surely aligns with what Volt stands for.

DUST meets with Damian in Berlin to discuss the upcoming European elections, a shared vision of Europe, and how progressive changes are indeed possible.

Luigi Vitali.: I find this platform promising because much of our generation’s political discussion revolves around broad, global themes. Yet, these often get bogged down in national debates that only address national issues, leaving little room for coordination on a larger scale. Volt, instead, was established as the first pan-European political party. How does it intend to reshape the political dialogue?

Damian Boeselager : Just as you’re saying, because the rest doesn’t make sense. Europe only has national parties, but we have a European democracy. We need Pan-European parties to make it work. This is our point.

L.V. : And is Volt indeed the first pan-European party?

D.B. : It’s the first one that is actually working. Previous attempts only focused on the European level and didn’t go far. Our approach is different; we believe that to be an effective European party, we need to emulate national parties by engaging at the local, regional, and national levels. It’s necessary to be involved wherever political decisions are made, so we have local representatives participating in local elections, regional representatives for regional elections, national representatives for national elections, and European representatives for European elections. We are the first true European party in the sense that we actively engage at all levels of government with a unified program.

L.V. : What does the program specifically focus on?

Our platform focuses on three key areas: reforming the EU, promoting social justice, and advancing a climate-neutral economy.

First, we propose reforming the EU by establishing a European government elected by the European Parliament, which is chosen by European citizens. This includes eliminating national vetoes, creating a Common European Defense Army, unifying foreign policies, and creating a Common European Finance Minister. This minister would directly manage European income to fund the EU budget, supporting essential financial structures like the Eurozone and Capital Markets Union. These things are very important to us. 

Second, regarding social justice, we aim to protect fundamental rights, including marriage equality and reproductive rights, and ensure no one is marginalised in our society. I am personally involved in upholding the right to seek asylum and advocating for equitable treatment of asylum seekers across Europe.

Third, we ask for regulatory measures like a CO₂ tax and reducing emissions certificates to create a climate-neutral economy. Moreover, incentivising innovation is crucial. We also aim to harmonise competition law and state aid rules across Europe to facilitate business and start-up scaling. These initiatives aim to make the EU more efficient, equitable, and prepared for the future.

L.V.: Your strategy stands out because traditional parties often treat European Parliament campaigns as arenas for domestic politics, but you rather focus on engaging voters and sparking their interest with European topics. Is this approach proving to be effective?

D.B. : We believe it’s the only way forward. Many people, especially those under 35, know that issues perceived as local or national are actually pan-European. For instance, consider the rising energy prices and cost of living. While it feels like a local issue when you see prices increasing at your supermarket, the solutions are primarily European. Implementing a European energy grid that connects our grids across the continent would allow wind energy from the north and solar energy from the south to stabilise and potentially lower energy prices. This is just one example. Consider climate change or security issues; no single European country’s army can effectively defend itself alone. For genuine national defence, a unified European defence is essential.

People on the Right assume that issues are national and that solutions should be, too. However, almost all challenges now have a European dimension and can only be effectively addressed collectively. Some worry that this means imposing decisions at a European level, but that’s not the case. I firmly believe in deciding issues at the lowest possible level, but we must also embrace a broader vision and coordinate our actions. This is the argument for a strong European Parliament.

Look what the Euro-sceptics are proposing. Is it better to have 27 heads of state negotiating up in their castle, – which often leads to a blend of national interests and pride that results in conflict, poor compromises, or even corruption? Who would want that?

We aim to apply the parliamentary system used at the local, regional, and national levels to the European level. You vote for a European party that commits to a program over the next five years. The majority party or coalition should then form a European government and appoint a European President. For instance, despite being German, I might have more in common with you, an Italian living in Spain, than with a German nationalist. This illustrates why unifying our future aspirations within a European party framework makes more sense than having individual national leaders. Think about Scholz, representing German nationalists and me while negotiating in intergovernmental meetings. I don’t want a purely German perspective shaping my next five years; I want my party’s perspective and my ideals to guide the future. This approach may seem complex, but it’s actually quite straightforward.

L.V. : You had me at ‘Pan-European’; but how do you reach people with this message and new mindset?

D.B. : To be honest, Volt primarily grew through word-of-mouth. We didn’t receive any media coverage for almost the first two years, yet we continued to grow steadily. The important thing for me is that when people hear about us, like through this interview in Dust magazine or elsewhere, they shift from mere spectators and observers to recognising a crucial truth about democracy: everyone has power. If you rally ten friends and get involved locally, you can make change happen. Look, since the 1980s, the EU party affiliation has halved. People are shying away from political parties, preferring instead to join protests, work with NGOs, or support foundations to address their concerns. However, they often avoid the very place where they could make a significant impact: politics. Our democratic system was designed to address our collective issues in an orderly manner, considering everyone’s interests. We seem to have forgotten that this system was built to serve our purposes. Now, with party memberships dwindling, if you gather your ten best friends and enter a local political context almost anywhere in Europe, you could hold the power to change things. By joining or building a new party like Volt, you’re helping to create something entirely new. You can compile a list of candidates, start convincing people of the possibility of a more positive future, and perhaps find yourself in the European Parliament as I find myself now or in national, regional, or local assemblies where you can make a significant impact. We hold that power. I’ve witnessed it firsthand.

L.V. : It’s hard enough to engage young people in voting, let alone imagine them founding a political party. There’s a significant disillusionment with politics amongst the youth, mainly because traditional political structures fail to represent their interests or address their concerns.

D.B. : Traditional parties may have surely let them down, but the question remains: Among those who have expressed disillusionment with politics, who has actually tried to directly make a change? We need to be honest with ourselves. Even if initiatives like Fridays For Future seem cooler, concepts like liquid democracy appear more innovative, or we believe we can make an impact through social media activism, we can’t forget that real power still resides within the structure of elected parties and in parliaments where decisions are actually being made. So, we can whine about it or organise ourselves effectively. And let’s be clear: the far Right is extremely well-organised— and they’re not whining. They are strategic, with solid hierarchies and effective decision-making structures, attracting bright minds to their cause. What are we doing in response? Do we just wish the world was better and vent our frustrations on social media?

I’m not suggesting that changing things is easy, but in a democracy, rallying even a small percentage of the population can significantly impact the political landscape. With 5% support, you can drastically alter the political dynamics in any European country. Even with a 3% support, other parties will have to acknowledge and react to your presence. It’s time to reinvigorate interest in party politics, to make political engagement appealing and ‘sexy’ again, and to show that politics can be a powerful tool for change when approached with determination and organisation.

L.V.: What are Volt’s expected results in the upcoming elections?

D.B. : The reality is that what we call European elections aren’t truly European; they’re national elections. For instance, Germany elects 96 members to the European Parliament, and the Netherlands elects around 30 members. The overall percentage isn’t really tallied on a European scale, as it’s more about the results within each country that determine the number of MEPs each receives. Currently, in the Netherlands, we’re polling at around 6%, in 13 other countries we are also running but waiting for polls. I am particularly excited to see how many more MEPs we will get from Germany, but also from Spain and Portugal.

L.V. : Let me ask, how did it all start?

D.B. : We can trace it back to when I met Andrea Venzon, the other co-founder of the movement, while we were both studying Public Administration in New York. This was back in 2016 when I had moved to NY, intending to enjoy two years of partying before returning home to work off my student debt. I arrived during the Trump-Hillary campaign and a friend gave me tickets to Hillary Clinton’s election night event at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center that November. I took Andrea and his friend Colombe with me, whom I’d recently met, and we joined 30,000 people celebrating what seemed to be an imminent victory. Katy Perry was performing, and the Bishop of New York blessed the upcoming first female president amid an incredible atmosphere. Then, the results started to come in, and the mood shifted dramatically. I found myself surrounded by thousands of people in tears. It was surreal and frightening, particularly after experiencing Brexit that summer, to realise just how precarious our democratic societies are. 

It was a wake-up call for the three of us. We left the convention centre in shock, discussing the rising threat of populism and nationalism. It seemed illogical to revert to nation-state isolationism when our problems became increasingly global and shared. In the days that followed, Andrea proposed to found a party. Despite my initial reluctance, the idea of countering nationalist movements with a Pan-European Party seemed like the right move. It started like that, with Colombe, Andrea, and myself. Two years after founding Volt, we participated in the 2019 European elections and won a seat, which I now occupy. We have representatives in the national parliaments of the Netherlands, Bulgaria, and Cyprus and about 200 local MPs or city councillors. Now, as I told you already, our focus is on the next European elections. We plan to run in 14 countries under one unified brand, with consistent messaging and a common electoral program.

L.V. : I believe not enough people know about this platform, and yet you haven’t made your presence widely known. This could truly be a European approach that can resonate with many engaged but disoriented European youths’ aspirations, dreams, and passions. Let’s just look at the political landscape in Western societies, which is becoming increasingly polarised and extreme. Most people find themselves stuck in the middle, feeling silenced and wondering which side is more insane, as public debate oscillates between a Left that is becoming ridiculous and a Right that is pathetic and depressing. At this point, it’s not just the populism on the Right that is concerning, but also the one on the Left, with its tendencies towards policing speech, cancel culture and interpreting the world through simplistic lenses. Although its intentions come from a noble place, the Left is losing direction, votes, and followers.

D.B. : It’s also becoming quite boring. The left movements used to be synonymous with love, happiness, and freedom, but now they have lost any appeal. No one enjoys being yelled at or made to feel guilty, ashamed, or doomed constantly. But here is where we come into play: we prefer to adopt a moderate, convincing approach to creating a more equal and just society while still enjoying engaging in politics. We want to have fun and be open while working on winning back the moderate majority. It’s an offer for everyone who says, ‘I don’t want to have depressed politics anymore. I want to have politics that look towards the future, and I believe that Europe has not yet reached its potential.’

L.V. :  In this context, the European elections that will be held between 6th and 9th June 2024  represent a significant test for European institutions. What is at stake here?

D.B. : We are faced with a critical question: will history go to shit, or will it progress towards a brighter future? Both outcomes seem equally possible. The trend is alarming, considering recent far-right electoral results across various countries. In Portugal, the populist party Chega is currently supporting the conservative government. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders’ PVV, essentially a one-person party, has won many seats in the Dutch Parliament and has recently formed a government. In Finland, the party formerly known as True Finns, now simply the Finns Party, has become the second biggest party over there. Similarly, the extreme Right Sweden Democrats are currently supporting the Swedish government. The situation in Italy with Meloni and her party is well-known. In Germany and Spain, parties like the AfD and Vox are also rising, reflecting a broader trend across Europe. Even ignoring their racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia, their push to revert to nation-states is profoundly irrational and regressive, given the increasingly global nature of our challenges.

The upcoming elections are crucial. They will determine whether we can curb this rise and enhance European integration or regress to isolated nation-states, inevitably leading to increased conflict and chaos. To be on the right side of history, we must aim to maintain the status quo and advance our political systems, particularly towards a more robust parliamentary democracy.

L.V. : We always believed that Europe and its institutions would prevent the rise of demagogues and nationalism. How did it fail to do so?

D.B. : We failed because we stopped being proactive. For instance, under Chancellor Merkel, there was little significant progress in developing the European Union. We seemed to accept the EU as it was, forgetting that change is constant. The citizens’ lack of direct influence on EU policies is a critical issue. The national governments decide who becomes the Commission President and the Commissioners, which is madness because national elections don’t determine the European government. The EU is still our best system until now; it’s a tremendous achievement. However, we must take the next step to empower citizens. They should be able to vote for European parties that align with their vision, making them feel impactful in shaping Europe’s direction.

To put it in another context, I have friends who can detail which district in which U.S. swing state is crucial for Biden to win to secure the Electoral College and the presidency. Yet, many of these friends are clueless about the workings of European elections. This is because the U.S. elections are perceived as historic. I want Europeans to feel the same significance in our elections—that the results are historic and will determine the political direction for the next five years, whether conservative, social democratic, liberal, or otherwise.

The big mantra should be: elections in Europe need to matter more. Citizens should have a clear choice not just between being for or against the EU but about which version of Europe they want to shape. That’s the essence of democracy, and we need to move towards a more transparent and influential parliamentary system, where parties put forward candidates who represent distinct choices and policies. 

L.V. : Which basically implies a stronger federalism.

D.B. : Whether we call it the United States of Europe, parliamentary democracy, or just plain democracy, the core principle remains the same. To give you an example, a significant portion of the laws passed in Germany—about 70%—are actually determined at an EU level. This highlights the substantial role the EU already plays, a fact that national parties often shy away from admitting because it reveals a loss of their power. My point is simple: let’s extend the same ordinary decision-making process we use nationally to a European level. 

L.V. : Does this involve a presidential system as well?

D.B. : I believe presidential systems are problematic because they put too much emphasis on individuals rather than policies. I prefer a system that focuses more on programs. Are you looking for a conservative, social democratic, green, left, or another specific platform? That should be the priority, rather than focusing solely on charismatic leadership. It’s far more effective when parties present clear programs and provide a list of candidates. This method offers better mechanisms for accountability, in contrast to the situation in the US, where candidates often run on very loosely defined party platforms.

L.V. : People need to hear this more rather than the usual rhetoric.

D.B. : Indeed, the basic message is that we need to defend democracy at a European level against far-right idiots, which are basically vehicles for Russian and Chinese interests to undermine European power. However, simply declaring to defend the status quo isn’t enough. What I advocate for and what we aim to fight for is not just to maintain what we have—but to improve it. We must acknowledge that people are dissatisfied with the current system, recognise the issues at hand, and propose a new one that can genuinely address these problems. This new approach should empower citizens, giving them greater control over EU directions.

L.V. : Let’s talk about international politics and the positions revolving around Ukraine. The right-wing populists sympathising with Putin, but even those on the Left, who advocate for peace and propose to end the war by means of stopping arms shipments and negotiating a settlement, fail to recognise that pacifism in this context is a privilege neither Ukraine nor Europe can afford. After nearly three years of conflict, how is it not obviously apparent that Europe’s security depends on Ukraine’s ability to defend itself? What is the EU doing in this regard?

D.B. : On this subject, I believe there’s a significant failure in political leadership. Take, for instance, the German Chancellor’s stance on the current European elections. His campaign emphasises ‘Peace’, yet he remains ambiguous about Ukraine’s victory, merely stating that Ukraine shouldn’t lose—which is absurd when you think about it. This ambiguity points to a broader issue of leadership in the EU. Moreover, we’re facing real disinformation campaigns funded by Russia, which are often underestimated and it is affecting many people. The political landscape is precarious, and leadership falters when, instead, clarity and decisive action are most needed. It’s incomprehensible how one could overlook the urgent need to stop a dictator who is aggressively attacking villages and harming civilians—including women and children—and instead suggest appeasement as a solution. To be honest, it’s frustrating. For us, the only practical help we can offer is significantly increasing military and financial aid, allowing Ukraine to purchase the necessary weapons. The Ukrainians have straightforward demands; we should listen to them. For example, an additional €14 billion could cover the Ukrainian military’s immediate needs. Yet, we keep hesitating, effectively keeping them on a tight leash, which is irrational given that they are losing ground and momentum. Most of the countries are in favour of a Ukrainian victory, yet on a European level, the major concerns are political figures like Orbán and his veto power and the potential shifts of some countries’ stances. For instance, if Marine Le Pen were to be elected in France in the next term, it’s uncertain what this could mean for Ukraine. But it’s for this very reason that we need a European government and a European foreign ministry.

L.V. : With the war in Ukraine, despite many challenges, Europe responded promptly, uniting on a moral foundation and upholding its ideals. However, the situation in the Middle East is far more complex and contradictory. Why hasn’t the EU played a more significant role in preventing the populist Messianic extreme-right government in Israel from conducting such a devastating war in Gaza? We have a sense of the Prime Minister’s determination to cling onto power and advance his authoritarian agenda by any means necessary, including manipulating his own people’s grievances and his allies’ trust while unleashing violence that clearly exceeded the scope of self-defence and the defeat of Hamas. Yet, why hasn’t the EU called more promptly for a ceasefire to prevent the numerous civilian casualties? Why didn’t it develop the demand for a stronger voice in the global arena? 

D.B. : The European Parliament has a strong position on this issue now. They have called for a ceasefire, even if it indeed took too long. As you mentioned, international law is complex. In the case of Ukraine, the situation was clearer: Russia attacked Ukraine unprovoked, and under international law, Ukraine not only has the Right to defend itself but also to carry out retaliatory attacks to eliminate threats. This includes potential targets like Russian airfields or military headquarters within Russia, which, besides very few occasions, Ukraine is retaining itself from doing. The situation in Gaza and Israel is more complicated, and it escalated following the October 7th attacks on Israeli citizens, compounded by a hostage crisis. The Israeli war cabinet, which includes various parties, not just Netanyahu’s, decided to launch a military operation in Gaza to disarm Hamas. Under international law, this is not considered illegal. What is legally questioned is whether the response has been proportional to the threat. Volt consistently advocated for a ceasefire and ensuring the basics of humanitarian aid, which are still unmet. We supported the decisions of the ICC (The International Criminal Court) and the ICJ (the International Court of Justice). Despite complex situations, it is imperative to protect civilians as much as possible and ensure that fundamental human rights are always upheld. This principle should be the common ground on which we all stand and act. Preventing unnecessary tragedies among afflicted populations is not just a moral obligation; it also prevents our societies from polarising into destructive extremes that are not helping the discussion for a lasting peace framework. While I’m not an expert, this seems like common sense. Reaching a clear, unified voice across Europe can be a slow and challenging process, and this represents one of the EU’s major issues.

It would be better to have a representative hold the position of European foreign policy. This ties back to the EU structure we advocate for. Let’s vote for European parties with clear platforms. This approach gives citizens more control over the foreign policy direction they wish to support and gives the EU a clearer, more effective voice.

L.V.: Before we conclude, let me ask you about the Data Act, recently enacted into EU law. I see your signature on it. 

This topic aligns with Volt’s third strategic pillar I discussed earlier: fostering an innovation-friendly, climate-neutral economy. In this digitalisation journey, many people are talking about the endpoint, which is AI-based business models. That is an essential part of the economy, but it’s not where most companies currently stand. AI is a hot topic now, but understanding where data originates and how it’s currently utilised within companies is just as crucial. For instance, non-personal and machine-generated data are vastly underrepresented, yet they are super important to the data revolution. One thing that I realised is that we lack real data markets, which are essential for maximising the use of data—often 90% unused within companies. By creating data markets, we can better harness data from various stakeholders as an added benefit.

Consider the Internet of Things (IoT). For instance, many modern washing machines at home are operated via apps. These machines receive commands and send data back to the cloud. Interestingly, the sensor below the drum of a washing machine is so sensitive that it can detect seismographic shifts when not in operation. While this data might not be valuable to a single machine owner or even to the manufacturer, it has broader potential applications.

The Data Act aims to clarify who gets access to it and can monetise this data within the IoT realm. This means that the device’s owner can control or even sell the data your device generates and send it to a third party. I vigorously defended this principle in Parliament and against member states, leading to scenarios where CEOs like that of Airbus would call the Commission President to challenge the amendments I proposed.

This law is essential for regulating non-personal data. My vision is to foster a vibrant data economy, leading to greater innovation through clear data ownership and usage rights.

L.V.: I really hope more Volt representatives are elected to the EU parliament this June. Good luck with everything!

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Volt. For a Europe that smiles forward