Insights From The EU Parliament Elections – Armin Petschner-Multari (The Republic)

Eric Wilson
June 26, 2024
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Insights From The EU Parliament Elections – Armin Petschner-Multari (The Republic)
June 26, 2024

Insights From The EU Parliament Elections – Armin Petschner-Multari (The Republic)

"Generally digital campaigning gives populist messaging and populist methods a slight edge."

Armin Petschner-Multari is a digital campaign expert based in Berlin. He is the founder of The Republic, a think tank promoting center-right policies in Germany.

In this episode, we’re digging into the recent European Union elections and what campaigners here in the U.S. can learn.

Episode Transcript

I'm Eric Wilson, managing partner of Startup Caucus, the home of campaign tech innovation on the right. Welcome to the Business of Politics show. On this podcast, you're joining in on a conversation with entrepreneurs, operatives, and experts who make professional politics happen. Our guest today is Armin Pechner -Multari, a digital campaign expert based in Berlin. He is the founder of The Republic, a think tank promoting center -right policies in Germany.

In today's episode, we're digging into the recent European Union elections and what campaigners here in the U .S. can learn. Armin, let's start with a quick background for our U .S. audience. The 27 member countries of the EU all participated in the June 9th elections with approximately 450 million eligible voters and a total of 705 seats in the European Parliament up for grabs.

Given this unique transnational election, what issues were driving the campaigns and are there broad continental issues or are they more specific to the individual countries?

Armin (01:34.96)
I think generally in the past it was true that there were very individual issues to the member states in the last elections. The ones before that it was for example Germany was climate. It was like the great time of Greta Thunberg and where all these issues came up. And so the German public overwhelmingly shifted to the Greens, right? Which had a very strong result in the last election. This election circle...

However, I feel as a trans -European issue, it is migration. And we have a shift to the right, to the traditional center -right, also to like right -wing populist parties, but also to the far right. All these parties did really well. Traditional center -left parties were in part annihilated. That is certainly true for Germany.

and the greens in germany lost some but you know you have like people like georgia meloni in italy le pen in france all these these are figureheads that have not been around last time and and there has been a definite shift to the right and that is largely based on migration but we also have like an an overreaching issue with the european parliament and european institutions which is something that's called is called the

Eric Wilson (02:37.887)
Mm -hmm.

Armin (03:00.785)
democratic deficit, right? So it is like, you're a skepticism, you vote for parliament, that is not a real parliament, not everyone gets the same seats, and the European Commission is sort of set up by the heads of government of the member states. So this is all like a little bit of disenfranchisement by European voters. So that's also like an underlying tone that is part of every European election.

Eric Wilson (03:27.327)
Got it. So it's almost, as an outside observer, it seems like it's more of a non -binding referendum on the direction of the continent. Yes, there are certain things that they can do, but really it's more of a turnout is based on people who really care and are passionate about some issues. But at the end of the day, the member nations are still going to do what they're going to do.

Armin (03:55.506)
That is basically right. Yes. And the European Commission has its life. I mean, that's a very cynical view of it, unfortunately, but I hold that one. I have a degree in European Union studies, so I started as someone who really believed in Europe and I was like, I think there's room for improvement. But because, you know, the impact of the European Parliament and in a sense also to...

Eric Wilson (03:56.991)

Eric Wilson (04:02.047)

Armin (04:24.53)
the european commission because by the end of the day the member states still have the most to say is in a sense limited it is a very much a symbolic election in parts in parts you know it's a very cynical view but in parts so it is historically especially in in some of the old member states a protest and a vote if you really want to show that you're not happy with your current national government in germany or in france or in italy you tend to vote for

a party you would not necessarily vote for on a national level.

Eric Wilson (04:55.711)
got it. So it's kind of like a freebie in that regard. I want to.

Armin (05:00.53)
It's like the midterms, you know, like you vote a president in and then you switch because you're not happy with him and then, you know, his party loses the majority. So it's like a, it's a warning sign. It's a warning shot basically in parts.

Eric Wilson (05:12.607)
Got it, okay, that's a good way to put it. So I wanna dig into more of the politics and campaigning here. So within the European Parliament, you have some major political groups. I don't think it's, it's not right to call them a political party, but you do have the center right European People's Party. The center left has the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats. There are some centrist groups, Greens groups. How do these factions organize their campaigns?

the member states of the EU.

Armin (05:45.907)
that is also another tricky issue because that shows the fragmentation of the European Parliament, which is why it's more like a collection of individual actors rather than like a united front. But there are, let's say, let's have a look at the European People's Party, because that's where I'm based and organized in.

So you have in Germany, for example, the CDU and the CSU, the Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union, who run their own national campaigns. However, they also have a budget that they give the European People's Party, who will then have, let's say, a Spitzenkandidat campaign, in that case Ursula von der Leyen. But these are not, they are not necessarily all bound together. There's like a loose form of

corporation, but there's not a centralized effort. The Bavarian conservatives or the Italian conservatives or the French conservatives, they run the campaign they want to, no matter what the EPP says. But the EPP will still make sure that they organize, for example, all the debates in Brussels, or if Ursula von der Leyen comes and visits like a rally somewhere in

Eric Wilson (06:56.863)

Armin (07:11.028)
In Sweden, they organize the logistics for that. So they have their own budget. However, the member states parties are relatively independent and they also have their own chairman with their own agenda. So what people really do not like is when someone from Brussels tells them what to do.

Eric Wilson (07:28.383)
It sounds like having worked on campaigns in Europe, that is the most American part of European campaigns when you have the more localized organizations running the show despite the best efforts of a top -down centralized authority.

Armin (07:48.018)
totally. They can also run like completely opposite narratives, right? Like Ursula von der Leyen says the Green New Deal was a good thing and we want to continue in a sense, even though she tones it down. And you could have member parties who are absolutely opposing it and will run a campaign against it. And then you have sort of like people within the same party family that are supposed to support each other.

But everyone basically does what they think works best to turn out the votes that they see in their voter base.

Eric Wilson (08:22.687)
And so within that, what are the most important strategies and tactics that the parties, either at the continental level or the national level, are using to reach voters? Is it TV advertising, door knocking, traditional media, something else?

Armin (08:42.869)
That depends on the traditional campaigning methods and efforts of the member states. For example, this time door knocking was not a thing in Germany. It wasn't the last two federal elections, it was a new thing.

Eric Wilson (08:56.063)

Armin (09:08.341)
that we had a look at you know in america as well as in the united kingdom and they developed an app for that that was not around what is usually for europe because europe is first of all a very complex issue but also you have a fragmented media in europe you don't have like one european news outlet that every european voter votes and watches right because someone in bulgaria will not

understand the talk show in Germany the same way that some topic or, you know, a local politician from Spain will have no impact on a German debate. So there are some for like an intellectual audience for like some hardcore politics fans, there are some debates that are organized in Brussels. So they have

Eric Wilson (09:55.359)
and that's like the leaders debates.

Armin (09:57.078)
Yes, exactly. So they are like the leaders debate, basically very much like when you have like an American primary, you have too many people on the stage and nobody has enough time to say anything of importance. And this will then have a spillover into national media. So traditional media as gatekeeper, as someone who explains something, as someone who maybe translates, as someone who, you know, shows some guide, provides some guidance is very relevant in European elections.

Apart from that, what is also still relatively big and important is these really big billboards in Europe that people put up, right? Which is like, it was at four or our candidate for. Usually it's like someone, it's usually a message of like, we represent you well in Brussels. We have your interests at heart. We are the good guys. We take care of you. So this is something as well.

And digital was not that significant in Germany. If you have a look at the party budgets and digital advertising or so on was like a secondary issue. And, and as I said, it was a lot of national debate. So what really turns out votes is, is bringing up some issues that people feel very

dear to their heart at home. So in Germany, what the CDU, for example, did is they launched an email campaign where people would sign up to a website and then vote about the ban of the combustion engine by the European Commission, which is an issue that is very important to a carbon -infection country like Germany, where we have around 1 to 1 .5 million jobs in that industry alone.

Eric Wilson (11:46.751)

Armin (11:48.502)
So that is something, but you know, that's not actually like a campaign that turns out people, it's just more something to create headlines. So I would say traditional media is still the most important, you know, driver of debate when it comes to European elections.

Eric Wilson (12:03.679)
You're listening to the Business of Politics show. I'm speaking with Armin Pechner -Multari about the recent European Union elections.

What layer of complexity Armin does the different languages have into how the party could, is there kind of like a lingua franca of European campaigning or is it localized?

Armin (12:29.943)
It's English, but that is more like on an operational level and apart from that, everything needs to be translated into the respective language. I mean, you know, like usually, or is it a Thunderline or some of the other spitzenkandidaten, they have like a Twitter account in English and French and Italian and Spanish and German. So that is, that's usually what's going on. You usually have...

Eric Wilson (12:31.295)

Eric Wilson (12:50.751)

Armin (12:59.256)
in the European campaign, which is more, you know, we make it sound like it's a campaign. It's more like a big board, you know, of advisors. That's how I would more, you know, describe it. You have someone from every country, someone who's aware of everything, who picks up on trends, who knows how to translate the messages. So that's more what it is like. So that's English, definitely. I feel also Brussels in general, it's...

You know, it's run in English and not in French or anything anymore. But as I said, since the member states basically run their own campaigns, the most important messages and features and developments happen in their language. And maybe sometimes the centralized Brussels team can tag along, but it's usually the party headquarters.

Eric Wilson (13:32.575)
Thank goodness.

Armin (13:56.312)
since they also have the budget unlike the European campaign itself.

Eric Wilson (14:01.087)
That's right. And I imagine it's a pretty good dry run for the next upcoming national elections. To that end, were there any new trends in digital campaigning or technology that emerged during the campaign?

Armin (14:17.497)
There are a few trends, right? There is right now we see that the far right is extremely strong on TikTok and that sort of the establishment parties really don't have the same sort of reach, don't have the same sort of community. So that is something we've been aware of for a while.

But this time in the European election, we just couldn't really see it, right? Because if you have a look at all the key figures, then they just outperform us. And there is definitely a trend that goes hand in hand with that development. There are political debates and there are some communities, groups, individuals, narratives.

debates that happen under the surface, right? In messenger groups, on platforms like TikTok, they were sort of like not in the focus of traditional political operatives.

And we are just aware that these things develop sort of like a life on their own now. For example, the youth vote, the AfD, so the German far -right party was the strongest, with 18%, which was very surprising to a lot of people, not to me, but to a lot of people was very surprising. Why do young people vote for the far -right? So that can...

in parts be attributed to their way of communicating with young people. I also think it's the issues. If you go to high school in Germany these days, you might be in a minority as a German in some parts of the country. So obviously that has an impact on your voter behavior. But the AFD really takes care of young people, how to communicate with them. They have people who...

Armin (16:22.81)
have the abilities and how they build their content, how they structure their content calendars and so on. So they're very good at that. So that's definitely one trend. And I... Yeah.

Eric Wilson (16:35.647)
I want to dig in on that a little bit, Armin, before we go on to the next trend, which is my sense is that these, we call them insurgent parties, whether they're on the right or the left, have fewer structures or gatekeepers in place. And so as a result, they don't have to check with as many members of the party or members of European Parliament because they're new -ish.

And so they're more free to kind of do these things, embrace content or strategies that might be off message using air quotes there. Is that the sense or do you think it was just the established parties were unwilling to engage on those platforms and were focused elsewhere?

Armin (17:26.107)
It's a mix of both, right? Because generally the AFD, but also like the new, you know, there's a new left party in Germany founded by a former member of the post -communist party here. These parties on the fringe, you know, tend to have a very strong digital reach and following, right? Because like if you're dissatisfied,

Eric Wilson (17:48.895)
Mm -hmm.

Armin (17:51.931)
I mean, who comments, who signs up to a political page and so on. It's like people who are not happy, people who look for something new, people who are like, exactly, who look for like -minded people for support. So that has always been the case. So yes, I guess there is less stakeholders that you need to please and I feel generally it's always easier to run a campaign as the opposition than to do it as government.

Eric Wilson (17:55.967)

The disaffected. Yeah.

Armin (18:18.3)
when it comes to like, you know, having a free hand of what you can try out and whatnot. Because it obviously makes a difference if the Chancellor's tick tock account makes a mistake or some nobody. Because you're also differently in the spotlight. That definitely helps. I think I that's just my personal theory. I cannot really you back that up. But I would say that generally digital

digital campaigning gives populist messaging and populist methods a slight edge because it caters to the logic of the platforms, right, in right to engagement, shareability, and so on. So these people always have a slight edge. But I think this time it was their ability to message effectively on platforms and, you know, have have sort of like people who are digital natives running these campaigns also like have

members of European Parliament who are digital natives because all these people basically had to start from scratch. They're not in the traditional media, so they have to look for other sort of ways of communicating with their voter base. So that plays in there? Exactly, absolutely. And then also they have a message with this migration that just really rings through with everyone now, where everyone gets it. Yeah.

Eric Wilson (19:25.279)
Right. Necessity is the mother of invention.

Eric Wilson (19:37.311)
And so what are some other trends that our listeners here in the US should be aware of on the digital and tech side of campaigns?

Armin (19:49.944)
I think what we now also have is a lot of fakes, a lot of AI that is not done by the parties itself, but by their underbelly, right? That is not really identified as official party members. Sometimes it's like a Twitter account that doesn't even have a proper name or something.

Eric Wilson (19:58.943)

Eric Wilson (20:08.191)

Armin (20:16.06)
But what you will see is something that will happen to the Biden campaign. It's like, it doesn't even need to be a fake. It's just called it very hard, selective, bias, negative campaigning, right? So it's like Joe Biden wandering off somewhere into nothingness. And that snippet will just be clipped out, uploaded by someone on Twitter or made out, you know, they turn it into a reel and everyone will see that. That's just something that will happen.

What will also happen is that people will, with the help of AI, slightly change statements, right? We see that, for example, with the Green Party in Germany, which is really hated by some, that sentences that are, well, statements that are sort of true or slightly altered, so you can't really tell, you know, unless you've seen the original, whether it's a right or a wrong statement.

but it will definitely give it another spin or another twist. And that by the time people figure out that this is not actually what happened, you know, three hours is a long time and hundreds of thousands of people will have seen it. I think that's something. And once these things are like a messenger group, like WhatsApp, which is a big part, and you know, where people send each other, have you seen this? my God, I can't believe that. This is also something we can't really monitor at all.

Eric Wilson (21:17.727)

Eric Wilson (21:24.319)

Eric Wilson (21:42.335)
Right. That's that dark social media.

Armin (21:45.534)
Yes, it's also like negative. Sometimes it's just funny stuff, right? Like making fun of people can be a very effective way of campaigning, right? If you ridicule your, it doesn't even need to be in a mean or harsh manner. It's just like, if you want to, if you want to show that your opponent is not capable or not the right person, you just show them stumbling up or down some stairs, right? I mean, it's something you know from America and it's very effective. And...

The more, for example, like the Joe Biden example is very, I feel like very, very obvious because you cannot argue with a meme or a video of someone talking gibberish because it is so very self -explanatory that it will be very difficult to counter that with a sort of political message or anything like that.

Eric Wilson (22:37.023)
Right. And I think that's something that's come up a lot in our conversations here about AI in campaigns. I think a lot of people are afraid of deep fakes, but we rightfully point out that cheap fakes, the selective editing or slowing down a video, which requires less skill and time is still really effective. It's such that people don't have to go to the time and expense of making things up.

Armin (23:03.07)
Totally. Or you just cut the second half of the sentence off and it has a completely different meaning and you know that's what will be spread.

Eric Wilson (23:11.071)
Right. Aside from the deep fakes and AI generated imagery, do we ever see any other interesting applications of artificial intelligence in the EU elections?

Armin (23:24.991)
And not yet, because I would say Europeans in general are more risk averse when it comes to new technology and AI has like this label of, you know, being a little bit dodgy or something. Where I think AI is rather important is in the logistical and organizational approach to things. Spell checks, you know, getting a

Eric Wilson (23:39.871)

Armin (23:53.054)
a quick message out having 40 variations of a different pose. This is what AI probably does very well. This is also where it has been used in the European election. When you need something translated into let's say French, and you don't have a French speaker at hand at the moment, or you try to

do a B testing with different messages and so on AI can definitely help you come up with with different variations. So this is I feel like where AI is already really big in politics. Sometimes, you know, people that AI help them with their speeches with their messages, some people let them write a script. So that is definitely, that's definitely something where it where it plays a part. Do we have AI created images and politics or?

you know, AI altered content. Have I seen any of that so far here? No. And if they do it, it's more like gimmicky use of it. So people can say, we've used AI now, you know, and then someone writes an article about it, talking about how very advanced and progressive this kind of campaign is. But that is more it.

We will see that also, I feel like that's also something for the fringe parties and their underbelly where people do that, right? Also with like little fakes or something, or you have a news story, let's say it's a knife attack and you will have an AI generated image for shock value. So that is definitely where it plays a role. But like this big AI revolution where all the parties lean into new technology, I have not seen that yet.

Eric Wilson (25:33.279)
Yeah, I suspect that's going to be the headline coming out of 2024 here in the United States is everyone's looking for the big Terminator to sort of take over campaigns, but the reality is going to be those boring mundane use cases like you you said of transcription of copywriting and things like that Well, my thanks to Armin for a great conversation will include a link to his organization in the show notes so you can

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