ELECTIONS 09: What are the voters' priorities?

Based on the most recent Eurobarometer survey only 9% of the EU citizens consider that the EU has the most important impact on their daily lives while 38% consider that policy-making at the regional level is the most important and 43% consider that the national level is the most important.
Considering that Brussels is the EU capital and that Belgium was one of the signatories of the original Treaty of Rome in 1957 which led to today’s EU, one might expect that Belgians would relate more closely to the EU than the nationals of more recent member states or those geographically distant from Brussels. However, based on my own experience of 20 odd years living in Leuven, I haven’t found this to be the case. In discussions with my Flemish friends it has always been obvious that their interest in regional issues takes priority over national issues, with EU issues trailing well behind. I suppose that this is to be expected in a country with a regional structure in which so many policy issues are in the hands of regional government and, in any case, surveys show that most Europeans place much more importance on subjects related to their daily lives than on global issues. It is probably not surprising then that 66% of Belgians are not satisfied that the views of the regional and local authorities are adequately taken into consideration when EU policy is being decided.

The tendency across Europe, in recent years, to strengthen decision making at the regional level is consistent with the EU concept of subsidiarity. The Maastricht Treaty in 1994 established the Committee of the Regions giving representatives of Europe’s regions a consultative role in the EU decision-making process. .
All of this poses important questions for national political systems which, on one hand devolve responsibility to the regions, while at the same time shedding important aspects of their sovereignty to the shared EU policy making system. It is not at all evident that this three tiered system brings the citizen any closer to the EU – possibly it has the opposite effect. The Lisbon Treaty sets out to make the EU decision making system more efficient but perhaps there is a need also, at the national and regional levels, to re-examine the decision making systems and reform them to reflect the Europe of today.

Voters across Europe will go to the EP polls with the economic crises uppermost in their minds. In the recent Eurobarometer survey 90% of citizens consulted consider that the financial crisis is the top priority, and 61% believe that a EU coordinated approach is the way forward. A further 71% believe that there is a need for stronger coordination of economic and fiscal policies within the Union.

However, while there have been attempts within the European Parliament to press for this type of approach, the economic crisis has been mostly met by countries ‘going it alone’ without a joined-up EU policy for dealing with the banking sector’s difficulties or for stimulating the EU’s economy. The economic crisis is certainly on the agenda of the voter, but without willingness on the part of national governments to devise a pan-European strategy, the European Parliament is powerless and, in their election campaigns, candidate MEPs are limited in how they can respond to this most pressing of EU issues from the voter’s perspective.

Malachy Vallely
Malachy Vallely is Director General of the Leuven Institute for Ireland in Europe