ELECTIONS 09:Conflicting interests – a complex project

The political culture at regional and national level varies across Europe – resulting from history, tradition, the way in which democracy has developed and the institutions through which democracy is exercised.

Political culture, cultural identity, conflicting interests – a complex project

The EU institutions do not reflect the institutional structure of the member states. They are quite unique and in the past 50 years have developed their own political culture. The average citizen is not familiar with this culture and tries to relate to it based on his/her understanding of the national or regional political system. Voters in the European elections tend to know little about the different political groupings within the European Parliament. They find themselves voting for a party (or an individual linked to a party) with which they are familiar at the national or regional level without understanding its links at the EU level.

We must remember that EU legislation and regulations were exclusively the responsibility of the national governments, acting together as the Council of Ministers, until as recently as 1992 when co-decision gave the European Parliament joint power over much of the legislative agenda. Only then did the citizens, through their MEPs, have a direct say in the EU decision system. Furthermore, it was only in the Maastricht Treaty (1994) that the citizen was even mentioned. Up to that point the populations of the member states were referred to as “subjects”. It is not surprising then that the average person in the EU member states doesn’t relate easily to the EU.

I recently questioned a group of students at KU Leuven about their cultural identity. While they all acknowledged that they were part of the European family, they all considered that this came second or third in rank of cultural identity. The locals stated that their primary cultural identity was Flemish, then Belgian and an EU citizen thirdly. Some of the Erasmus students were Catalonian first then Spanish and finally EU citizens while others again considered themselves to be Scottish first, British second and EU citizens thirdly. None of them considered that, although they were committed to their countries/regions being part of the EU, this brought them any closer to the citizens of other EU member states in a spirit of common understanding. One student commented “the EU is not like the US”.

The clash between regional/national priorities can also be a factor in the effectiveness of an MEP One MEP recently explained to me that the political party of which he is a member, gave him support in order to be elected, but once elected, did its best to minimize his profile at the level of his constituents less he draw attention from the party members who were contesting seats in local and national elections. It was clear where the party’s interests lay. Another MEP complained that he found it almost impossible to meet with ministers in his national government to discuss upcoming issues in the European Parliament - his party were not in the regional government and he was considered to be the opposition..

The Lisbon Treaty is an important milestone but much more is required for the long term success of the EU project.

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