Instead of bringing regional officials to Brussels, the EU needs to bring Brussels to the regions. Local and regional bodies need to debate EU issues at home. Heather Grabbe and Stefan Lehne propose a solution to narrow the distance between the EU and the individual.
Getting MEPs into cyberspace
Cyberspace can help narrow the distance between the EU and the individual, provide arenas for interaction, and ensure access to more information about what EU institutions are doing. New technologies offer many ways for individuals to get involved in EU politics—but Members of the European Parliaments (MEPs) have to go where the traffic is rather than assume voters will automatically go to their Twitter accounts. They should engage in online debates where they take place and build their audience from there.
Some MEPs have had great success in using Twitter to interest younger voters in the EU’s work. Dutch MEP Marietje Schaake sent out her election manifesto in ten tweets and has taken up issues related to digital freedoms that interest a large proportion of the under-forty-year-olds. Schaake even crowd-sourced comments on her European Parliament (EP) report, “A Digital Freedom Strategy in EU Foreign Policy.”
A positive move in 2014 was the live webcast of the parliamentary hearings of the candidates to be European commissioners. That gave citizens all over the EU a chance to follow the discussions and to contribute their own comments via Twitter. The parliament even had a live Twitter stream displayed in the chamber, giving the participants views from outside the Brussels bubble.
At every level of government, citizens are going to mistrust institutions that they feel do not represent them and in which their participation is limited to voting every few years.
Turning the EP into the focal point for transnational public debate
Some MEPs are developing solid expertise and a public profile on new EU agenda items that do not involve clear right/left divides, such as climate change, intellectual property, data protection, and surveillance. These are issues that no country can solve alone and about which public debate is needed, not just lobbying by industry and NGOs. The EP can turn itself into the primary forum for broad public debate across many countries on these crucial issues.
In recent years, the EP has stirred up political drama and won cheers from the public by voting down proposals on sharing personal data with the United States through the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT) and with airline passenger name records. The EP also rejected favoring copyright holders over consumers when it declined the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. MEPs signaled strong support for limits on bankers’ bonuses, an issue about which many voters are angry. The next hot topic for EP debate is likely to be the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
There is a danger of populism and simplistic dismissal of such complex issues, but at least the debate is about policies that citizens really worry about.
How to reach citizens through national and regional institutions
The spheres of national and European politics are now one. Mass communication, globalisation, and the euro crisis have shown how much EU projects affect the space available for policy-making at the national level, from budgets to borders. In the other direction, national policies on migration and social security benefits directly affect the rest of the EU. Refugees arriving by boat in Lampedusa affect Berlin and poverty in Iași affects domestic politics in Birmingham because people can freely move between EU countries. The future of Europe can be called into question by the Greek parliament voting down a key measure, and rising Euroscepticism in Finland can increase unemployment in Spain if the Finns block a bailout. It is impossible to tackle the problems in one sphere without considering the implications for the other.
Solutions to the democracy crisis also have to integrate better the two spheres. At every level of government, citizens are going to mistrust institutions that they feel do not represent them and in which their participation is limited to voting every few years. The individual’s experience with the political system therefore has to be at the center of new measures. If anybody can counter rising anti-EU sentiment and reconnect voters with Europe, it will not be EU functionaries or even MEPs. This task can only be accomplished by national politicians who take the EU seriously.
Giving a higher profile to parliamentary scrutiny committees
The basic mechanisms for connecting EU business to national politics exist, but they need to be developed further and implemented better. In parallel with the rise of the EP, national parliaments have gained more power in EU business, although this has been uneven across the member states and has depended on their parliamentary traditions. Parliamentary EU scrutiny committees have become very powerful in some countries, even controlling their governments’ positions in the Council of Ministers.2 The most ambitious such mechanisms exist in Denmark, Finland, and Germany. For instance, before going to the Council of Ministers, Danish ministers have to present their position to the Folketing committee on European policy, which has binding powers. The German Bundestag has increased its role in European affairs after the German constitutional court ruled that it should have greater oversight powers.
Scrutiny committees could use their powers to generate a more lively democratic debate about the EU in all member states by reaching out to the press and public. They could follow the good examples in Berlin, Copenhagen, and Helsinki of explaining EU business to voters more directly, for example, on animal rights and climate change. They could open up their scrutiny process by inviting journalists to take part and encouraging public input on their deliberations through social media and other forums.
Giving national parliaments the right to suggest EU-level action
The Lisbon Treaty introduced an early-warning mechanism whereby national parliaments can indicate whether a commission proposal constitutes a breach of the subsidiarity principle, which states that the EU will not act unless it is more effective than action taken at a national, regional, or local level. The existing mechanism has only negative power at present; it is a brake to stop unpopular measures. If one-third of national parliaments submit this kind of objection, the commission must review the proposal—known as a yellow card. If a simple majority of national parliaments object, then the council and European Parliament can reject the proposal immediately—an orange card.
This power could be made positive by allowing parliaments to introduce ideas for the commission to consider.
Inviting MEPs to address national parliaments
The EU has made attempts to build stronger connections between the EP and national parliaments. The Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs (better known as COSAC) was created in 1989 to bring national parliamentarians into EU-level deliberations. But it has failed to attract the best and brightest national parliamentarians, and its complex processes do not offer real power.
A simpler and better innovation would be to give an MEP the right to speak in his or her own national parliament. They are few enough that they would not take up excessive speaking time, and they could provide information and debate EU business with their national counterparts directly. Even better would be if the 28 commissioners addressed national parliaments on their areas of responsibility more often. The scrutiny committees could organise a hearing with each commissioner at least once during his or her term.
Giving national parliamentarians a role in eurozone oversight
The eurozone has become very salient to voters and has institutions of its own, yet it lacks direct parliamentary accountability to its members. A way to provide this would be to establish a committee of representatives from national parliaments of the eurozone countries to hold hearings with the president of the Eurogroup and the head of the European Stability Mechanism. The committee could also issue reports on how well the eurozone’s governance and regulatory mechanisms are functioning.
Creating new mechanisms to involve regional and local authorities in EU decision–making
There are more than 300 regions and 90,000 municipalities in the EU. These local governments are closer and more familiar to citizens, who trust them more than national and EU institutions. Yet a clear majority feels that the regional and municipal levels are insufficiently taken into account when decisions on EU policy are made.
The body set up to consider local concerns at the EU level, the Committee of the Regions, cannot do its job because it does not have decision-making powers. It is composed of regional dignitaries who are important in their locality but have little influence in Brussels. Less than a quarter of EU citizens are even aware of the existence of this forum.
The eurozone has become very salient to voters and has institutions of its own, yet it lacks direct parliamentary accountability to its members.
Instead of bringing regional officials to Brussels, the EU needs to bring Brussels to the regions. Local and regional bodies need to debate EU issues at home.
The forces of regionalism are growing in several parts of Europe. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum stirred up interest in devolving greater powers to regions in other parts of the UK as well as the EU. In coming years, widespread debates about decentralisation and new constitutional settlements are likely in the UK and Spain, while Italy and Belgium already have ongoing national discussions about the relationships between their centers and regions.
In the past, the EU was popular in regions with a strong identity because it seemed to offer an umbrella solution that allowed those regions to assert their identity and enjoy new forms of representation through multilevel governance. However, the euro crisis led to new rules for fiscal discipline at the national level, which centralised decision-making on economic policies.
European Union institutions need to engage directly at the regional and local levels, both to hear local concerns and offer participation in decision-making. For example, the commission is using its representative offices in member states to promote dialogue among stakeholders about new budgetary rules at the EU level, and these offices could engage national actors on other issues. National authorities could involve regional representatives and mayors more systematically when forming their EU positions. These representatives have more daily contact with the grass roots and could play an important role bridging the EU institutions and the population.