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The European Parliament and its Grass Roots

The European Parliament, Strasbourg

Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are the spokepersons for European citizens whose identity can be European, national, or regional, depending on the stakes involved in a particular issue. How do they represent effectively these multiple and sometimes contradictory constituencies?

The institutional makeup of the European Union has been the subject of many, non-consensual analyses. Academic observers, however, all agree on one basic point: the dynamic equilibrium in EU functioning springs much more from the plurality and competition among institutions and their varied interests than from any formal balance of powers. But even this reading of the EU “regime” is too abstract; institutional operations are in fact a far cry from what one finds in the texts of the treaties. The European Parliament*, for example, is supposed to represent the somewhat disembodied notion of “peoples of the States brought together in the Community”, while in fact it is the arena for a number of actors from outside European institutions and in particular for sub-national entities. Depending on the matter under discussion, the political configurations, and their own convictions, MEPs find themselves the voice of the European people or of their fellow countrymen, or of their own district, their party, or their own particular local constituency. Since most of the time they cannot please all of these voices, MEPs are regularly forced to favor certain allegiances.

These are the reasons behind their desire in recent years to take into fuller account the local stakes of European integration after having for so long played down national considerations. MEPs have therefore been increasingly active in making contact with sub-national political leaders and calling for the regionalisation of European elections. This shift in emphasis should be also be considered in the light of the steady erosion in participation in these elections, all of which in turn points up the need for a comprehensive examination of the overarching questions of representation in the European Union and of the relationship between European citizens and the European political system. The movement back toward a local base is also a sign of realism on the part of MEPs who recognize that the European Parliament will never eclipse national assemblies nor will representatives to the Parliament ever be considered as the representatives of a “European people”.

In this way the new emphasis on the regional dimension of Parliamentary deliberation is considered by many MEPs as a way to fix the Union's democratic deficit while sidestepping the conundrum of representation. Renewed regional emphasis will lead to a gradual reconstitution of the local and territorial dimensions of representativity on the supra-national level. It will also lead to increasing ties between Members of the European Parliament on one hand and Europe's local territories and their residents on the other hand, all of which will constitute a new field of study for political scientists.




Olivier Costa
Researcher at the CNRS
CERVL – Pouvoir, Action publique, Territoire
CNRS-Institut d'études politiques de Bordeaux

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