Regional perspectives on European democracy: first results from REGIOPARL’s participatory research
The upcoming Conference on the Future of Europe will also involve regional political actors who will contribute their interests and ideas on the future of the EU to the debate. It is not least against this background that the REGIOPARL research project examines the normative perspectives and reform ideas of legislative actors from the regional level: in focus group workshops, the state and future of the EU is discussed with elected representatives of various European regional parliaments. This blog post presents some first results of this participatory research.
The EU remains a political entity in formation. Its structure and functioning are being developed in the context of changing political paradigms, majorities and crises. The future of this unique transnational and complex political system will receive special attention in the wake of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Among the stakeholders who will contribute to the Conference, regional actors have a particularly interesting role to play. Although they are only indirectly or weakly represented in EU politics – via their national governments or consultative bodies like the Committee of the Regions –, they are supposed to be properly included in the composition of the Conference. Their relatively strong involvement bears on the prominent narrative of the important role of regional actors as the ‘backbone’ of European democracy, given their ‘closeness to the citizens’ – with Committee of the Regions’ president Apostolos Tzitzikostas most recently stating that: ‘regional & local leaders are [the] EU’s democratic foundations … Together we can bring [the] EU closer to [the] people’ (@COR_President, November 2, 2020). Regional institutions appear as important elements of the European political process and its further democratization, prompting the question of their potential role in the EU’s multilevel democracy.
Against this background, the REGIOPARL research project examines the normative perspectives of regional political actors and their views on reform, of the EU and European democracy in particular. Given the importance of legislative institutions for the form and quality of representative democracy, we focus on regional legislators who have not received sufficient scholarly attention so far. How do regional members of parliament assess the status-quo of the current EU? What are their preferred future scenarios for a more functional and democratic EU? In the following, we present some very first observations and conclusions from this research.
The REGIOPARL project conducted a series of ‘interventions’ in regional parliaments and assemblies in Austria, Germany, Spain and Belgium. This innovative design allows for interesting and unique insights into the perspectives of regional MPs on EU democracy. In the format of focus group discussions, the participating MPs of four selected regional parliaments were invited to (1) assess the functioning of the current EU political system and (2) outline their preferred future scenarios for a more functional and democratic EU. Whereas these ‘interventions’ are far from providing conclusive, let alone representative, evidence, some interesting observations can be drawn from the discussions:
|Lower Austria||Bavaria||Andalusia||German-speaking Community of Belgium|
|Date||28 MAR 2019||5 NOV 2019||17 DEC 2019||2 MAR 2020|
|Format||Plenary and small groups||Plenary||Plenary||Plenary and small groups|
|Moderation||Project team||Project team||External partners||Project team|
|Number of participants||15
(7 during the entire session)
(6 of which were MPs)
(11 of which were MPs)
|Participating political groups||4 of 5||5 of 6||4 of 8||6 of 6|
The participating regional MPs – who were relatively homogenous in their ‘pro-European’ stance – expressed grave concerns about the current state and development of the EU. They shared the opinion that ‘things cannot go on like this’ and voiced some tough criticism of the status quo of EU governance, as this exemplary quote from one of the discussions illustrates:
‘Unless the decision-making processes at European level are radically changed … I believe that in the medium and long term this European Union will break itself. Many people today witness practically every day what is not working’
Their criticism focused particularly on the performance of national executives: the dominant role of member state governments, i.a. in the Council and European Council, was judged to hinder efficient and democratic policymaking at transnational level. In this context, the participating MPs shared the view that effective European policy solutions, which amount to visible political outputs, would be essential prerequisites for citizens’ trust and approval of the EU. In connection to the critique of the Council, the most common demand of the participants was a consequent parliamentarization of EU governance, which mostly pertains to strengthening the European Parliament vis-à-vis the Council. The regional MPs expected improved decision-making and a dynamization of the decision-making processes at EU level to result from putting the European Parliament on a truly equal footing with the Council.
Regarding the relation of the EU with citizens more generally, regional MPs warned of increasing alienation. They discussed both ‘top-down’ and ‘bottom-up’ instruments to counter this development: with better communication strategies to inform citizens on the EU’s activities and benefits as well as a more active role for citizens in participatory forums like citizens’ dialogues. These concerns also pertain to the lack of public visibility of EU politics in the general media landscape. Echoing a long-standing debate in European Studies, several MPs claimed that it would be essential to ‘give a face’ to EU politics in order to create more prominent political competition between European players – which could be attempted by the introduction of transnational electoral lists and the proper institutionalization of the Spitzenkandidaten principle.
Finally, we found that the regional MPs generally demonstrated a great readiness to consider profound reforms both of the EU’s institutional composition as well as the distribution of competences between the different levels of government – regardless of whether they considered such forms of restructuring to be realistic or not. In the context of these discussions, it was noteworthy that regional MPs did not exhibit a strong ‘regional bias’ or ‘regions first’ attitude: their views on the future role and standing of regional parliaments and administrations – also with regard to subsidiarity – were not characterized by defensive arguments and claims. The great majority of participating MPs argued from the normative perspective of a unified and effective EU, which they considered to be the only way both for nation states and regions respectively to be successful in a globalizing, multipolar world with new risks like climate change. While they were open for institutional transformation and mostly in favor of more European integration, they cautioned against hasty reforms – building the European polity would continue to be a long-term exercise; regional factors like language or political and cultural identities would legitimately constrain the pace of integration.
In all of the four interventions, the regional MPs were very concerned about the various forms of (political) stalemate in the European institutions; in conjunction with the lasting remoteness of EU politics, the current state of the EU would continue to alienate European citizens. Regarding the future of the EU and possible remedies for its current condition we can cautiously conclude that the established principles of legitimate and democratic government in the nation state also underpin the normative assessment of the participating MPs: the further parliamentarization of the EU by strengthening the EP or the creation of genuinely electoral competition at EU level represent reform perspectives that bear on the domestic institutions of democratic politics.
The academic paper ‘Demokratisierungsstrategien in der Debatte zur Zukunft der EU: Perspektiven regionaler Parlamentsabgeordneter’ discusses the findings of the four interventions in more detail, connecting them to debates on the EU’s democratic deficit in political science. Co-authored by REGIOPARL’s Sarah Meyer and Paul Kindermann, the paper will be published in early 2021.
 Invitations to participate in the focus group were addressed to MPs from all political groups represented in the respective assembly. However, especially MPs from right-wing populist groups remained absent, which was probably due to the thematic focus of the events – which were presented under the title The Future of the EU from a Regional Perspective.