EU Elections: Cultural, Historical and Institutional Analysis

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© European Union 2014 – European Parliament

For a few days Europe will be under the spell of the EU Parliamentary elections. Polls, analyses, hot debates, a frenzy in the name of democracy. But are these elections even relevant and worth bothering ourselves about? In this paper I will shortly analyse the parties involved, the political programs, the historical significance of direct elections by EU citizens, and finally the institutional context of the EU Parliament. This will be presented from the perspective of culture, history and institutionalism.

Cultural analysis

The first thing we want to do is identify the main category involved in the electoral process, which are the European parties and their political platforms. It is essential to keep in mind that these parties are inspired and created/shaped by the public’s needs and interests.

Parties are not in this sense objective material objects but they reflect subjective worldviews, they are expressions of ideas. There is a relatively long list of diversified EU parties involved in this election but one thing that unites them is them having culturally relevant names. We have most parties calling themselves European versus some national ones, parties claiming themselves to be liberal, free and democratic  versus others who are more conservative, reformists, socialist, or even Christian. Without going into detail into their manifestos, we notice they all share common values which we like to call European.

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Source: European People’s [email protected]

Considering names there does not seem to be any deviation from the mainstream political culture, except the nationalist case and the European Green Party which brings a ‘green’ approach to politics. Green tends to get cultural and political connotations. It brings to mind the idea of a positive future by being associated with a clean, safe environment. Politicians understand the power of colours and most parties are associated with one: the red socialists, the yellow liberals or the blue conservatives. The importance of names and colours that these parties choose are fundamental for the cultural approach which makes high use of symbol analysis.

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Source: Alberto [email protected]

Going into more detail, identity-related differences appear. I will exemplify with the three main parties. ALDE points on open EU market, stronger integration and further enlargement. They promote a federalist identity. PES promotes the socialist movement that economically asks for more state-sponsored schemes for unemployment and higher living standards through living wages. Finally, EPP brings a conservative identity with solidarity, autonomy, responsibility and Christian values. All three main EU parties offer voters different cultural packages, namely a federalist one, a socialist one and a conservative one. The rise of Euroscepticism promotes another kind of culture, a nationalist one which talks of sovereignty and anti-federalization.

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Source: PES [email protected]

To conclude the cultural analysis of the parties, we can observe an underlying common European identity that revolves around concepts like democracy, liberalism or Christianity. However, this common identity diversifies at deeper levels. We observe paths that focus more on values like unity, openness and progress, others on solidarity, responsibility and moderation or other even socialism and scepticism or sovereignty. The cultural approach provides us in this sense with a rich palette of potential futures for Europe.

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Historical and institutional analysis

We might take for granted today that the EU has an elected parliament and that it is our inalienable right both to vote and to be a candidate. However, it was not like this until the first elections of 1979, when for the first time the previously appointed Members of the EU Parliament were replaced by directly elected ones. The importance of this opportunity is even further revealed when we understand the idea that lies behind the current institutional configuration of the EU and behind the purpose of this EU Parliament.

The main EU institutions are the Commission which is independent of the Member States and represents the interests of the EU as a whole, the Council of the EU which embodies the interests of the Member States and the EU Parliament that represents the interests of EU citizens. As it is clear, citizens do already have a say in EU affairs indirectly through their elected national leaders that form the Council but what the parliamentary elections provide is a direct saying of who gets to represent them. It is the idea of direct democracy that lies under such institutional configuration.

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Source: Keith [email protected]

Moreover, another historical factor that influences the EU Parliament and the elections is the violent past attributed to nationalism. If we analyse any EU party, we observe that they are mainly a large grouping of national parties that share the same political view. Even if  citizens usually elect representatives of their own national parties, the cross-national structure of EU parties disarms nationalistic impulses. EU parties sit in political groups. In addition to this, in order to prepare for the plenary meeting, MEPs organize in committees that reflect specific issues. This sitting and working structure makes sure that national belonging will not interfere with the interests of EU citizens and will not create nationalistic antagonism.

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As we could observe in the previous cultural analysis, there are specific European values that are also behind the EU structure, EU parties and the EU election process. It is democracy, meaning freedom of choice, association and expression. It is also republicanism as institutional control over authorities, if we analyse how the EU institutions relate to one another. However, if we consider the Eurosceptic parties, there is also the presence of the memories of a Europe with bloody history where suspicion among European states was something normal. It is this dark part of history that fuels citizens’ mistrust in Brussels and in the EU project as a whole.

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Source: [email protected]

Hopefully, it will be the same bloody history to guide both voters and EU parties to maintain institutions, norms and practices that manage to keep peace on the continent and to develop the EU project with this very aim. If coalitions will be made with far-leaning EU parties, hopefully it will be with the aim to bring effectiveness in decision-making and to ease the deliberative process. No big political concessions should be promised and given to attempts that aim to bring the EU back on the isolationist path.

In conclusion, the upcoming EU elections are the manifestation of a historically induced idea, that of democratic cooperation among European peoples with the purpose of stability, prosperity and eventually peace. The mechanisms inside the EU Parliament require cross-national tackling of obstacles and should put more emphasis on the democratic control of the other institutions.

Claudiu Sonda
Passionate student of IR and European politics with an interest in developing a high-level expertise in International Security and geopolitics.