Van Staa: Regional parliaments to boost EU election turnout

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Regional parliaments will not stand still ahead of the EU elections, said Herwig van Staa, president of the conference of presidents of the regional legislative assemblies of Europe (CALRE). He spoke to EURACTIV about the initiatives planned by regional parliaments to engage with citizens in the run-up to the European poll.

Herwig van Staa is the president of CALRE, the conference of presidents of the regional legislative assemblies of Europe.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

You have been elected president of the conference of presidents of the regional legislative assemblies of Europe (CALRE) for 2009, which is a key year for the EU as citizens will be called on to renew the European Parliament. Are regional parliaments going to act or pass on these elections? 

We will not stand still for the next EU elections. Regions with legislative power are aware that this time around, we need to be more active than before to tell people what the issues at stake are in the elections to the European Parliament. It is crucial that people are better informed of the benefits of the EU. Local authorities are closer to the people and can engage better with citizens. 

Within CALRE, we will prepare the elections. I will make a call to all CALRE members, so that candidates for the European Parliament elections are mostly nominated at the regional level.

Because regional parliaments are planning to work more closely with the European Parliament in the future, we would like to have elected politicians in the EP that will be closer to the citizens and can talk about the value of the EU, but that are well aware of the subsidiarity principle and regional policy. 

What activities are you planning to involve citizens in? 

On 9 May, Europe Day, we will hold an EU-wide debate on the importance of the European elections in order to have more voters. That will start debates within each region. 

Are you going to have transnational debates or is each region going to organise its own event? 

We need transnational debate and interregional cooperation, not only transborder cooperation. For example, the region of Tyrol in Austria and the region of Tyrol in Italy have one representation in Brussels. We are both regions of different countries with legislative power, but we share the same house. That is the European Union. 

How do citizens in your regions view the European Union? Do you perceive a democratic gap that separates citizens and the EU institutions? Do presidents of regional parliaments perceive it as such? 

There are centralised states like France or the United Kingdom. The UK has three regions with legislative powers (Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland), but it is a very strong centralised state. France has strong regions but with no legislative power. Still, in Italy and Spain, regionalisation has made great progress.

The position of regions with legislative power is better placed for European development, because the people are usually a strong identification of the region and not the national state.

In Austria, in Tyrol: the people are first Tyrolian, then Austrian and then European. But we have to try to make people realise that Europe is at the same level as the national state. 

In terms of issues, which ones do you think will be relevant for the 2009 elections campaign? Which will make citizens realise it is worth going out and voting? 

We should talk much more about what Europe is doing for regional development and talk about the structural funds, Leader and Interreg.

Isn’t such EU jargon precisely what we should try to avoid? Do you really think that all citizens care about is money? 

This is the best business card you can give them. If you show tangible results, they will associate successful stories to the European Union. Take for example the Brenner tunnel. If you tell citizens that it was achieved thanks to funding allocated by the European Union, they will understand better what’s in it for them and why they should care to go and vote. 

Another success story which we should not be shy to showcase is the euro, which is our strongest weapon against the American financial situation. The global crisis has its roots in the States. 

So what kind of communication tools are you going to use to reach your constituencies and communicate the added value of going to vote?

We need to have more information, but not just via the Internet and the media. We are in information overload there. We need to talk, talk and talk – go to talk in local gatherings, conferences [and] schools.

They need to hear from us, elected officials, the story of the European Union. I will make sure that they understand that if they don’t go to vote for the European elections, it will be bad not only for Europe but also for our regions.

You cannot have any success in social and economic progress if you don’t have good development at the European level.

Of course we can’t always agree, but we have to strive towards a stronger European Union, because really we have no other alternative than being together.

Do you think smaller constituencies list rather than big national lists will better serve the legitimacy of the European Parliament? 

I am in favour of smaller lists based on electoral districts. But I think we should go towards European lists based on electoral districts. We need to have a European campaign based on European parties programmes supported by national parties, not the other way around.

How can we avoid that the European elections turn into a referendum for or against the government in power?

I have no real answer for this. But it is certainly to be avoided. We just need to show citizens that European problems are local problems and the subsidiarity is the principle to tackle them. Public opinion should realise that in a globalised world European countries can only fight together. It is a matter or survival in a competitive world. 

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