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.
Voter turnout has slumped since the first European elections took place in 1979. At the last poll in 2004, an average of 45% of citizens went to the ballot box. Unless the trend is reverted, the EU might face a worsening legitimacy crisis, experts warn.
For his part, Van Staa believes the 74 European regional parliaments with legislative powers are best placed to try to prove the relevance of the European Union and the issues at stake to citizens.
“Regional parliament have to be involved in the building of Europe, as they are the best placed to have direct contact with the citizens,” said Van Staa, who is also president of the Austrian region of Tyrol. He suggested that local elected politicians are better positioned to tell the success stories of the European Union and “why [a low voter turnout] will be bad not only for Europe, but also for our regions”.
Internet and the media, however, are not the only way to go, according to the president of EU regional parliaments. He calls for more door-to-door campaigning. With the internet, “we are in information overload,” he explained. “We need to talk, talk and talk – go to talk in local gatherings, conferences [and] schools”.
Regional parliaments are planning to hold transnational debates on the European elections on Schuman day (9 May) as a way of bridging the gap between citizens and the European Union. Activities will also be launched to work more closely with the European Parliament before next June.
According to Van Staa, citizens need to identify with the European Union. At the moment, Europeans only identify the EU with infrastructure under construction, he said, citing the EU-funded Brenner tunnel in the Alps as an example. However, citizens need to realise that we are not just a region, a nation, but also a continent that can be a leader in a globalised and less-polarised world, he underlined.
To create the right framework for citizens to identify with the EU and stop seeing the European Parliament as a talk-shop, Van Staa said he favoured smaller constituency lists rather than large national lists. “The closer you are to the electorate, the better the chances to engage people in a common vision and future for the European Union,” he said.
“We just need to show the citizens that European problems are local problems, and that subsidiarity is the principle,” he said, underlining that with national parliaments and local authorities, regional parliamentarians should join forces in the subsidiarity monitoring of EU legislation and to forge solid links with European associations of regional and local authorities when it comes to influencing the political agenda of the European Union.