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[Dutch weeks] National interests or party ideology? Nobody knows
by Newropeans-Magazine
2009-05-27 08:48:15
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An important question during the European elections is how the European Parliament really works: do MEPs focus on their national interests or on their party ideology? For voters, it is difficult to find out what the answer is.

When European elections are held, it is important for voters to understand how the European Parliament works. It is almost impossible for citizens to have a detailed view of all the policy issues that were discussed there during the last five years. Citizens should have a helicopter view of how decisions were made. Two views are in the vogue: the European Parliament is a battle of national interests, or: it is a normal parliament where party ideologies play an important role. 

Many citizens interpret the European Parliament as a battle of national interests. Ministers tell them about the outcomes of negotiations in the council, and which issues they ‘won’. Citizens interpret the European Parliament as the same battle. This view is popular among right-wing populists as well: they say that the Netherlands pays too much for Europe, which suggests that a constant battle is fought about money. 

Another view of the European Parliament is that it works like a national parliament: every European party has its own view on Europe. Greens fight for a greener Europe and liberals strive for more individual freedom. In this view, the national background of MEPs is irrelevant: they work together in parties that function in the same way as national parties. The only difference is that the parties in the European Parliament are composed of several national delegations. 

Last week, two Dutch MEPs who leave the European Parliament, Kathelijne Buitenweg and Joost Lagendijk, organised a conference titled: ‘the Dutch interest does not exist’. According to them, the view that national interests prevail in the European Parliament is wrong. Many issues were mentioned where MEPs voted according to their ideology. Their national background did not play any role. Research shows the same. 

But would citizens notice this too? For this, detailed party comparisons are necessary, but in many areas there are none. An area where these comparisons do exist is gay rights, because this issue does play a role for many homosexuals when they vote. The largest Dutch gay organisation, COC, made an overview. 

Two christian parties did not cooperate, but the other seven parties cover the whole political spectrum from the far right to the far left. A large majority is in favour of European anti-discrimination policies, laws that prohibit schools to refuse hiring gay lecturers, more control on the compliance with anti-discrimination laws, a European recognition of Dutch gay marriage, criteria for new EU-countries in the area of gay rights and sharp condemnations of the violation of gay human rights outside the European Union (based on: www.gayvote.nl). 

Of course, one could argue that the Netherland is a gay-friendly country and that because of this, all parties agree on these issues. But this problem is much larger: politicial parties also largely agree about the internal market (it should stay as it is), the enlargement (it is better not to enlarge, but it will happen anyway) and democracy (Europe should be more democratic, but we don’t know how). In other countries, we can expect the same cultural consensus on main issues, which make it seem likely that the European Parliament is an arena for national interests after all. 

Party ideology is most important when MEPs vote for European policies, but the themes that are presented to citizens during the election campaign give a different picture: the consensus between parties is impressive. For voters, it seems that national interests are most important in the European Parliament, not party ideology.

Chris Aalberts*
Amsterdam - The Netherlands 

* Chris Aalberts is lecturer and researcher in political communication. Visit his blog: www.chrisaalberts.nl - This paper is also accessible in Dutch: http://www.newropeans-magazine.org/content/category/6/193/323/
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