The European Parliament is often accused of not adequately representing the European Union’s citizens due to its low electoral turnout and high political fragmentation. Parliamentarians are often seen to be removed from the goings-on on the ground in the countries where they were elected, while European Parliament elections are seen by many as second-tier to national elections. During the 2019 European elections, for instance, 51 per cent of Europeans showed up at the polls, compared to an average voter turnout of 65% in national elections in Europe.
Interestingly, trust in the European Parliament is higher in Eastern Partnership countries like Ukraine (69%), Moldova (57%) and especially Georgia (83%), than in the EU itself (47%). Launched in 2009, the Eastern Partnership is a policy initiative aimed at boosting the political and economic ties between the EU and a handful former Soviet countries, as well as supporting reform processes in these countries.
When it comes to foreign policy issues, and the Eastern Partnership countries in particular, MEPs often formulate critiques with the intention of improving human rights and democratic principles. Yet, local lawmakers sometimes interpret such critiques as attempts to intervene in their domestic politics. This can create unwelcome tensions and raise questions around the extent to which MEPs should engage in the domestic politics of a non-EU country and whose positions they are seen to ‘represent’ when they do so. Their own, that of their political group or that of the European Parliament?
From an institutional perspective, MEPs, generally speaking, are trying to expand the European Parliament’s role and its legislative powers as well as to influence EU foreign policy, a policy area where national governments hold the ultimate decision-making powers. MEPs also tend to attempt to align their votes and declarations with the positions of their political groups or local parties with the same beliefs and ideology as them. At the same time, many MEPs also feel compelled to promote EU norms. Unsurprisingly, the gap between these various objectives can at times be hard, if not impossible to bridge.
Take Georgia, for instance, where the EU enjoys immense public support. Pursuit of EU membership is even included in the country's 1995 constitution, and Georgia formally applied for EU membership after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in March 2022.
The European Parliament has been vocal in its support for Georgia’s EU aspirations. During the Parliament’s March plenary session, German MEP Viola von Cramon for instance said: “The people of Georgia deserve to be in the EU, even if their current government does not.” She was referring to the massive protests that broke out after the government attempted to adopt a law that would have required NGOs and media organisations that receive more than 20% of their funding from abroad to register as ‘foreign agents’.
MEPs’ engagement in political developments in the Eastern Partnership countries contributes to the legitimisation of the EU enlargement process. But it may also inadvertently drag MEPs into the battlefield of national politics. Delayed reforms to the country’s allegedly politicised justice system, coupled with the Georgian government’s inconsistent support for Ukraine, have for instance aggravated tensions between MEPs in favour of Georgia’s EU membership and the country’s leadership. The frequency of verbal attacks by leading Georgian figures on MEPs even led them to adopt a resolution calling on “Georgian political leaders to stop aggressive verbal attacks” at the end of last year.
Statements by MEPs and their groups are often erroneously perceived as the EU’s official stance, and opposition lawmakers and other political actors sometimes use MEPs’ criticisms to undermine the legitimacy of their own government by wrongly portraying them as the position of the EU. This can lead to mistrust between national governments and the EU Parliament, as it has in Georgia.
There are ways to mitigate this. For example, the EU institutions, MEPs as well as think-tanks and foundations with a focus on the EU can work to improve the public’s understanding of the role of MEPs and their political groups in the Eastern Partnership countries. More investment is also needed into the dissemination of information on the functioning of the different EU institutions, while those EU institutions also need to better clarify their positions on contested political issues. Of course, they should not be given voting rights, but we should find a way for politicians from EU candidate countries to actively participate in the work of the European Parliament.