“Transnational” citizens are more involved in European politics

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The concept of “transnationalism” refers to the extent to which an individual’s background, interactions and practices extend beyond national borders. But do more “transnational” citizens identify more with the work of the European Union? Based on a new study, Anna kyriazi and Francesco Visconti illustrate that those with high levels of transnationalism also seem to be more engaged in EU politics.

The EU is a union of democracies, but can it transform into a true supranational democracy? The major post-Lisbon developments do not give too much reason to be optimistic. The handling of the eurozone crisis, during which unelected and irresponsible institutions (the infamous “Troika”) dictated policies to member state governments has been widely seen as a trampling of popular sovereignty.

Since then, we have witnessed a systematic attack on liberal democratic institutions in several EU Member States, particularly in Hungary and Poland, which the EU was reluctant to face until fairly recently. Discussions about the EU’s so-called ‘democratic deficit’ also tend to escalate around the European Parliament elections, which take place every five years, which regularly highlight a wide gap in participation levels. national and European countries across the Union (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Comparison between participation rates in national and European elections in selected Member States

To note: The figure shows the turnout figures for the 2019 European Parliament elections and the national elections held just before the 2019 vote. Turnout data comes from the European Parliament (for the European elections) and from the Political Data Yearbook produced by the European Journal of Political Research (for national elections).

Why are people not participating more in European politics when they have the possibility? One of the most common explanations is that citizens perceive the EU as too technocratic and too distant. Citizens do not understand how the EU works, do not identify with it and therefore are not interested in EU affairs.

This is in line with a general trend, documented by studies of local democracy and ethno-regionalism, that people become more involved in politics as the political unit becomes smaller. In an intriguing to study, Mabel Berezin and Juan Díez Medrano also found that support for the EU literally depended on physical distance, i.e. proximity or remoteness from Brussels (the administrative and political center of the EU) of individuals.

This suggests that there is a perceptual and emotional barrier to political participation at EU level. But are there ways to overcome this obstacle? In a recent study, we argue that cross-border interconnection and transnational social exchanges are a way for European politics to become more supranational. The key explanatory variable we consider is’ individual transnationalism ‘, which refers to’the extent to which individuals are involved in cross-border interaction and mobility”.

This includes physical mobility and contacts, but people do not need to migrate for their kingdom to become “transnationalized” – a term borrowed from a to study by Theresa Kuhn, who refers to any form of social exchange and cultural competence that transcends national borders. This could be reading books in a foreign language or having colleagues from another EU Member State, among others. Like Ulrich Beck wrote Two decades ago, “transnational” implies the emergence of forms of life and actions whose internal logic comes from the inventiveness with which people create and maintain social life worlds and contexts of action where distance is not a factor ”.

We looked at various forms of European political participation, from voting in European Parliament elections, to supranational political efficiency, to just talking (positively) about the EU. We argue that transnational backgrounds, practices and skills transform the way people perceive the European political space: they alert them to the supranational scope of the political process; they make them more aware of European politics; and they increase their level of interest in their fellow Europeans.

Self-interest is also part of this process. Transnational individuals are among the so-called “winners” of globalization and its European variant, European integration, and they may therefore perceive that the stakes of European politics are more important for them than for less transnational individuals. The results of our analyzes, based on Survey data collected in ten EU countries after the 2019 European elections, consistently show that the more transnational an individual, the more likely they are to engage in such activities (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: Transnationalism and politicization of the EU

To note: The figure shows the marginal effects of transnationalism on the components of the politicization of the EU using data from the project “Reconciling economic and social Europe: the role of values, ideas and politics” (REScEU) . For more information, see the accompanying authors’ document.

As cross-border social exchanges intensify in the integrating EU, this also means that citizens will be increasingly involved in politics at EU level. In the long term, this could partly correct the democratic shortcomings of the EU and increase its legitimacy. However, this also has some drawbacks.

On the one hand, transnationalism is not evenly distributed among societies: people from a higher social class, holding positions of higher status and having a higher level of education tend to be more transnational and more involved in politics. In other words, transnationalism stimulates the participation of those who are already among the most resourceful and most interested in politics.

On the other hand, the positive influence of transnationalism on participation in supranational politics may be accompanied by a relative detachment from national policy. That is, the participation of transnational citizens in supranational politics is not complementary to their participation in national politics, but rather is something that competes with their involvement in politics at the national level.

However, there are many paths to stronger forms of democratic inclusion at EU level, and cross-border interconnection is only one of them. Proposals such as those in progress Conference on the future of Europe, or the European citizens’ initiative, among many others, also have an important role to play in stimulating political participation and obtaining popular consent for European integration.

For more information, see the accompanying author’s article in Election studies


Note: This article gives the point of view of the authors, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2021 – Source: PE



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