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Is the European Parliament getting more recognition from citizens? Attitudes in Lithuania

The EU’s complicated decision-making system is still confusing for many citizens. How do Lithuanians view the work of the European Parliament?

January 22, 2021 - Ingrida Unikaitė-Jakuntavičienė Sima Rakutienė - Analysis

Flags of the EU and Lithuania in Brussels. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

When we talk about European politics we mostly hear about the different interests and views of the EU member states. Such a ‘collision’ of national interests is also seen in the European Parliament. This is despite the fact that members of the European Parliament are officially guaranteed political independence. For example, the mandate concerning MEPs states that “Members of the European Parliament shall not, in the exercise of their powers, be bound by any instructions from any State or person”.

However, research shows that MEPs often struggle to balance national priorities with the interests of their EP political group. Taking into account the EU’s complicated system of decision-making, the basis on which MEPs make their political choices is still confusing for many citizens. As a result, it is worth investigating how the European Parliament is viewed at a societal level. In particular, how do Lithuanians, who joined the European Union in 2004, understand this core institution within the EU decision-making process?

 Lithuanians do recognise the importance of the European Parliament

A recent public survey, which was conducted in Lithuania in April 2020, revealed that most respondents (65 per cent) believe that the European Parliament is an important institution that directly affects their lives.

Source: “Spinter” survey conducted in Lithuania (April 2020) [NG(1] 

Around 23 per cent of the Lithuanian population believe that the European Parliament is not important (16 per cent) or not important at all (seven per cent). The survey data also shows that those who believe that the European Parliament is important tend to be highly educated and reside in Lithuania’s major cities. Within this group, female respondents age 36 or older are even more likely to agree that the EP is an important institution.

People think MEPs should mostly represent national interests

In theory, it is expected that MEPs should seek to represent common European interests. However, in reality these representatives often support the priorities of their member state. This is not surprising given the latest survey findings.

Source: “Spinter” survey conducted in Lithuania (April 2020)

As the figures show, 44 per cent of respondents expect that representatives from Lithuania should represent national interests in the European Parliament. Meanwhile, only about a third (27 per cent) of respondents believe that European and national interests are equally important. Only 16 per cent of respondents expect elected MEPs to solely represent common European interests. Highly educated respondents and those between the ages of 46 and 55 were more likely to believe that MEPs should represent Lithuania’s national interests. At the same time, common EU/European interests were more often supported by men age 36-45, representatives of the highest income group, and residents of urban areas.

MEPs agree that they face difficult decisions regarding European and national interests

International research shows that MEPs cannot afford to ignore the interests of their national political parties if they hope to further their political careers. Monika Mühlböck’s research, which looks at how national political parties try to ‘control’ their MEPs, shows that national parties s often encourage their EP representatives to take national interests into account. This is especially true when an issue receives widespread societal and media attention.

Following interviews with ten Lithuanian MEPs who worked during different terms, the survey results showed that they also face problems when it comes to balancing European and national interests.

Representatives of national opposition parties in the European Parliament tended to support a common European position over national priorities. This was most clear with regards to social, economic and human rights issues. Almost all of those interviewed said that they mostly supported Lithuanian national positions in foreign policy issues.

This position is also supported by the fact that an absolute majority (eight out of 11) of current Lithuanian MEPs joined the Euronest Parliamentary Assembly. This body supports the various goals of the Eastern Partnership, which are long-term priorities for Lithuania’s foreign policy. Other areas in which elected members tended to support a more national position (named by two thirds of the interviewed MEPs) include agriculture and historical memory.

However, most MEPs interviewed said that they had never or very rarely received instructions from their Lithuanian national party on how they should vote in the European Parliament. At the same time, they are more concerned with disagreements between their national government and political groups in the EP.

Youth more likely to think that the EP’s competences should be strengthened

The European Parliament has continuously sought to gain more powers in order to strengthen the voice of the EU’s citizens. This is due to the fact that the institution remains the only directly elected institution of the European Union. Should the political powers of this institution be strengthened even more?

According to survey data, only 27 per cent of respondents agree that increasing the EP’s powers would also strengthen the voice of citizens within the European Union. Meanwhile, half of the Lithuanian residents interviewed (50 per cent) believe that this would not change anything concerning the EU’s system of governance.

Source: “Spinter” survey conducted in Lithuania (April 2020)

According to the survey results, men and younger people (those between 18 and 35) are more likely to agree that the European Parliament should have more powers.

More survey results and a broader analysis of the research can be found in this academic article. The research examines the problem of the EU’s legitimacy and questions how the political changes within EU system impacted the Lithuanian attitudes towards European Parliament. The study claims that the European Parliamentary elections remain of secondary importance in Lithuania in comparison to the national ones.

This research was funded by a grant (No. S-LIP-19-65) from the Research Council of Lithuania. It is part of the research project “Representation of Lithuanian citizens and interests in the European Parliament”, which took place between 2019-21.

Sima Rakutienė is Head of the Department of Regional Studies, Associate Professor and Senior Researcher at the Faculty of Political Science and Diplomacy at Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania. Her research focuses on European integration, EU foreign and neighbourhood policies, comparative regionalism and EU institutions.

Ingrida Unikaitė-Jakuntavičienė is an Associate Professor and Senior Researcher at the Department of Political Science at Vytautas Magnus University in Lithuania. Her research focuses on political communication, election campaigns and voting behaviour, Euroscepticism and European Union politics.

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