STEP 1. Overview

In the previous unit, we have explored EU legislative and executive sub-systems and their mutual interaction. In this unit, we will focus on the EU representative sub-system. In particular, you are going to learn what are political parties in the EU and what is their role in the representation of interests, outside and inside the European Parliament. Moreover, you will get to know what interest groups are and how they operate in Brussels to support key political demands. Before trying to understand how it works in the EU, let’s provide a definition of what is in general the representative sub-system and its function in democratic states.

As suggested by the word ‘representative’, the role of this sub-system is to represent citizens’ voices, interests and demands, by making sure that they can be properly ‘represented’ in the political arena and heard by policy-makers. This function is fundamental in every democratic system. If you remember well, in unit 1 we defined a political system as the interaction of inputs (in terms of political demands generated by the polity and the citizens), decision-making processes (which select certain inputs and transform them into political decisions) and outputs (the policies that are actually produced). In this context, the representative subsystem is the function that make sure that all relevant inputs and demands may be heard and taken into consideration by decision-makers, in order to be selected and transformed into specific policies. The figure below gives you a better idea of this role.

As you can see from the picture, the representative sub-system is very important not only to ensure that political demands get to political authorities, but also to shape feedback processes. As already said in unit one, citizens provide feedback on policy decisions and this feedback in turn contributes to feed new inputs.

Generally, the key actors that collect citizens’ interests and demands are political parties and interest groups. They act as ‘intermediates’ between citizens and institutional authorities, aggregating and articulating interests, as well as bringing key voices and positions to the fore and into the political agenda. In this sense, they have a fundamental ‘gatekeeping’ role, by influencing the access of demands to the system.

The same dynamics happen in the EU. European citizens from the various EU Member States have interests, inputs and demands that they want to be heard by European institutions and decision-makers in Brussels. However, to do so, EU citizens either need to work together and directly through petitions addressed to the European Commission or need intermediaries to represent their voices in Brussels.

As the EU is a multi-level system, we have several and complex interests at stake. Generally, we can distinguish four main categories of interests in the EU. The first category pertains to territorial interests, i.e. the interests stemming from the mobilization of different territorial levels inside the EU: Member states, regions, sub-national levels, cities etc. Each of these different territorial levels has specific interests and demands. Just to give you an example, Italian Regions or German Lands have key demands concerning their geographical position, economic activities and relative political autonomy.

The second category is that of functional interests. They concern social and economic life and different cleavages pertaining to various socio-economic categories. For instance, the interests of workers versus the interests of employers, as well as the interests of workers versus the interests of retired people, are all examples of functional interests.

The third category is that of private interests, i.e. all those demands and interests that come from private economic activities and which regard specific groups (enterprises, corporations, industries etc).

Finally, the fourth category is that of public interests, namely those general interests that pertain to broad and generally wide-spread groups, such as the citizens in general, elderly people, children, women etc. For example, the interest to the protection of public health, the interest to the protection of consumers, or the interest to the protection of environment and air quality are all cases of public interest.

Generally, territorial interests in the EU are mostly represented by institutional actors. For example, the European Council and the Council of Ministries represent the interests of Member States. The European Commission represents the interest of the EU as an autonomous political system, whereas the Committee of Regions moves forward with the requests of sub-national units.

Functional interests are instead mostly represented by European political parties and interest groups.