This article is a follow up to EYE online and is inspired by the activity "E-citizenship and Covid-19". EYE online aimed to compensate for the postponement of European Youth Event 2020 by proposing online activities to young Europeans in the framework of the EuropeansAgainstCovid19 EU campaign. All the activities of EYE online can be watched here.
The coronavirus pandemic has brought many parts of public life to a halt. As political events such as the European Youth Event cannot take place, citizens find it difficult to make their voices heard. As an alternative, can we move democratic processes online and participating in politics from home? While e-democracy comes with risks, it could also be an opportunity for the European Union to explore a new form of debate.
Brando Benifei and Wietse Van Ransbeeck both work to make digital citizen engagement possible, and on very different political levels: where Italian social democrat Benifei has been a Member of the European Parliament since 2014, Belgian entrepreneur Van Ransbeeck founded CitizenLab, a digital platform allowing local governments to consult the public. As part of EYE Online, Benifei and Van Ransbeeck came together for a live debate on e-citizenship, participatory democracy and online elections.
Can we take democracy online? E-democracy is defined by the Democracy Centre Vienna as the “implementation and support of democratic processes using digital information and communication technologies”, ranging from social media platforms to alternative platforms created specifically for public consultations. The Democracy Centre further distinguishes between e-government by replacing visits to the authorities with digital e-participation tools such as online petitions and e-voting. While many European countries remain hesitant to e-voting to exist, the first nationwide vote that included remote electronic voting took place in Estonia, back in 2007.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, Van Ransbeeck has witnessed an increasing interest in e-democracy: “Big policies are decided on, but governments are scratching their heads, because they have to look for substitutes for public meetings”. In this sense, the pandemic has acted as a trigger for fostering democratic innovation Van Ransbeeck’s company CitizenLab has been preparing since 2015: it organised the first ever digital referendum in the Belgian region of Flanders in that year.
Van Ransbeeck is aware that e-democracy comes with some risks. Among them is the increasing polarization of online discussions. To Van Ransbeeck, creating platforms specifically designed for democratic participation is key to establishing a digital space for political debates: “It has been remarkable how little inappropriate content we have on our platform”. Since, in contrast to most social networks, CitizenLab is able to verify a user’s identity, it has been faced with comparatively little spam and trolling: “People know they are interacting with their neighbours in a space crafted by their government.” On europeanyouthideas.eu, user Mathieu also argues that a “European social media platform designed specifically for civil society” might be the next step for the EU to take: “We cannot rely on foreign social media platforms that don’t have the values of solidarity, engagement, understanding, education and dialogue among others at heart,” he writes.
Maybe a good way is to invest in European social media that is funded and developed by European institutions in public-civil participation. If there is a social media platform that can connect a pan-European audience, then you can have meaningful discussions in a forum-like manner. A platform intended and designed for civic-engagement, inquiry, debates, formation of (trans)national digital communities.
What about all important data protection? Van Ransbeeck considers transparency to be one of the most important principles in e-democracy: “You must change the way you communicate and be very transparent about your decisions,” he advises governments who test digital tools. Citizens who participate in online consultations should know exactly when they will hear back from the government, how their feedback will be processed and what the results of the process are. He says, “If people feel like dropping their opinion into a black box without anything happening, they will not take the time to come back and engage again.”
Could we achieve data transparency on an EU level? Brando Benifei also considers lack of transparency to be a barrier for successful e-democracy in the EU. “You [as a citizen] have to understand very well what is being talked about as you risk discussing something when the discussion is already very advanced or even over”, he says. In his view, the digital communication tools such as the institutions’ websites have become much better over the years. Nonetheless, he still sees room for improvement: “We can sometimes still do better at making ourselves understood, so that people know what they can ask for and what we’re discussing and deciding.”
An instrument developed in the past to allow European citizens to participate in EU decision-making is the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI): If a petition registered as ECI succeeds in collecting one million signatures from EU citizens of at least seven EU countries, a hearing on the matter has to take place in the European Parliament. Similar mechanisms are used on government websites, such as the UK. Benifei considers the Citizen’s Initiative to be in need of a reform, however: “It is too complicated,” he criticises. “It should be easier to access and [its outcome should be] more binding than it is right now.”
Casting your vote online won’t replace direct democracy anytime soon. Neither speakers expect digital participation to lead to direct democracy, nor to substitute representative democracy. Instead, Van Ransbeeck considers it to be complimentary: “I would want to focus on the system we have in place where you go voting every four or five years, but at the same time also make people heard in the policy-making process”. E-democracy too is not only about elections, but much more about engaging people in discussions and debates. In the end, it is an opportunity to make “representative democracy more representative”.
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