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Closing the Democratic Deficit with a Leap into the World of Social Media

Euro-sceptics and fed­er­al­ists alike read­ily put the words ‘demo­cratic defi­cit’ and the EU together. Whilst the former con­clude that exit is best, the lat­ter that ever-closer union is the way forward.

Within the aca­demic world argu­ments con­tinue to rage over the exist­ence of a demo­cratic defi­cit at all. Moravc­sik and Majone, both respec­ted schol­ars in the field of European stud­ies, deny its exist­ence, albeit for dif­fer­ing reas­ons. Their argu­ments that the EU is unfairly judged against demo­cratic ideals, not even met by nation-states, have fallen largely on deaf ears. What mat­ters most to the future of the EU is that it has become regarded as ‘com­mon know­ledge’ that the EU is an unwieldy and undemo­cratic. David Carmon’s speech summed up the demo­cratic con­sent as being now “wafer thin” in the UK.

The prob­lem of demo­cratic con­sent is not a new one. The EU respon­ded to cri­ti­cism of demo­cratic legit­im­acy in the Lis­bon Treaty, which came into force four years ago, by intro­du­cing the European Cit­izens Ini­ti­at­ive. As the com­pet­i­tion heats up for Fra­tern­ité 2020 to be the first cam­paign to reach full matur­ity this year and finally achieve the right to have its voice heard at the European Com­mis­sion, social media has sped past in the fast lane as the forum of choice for polit­ical discussion.

If true and last­ing demo­cratic legit­im­acy is to be achieved there can be no sub­sti­tute for rad­ical insti­tu­tional reform that would con­sti­tu­tion­al­ise a dir­ectly elec­ted European exec­ut­ive and place it under the con­trol of the European Par­lia­ment. How­ever, while this fed­er­al­ist vis­ion occa­sion­ally shows signs of flick­er­ing into real­ity, it remains for the large part a dis­tant dream. The EU’s online pres­ence how­ever, could be used as a means to plug the gap between cit­izens and decisions that Cameron laments so much.

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The Power of 243 mil­lion Faces

Face­book now boasts of over one bil­lion act­ive users. Approx­im­ately 243 mil­lion of these live on the old con­tin­ent193 mil­lion of these in EU coun­tries. Put another way, four out of ten EU cit­izens use the site reg­u­larly. With these sorts of num­bers it is unsur­pris­ing that the European insti­tu­tions have already developed extens­ive online presences.

The European Par­lia­ment, whose job it is to rep­res­ent the cit­izens of the Union, has the largest and most inter­act­ive of the insti­tu­tional pages. The page allows vis­it­ors to loc­ate all MEPs on Face­book by search­ing by coun­try and/or polit­ical group­ing. Fol­low­ing your MEPs is one of the best ways to keep up-to-date with their activ­it­ies, as well as enjoy shar­ing their frus­tra­tions with the beha­viour of Nigel Far­age in the Fish­er­ies Committee.

A chat forum allows users to engage in debates and pose ques­tions to high pro­file MEPs, includ­ing the oppor­tun­ity to put ques­tions to Mar­tin Schultz him­self. Although judging from the num­ber of typos one sus­pects it may be sta­gi­aire, suf­fer­ing from the effects of one too many Bel­gian beers the pre­vi­ous night, reply­ing rather than Mr. Schultz him­self. The abil­ity to chat to your rep­res­ent­at­ives and leave com­ments does raise a ser­i­ous ques­tion how­ever. Who are read­ing the com­ments? Who are mak­ing them, and are they being taken ser­i­ously? The median age of a Face­book user is a mere 22, so they can hardly be con­sidered to be rep­res­ent­at­ive of the pop­u­la­tion, yet if the EU is invit­ing com­ments they should at least be taken ser­i­ously.  The altern­at­ive is to dis­able com­ments and reduce the site to a communication directoire.

Recog­nising the Lim­its of Social Media

The best way to get your voice heard remains to con­tact your mem­ber of the European Par­lia­ment of choice and present your case in a well-constructed let­ter or email. It is hard to artic­u­late a genu­ine con­cern in the space 140-Twitter char­ac­ters, or a Face­book mes­sage that scrawls down half a com­puter screen (thanks timeline!). Sim­il­arly, a one-word answer to a ques­tion posed by the European Par­lia­ment on nuc­lear energy doesn’t add much to the debate. Nev­er­the­less, fol­low­ing your rep­res­ent­at­ives on social media can keep you informed, foster a sense of involve­ment and enable cit­izens to greater con­trol their activities.

Cau­tion is also needed when ven­tur­ing onto the World Wide Web. The world of social media is a fast paced game and learn­ing how to use it has been a steep learn­ing curve for some. Twit­ter in par­tic­u­lar has been the nemesis of many a quick fingered MEP. David Cameron him­self fam­ously avoided its use until recently, fear­ful that “too many tweets make a tw*t”. Mr Cameron and I share a com­mon­alty here in that we are both recent con­verts to Twit­ter. How­ever, its abil­ity to keep cit­izens engaged and up-to-date is unprecedented.

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Pro­duct­ive Procrastination

Many of us spend much of our pro­duct­ive and leis­ure time online. In Europe, the aver­age is over 27.5 hours a month. Face­book has woven itself into the fab­ric of our daily lives. Check­ing it has become an essen­tial part start­ing the day, as nor­mal as hav­ing a cof­fee or brush­ing our teeth. At work, we pro­cras­tin­ate on it so much that employ­ers ban it, or that stu­dents resort to delet­ing their accounts dur­ing exam sea­son. Fol­low­ing polit­ics and cur­rent affairs on Face­book is a way to make it pro­duct­ive pro­cras­tin­a­tion. So get online and get informed. Today I learnt that, at the same time as increas­ing its online pres­ence, the EU is seek­ing to help its cit­izens to con­trol their online foot­print and what data they unwit­tingly reveal. How do I know this? It’s on Face­book of course!

– Frederick van Mierlo

Dis­claimer: This art­icle was ori­gin­ally pub­lished as ” Closing the Democratic Deficit with a Leap into the World of Social Media” on February 6, 2013 on The European Student Think Tank, a PB cooper­a­tion partner

 

(Featured photo: AttributionShare Alike  Fora do Eixo, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 1: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works  AslanMedia, Creative Commons, Flickr

Photo 2: AttributionNo Derivative Works Franco Bouly, Creative Commons, Flickr)

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