You say you want a revolution?

By Joe Coney on September 21st, 2012

Last week’s State of the European Union address from European Commission President José Manuel Barosso started trending worldwide on Twitter. That might initially sound surprising, for a remote, turgid bit of European politics. That it was even a topic on Twitter shows that the communications offices in the Commission are starting to get their act together, and not before time.a

In his speech, Barosso finally admitted something national politicians and the public have been saying for decades: the democratic deficit has been a fundamental flaw of the European project since its inception. The deficit is not going to go away without reform. Worse, the lack of credibility and trust it infers on the EU’s institutions very nearly has, and may yet, cripple the entire European project.

Barosso said that the EU must act quickly to restore this trust by making the European Union more democratic, more transparent and more accessible – and, yes, he said that this would mean a treaty change.

What an opportunity this presents to Europeans. Europe could be the first huge institution to reorganise itself to become more open, transparent and accessible in the social digital era. We now have the technology and the market penetration of consumer platforms to involve millions of people in the European decision-making process: something that would’ve been impossible even five years ago.

We could make our institutions the most transparent in the world and empower citizens, finally, to become decision-makers. (We’re not quite talking about direct democracy here: the European Union is about as far as you can get from a direct democracy and still be classed as democratic.)

To date, the European Commission and Parliament’s efforts at transparency have been woeful. Take a look at this European Commission video on water waste (which was so effectively marketed it took me ten minutes to find – I resorted to going back through press releases) and tell me that this institution is an effective communicator.

Then try negotiating the myriad of Commission websites and the updated Parliament website and tell me that these are transparent and communicative institutions. The information is there, but it’s so hard to navigate and jargon-laden it’s essentially useless.

A 2008 Eurobarometer survey showed that most Europeans know very little about the European Parliament (do you know who your MEP is?), and turnout is notoriously low at European elections. Yet European Parliamentarians legislate and act as representatives of Europe’s citizenry – that is, you and I.

Part of this problem is the public’s inherent lack of interest in something it doesn’t understand. But that is only part of the problem: the electoral system is closed to representatives from political parties, and the list system ensures incumbents are almost guaranteed a seat making communication with voters a low priority.

I believe that if we redesigned the electoral system so that MEPs were elected by open primaries, they would have to engage with citizens throughout their term to ensure they were reselected again.

There is no reason that the European Parliament could not provide the technological platform for this engagement – polling the electorate online ahead of big or controversial votes, creating weekly video summaries of legislation that is upcoming, or has just been voted on, and using video to have an online discussion with voters on a weekly basis. This would increase the Parliament’s legitimacy and authority because MEPs would genuinely come to represent their voters.

Another widely acknowledged problem with the development of European democracy is the lack of a demos, a population which collectively feels like European citizens. This is not, as many presume, a problem caused by differing cultures – look at the lack of cultural homogeneity of the United States – or even necessarily language. It is simply because Europeans are divided into “member states”, which provide the prism through which all interactions on a European level are filtered.

To add another perspective from which Europeans can view the EU – as one of 500 million equal partners – the European institutions should be redesigned to facilitate policy crowd sourcing. We have seen it already in the UK and the USA, and, if designed well, it works. Europeans should be able to submit and discuss policy ideas, across language barriers, using their phones or at their desks. And they should be able to do it in a matter of seconds.

Obviously, the Commission and Parliament would have to filter these ideas, but, as we have seen in the UK, a petition system will get used by citizens and can influence the media and Government policy. The EU’s current attempt at this, as legislated for by the 2007 (but written over a space of half a decade before then) Lisbon Treaty, is the European Citizens Initiative.

This is a system whereby if 1 million European citizens sign a petition, which has been approved by the Commission, and ticks all of the administrative boxes, then the Commission will be forced to answer.

Designed before Twitter, YouTube and Facebook – let alone mobile – came to play such an important role in our lives, it is woefully outdated. Let’s be clear, cost is not the barrier to reforming this, political will is.

In the past the petition system was designed to be opaque and almost unworkable. But things have changed quickly: European politicians suddenly need the electorate, and we should take this opportunity to rewire our European institutions, with digital communications at the heart of everything those bodies do.

There is an entire generation of young people who have grown up after the Cold War, who are used to the European Union and being part of Europe, but who are currently marginalised by what can only be described as the failure of institution after institution.

If we want to reform our governing bodies sustainably we should use the technology that has revolutionised so many other parts of our lives and the economy. Those lumbering European institutions seem like a great place to start.