September 15, 2016
Guest blog post by Elisa Lironi, Digital Democracy Manager, European Citizen Action Service
On Wednesday 14 September, President Juncker delivered the State of the Union Address 2016: Towards a better Europe – a Europe that protects, empowers and defends.
As I work for a European association with 25 years’ experience in empowering citizens to exercise their rights, the promise for “a Europe that empowers our citizens” immediately caught my attention. Moreover, I was delighted to hear that “digital technologies and digital communications are permeating every aspect of life” and the commitment to “equip every European village and every city with free wireless internet access around the main centres of public life by 2020”.
My expectation was that Juncker would eventually link his discourse on internet access to enhancing citizens’ empowerment in the EU. However, not a single word was mentioned about the efficiency of the current tools for engaging citizens or about the possibility to introduce new, innovative forms for empowering those that do not feel represented although the need is there.
According to research, currently 62% of the European citizens believe their voices do not count in the EU and only about half of EU citizens are optimistic about the future of the EU. The general feeling of distrust translates in concrete manifestations of anti-EU political rhetoric and strategic choices with serious consequences for the future of the European project (e.g. Brexit).
For this reason, ECAS set up its Digital Democracy focus area about 3 years ago with the objective to explore the potential of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the internet for a more open and inclusive form of policy-making.
Based on the concept of representative democracy, the EU decision-making process is structured to consult and listen to organised interests. 41% of the EU citizens however want to influence decision-making directly, without being represented through an NGO.
The main e-participation tools officially provided by the EU are:
- The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which has led to disappointment because it is not cost-effective (it requires huge amounts of effort and resources to use but lacks impact), and it is not user-friendly enough. It will continue leading to frustration if rules are not improved through the revision of the regulation in the short term.
- Online EU public consultations, which are highly technical and mainly used by organised interests. They are not very accessible to individual citizens and remain unknown to them. Moreover, minimum standards of consultations are binding only for the European Commission in the policy-making process.
- Online petitions to the European Parliament, which are more of a ‘problem-solving’ tool where citizens can address concerns only on already existing European policies which affects them directly. This means that it is not possible for citizens to start a petition on a policy they wish to see appear at the EU.
Meanwhile, a new Deliberative-Collaborative e-democracy model is emerging worldwide with local, regional and national levels exploring new methods – mainly crowdsourcing – on how to enhance citizens’ involvement in their decision-making processes. However, the EU institutions are lagging behind in elaborating mechanisms for engaging those citizens or non-formalised and/or non-mainstream civic groups across Europe thus excluding potentially active and innovative thinkers including the youth.
The EU’s current legislative framework is inclusive enough to introduce more mechanisms for citizens’ participation in EU policy-making, not only without compromising the principle of representative democracy but also by strengthening it. This could be done by complementing the existing participatory toolbox with methods for engaging citizens who do not feel represented and want to contribute directly in a deliberative-collaborative modus operandi.
What is needed now is political will and commitment.
On 18 October 2016, ECAS is organising its annual Digital Democracy Day where a new Study on crowdsourcing legislation will be presented and discussed with all participants who wish to join the debate.
  Spring 2016 Eurobarometer survey
 “Europeans’ Engagement in Participatory Democracy” report, March 2013, Flash Eurobarometer 373
 Based on “The Potential and Challenges of E-Participation in the European Union”, 2016, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2016/556949/IPOL_STU(2016)556949_EN.pdfBlogactiv Team