Over the past decade, and deeply accentuated by the euro zone crisis of 2008, the phenomenon of a democratic deficit within the EU has propelled itself to the forefront of issues facing the Union. The notion of democratic deficit dates back to the 1970s, where criticism arose over too much power residing within the Council and Commission of the EU, and not enough in the European Parliament.  As a result, institutional changes were made to further legitimize democracy by allowing for universal suffrage elections to the EP beginning in 1979, and introducing the concept of co-decision in the legislative process in order to empower the parliament. Nonetheless, the flames of the debate burn louder than ever after democracy was greatly compromised due to EU institutions backed by the dominant countries (France & Germany) imposing austerity measures onto more vulnerable countries (Greece, Spain) following the Eurozone crisis, by circumventing national governments to implement their policies. In addition, over the years more tasks and competencies were transferred from national governments to the EU through the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty, further intensifying public debates.[1] It has come to the point where the “period of benign despotism associated with the Commission presidency of Jacques Delors is over and that further steps toward an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe as envisaged by the Maastricht Treaty can be achieved only if the EU is radically democratized.”[2] The debate of the democratic deficit can roughly be divided into two camps: the first, more mainstream argument is that expanding the limited legal powers of the EP through institutional reform can reduce the deficit. The second argues that democratization of the EU is close to if not entirely impossible due to the nature of the European community lacking a collective identity, or ‘demos’. While the first argument has received vast amounts of criticism, the second has gained momentum and currently dominates the debate. This paper will explore the following question: “Can the Internet and ICTS be used to help solve the European democratic deficit through the empowerment of individuals and the creation of a European public sphere + a European Identity?” This proposal considers the possible transformative power of the advent of Electronic Democracy, or E-Democracy, applied to the ‘demos’ issue, by analyzing the pro-democratic qualities of using the internet in governance and how such can give birth to a more cohesive European polity. If used correctly, E-Democracy has the power to not only increase the democratic properties within the EU (open information, public debate, direct citizen participation, etc.) but it can also help solve the underlying fundamental issue holding back further democratization, that is contribute to the creation of a unique European demos through cross-border debates, reduced cultural barriers, and the creation of a European public sphere. This would legitimize the majoritarian form of democracy within the EU, as minority groups would be more willing to accept majority outcomes if they agree on a larger European destiny. It goes without saying that this proposition faces countless obstacles and challenges brought up by numerous scholars, such as whether the promise of e-democracy can genuinely increase democracy in a society or whether it creates inequalities, if it can be implemented and safeguarded from malicious hackers or terrorists, or whether there is too much information on the internet for citizens to be able to make true informed decisions. However, when contemplating the direction of Europe, all must be considered. The EU is sui generi, the first entity of it’s kind, which means that previous conceptions of democracy, identity, national sovereignty, etc. must be revisited and new models of governance must be considered.

While the origins of e-democracy can be dated back to the 1950s with the emergence of Norbert Wiener’s cybernetic sciences[3], the debates around the concept are tantamount as agreement is rare among topics ranging from the form that it would take to the means of implementation. Nowadays the following general definition of e-democracy is widely accepted: it is a concept “associated with efforts to broaden political participation by enabling citizens to connect with one another and with their representatives via new information and communication technologies”.[4] Today the debate exists around the value of the new level of communication among the citizens and between the citizens and their representatives but more importantly on the quality of the information the citizens receive via the ICTs (Information & Communication Technologies). The following definition by Thierry Vedel offers a more radical approach: “la cyberdémocratie propose une nouvelle conception du politique qui ne s’organise plus autour de l’État-nation, mais dans un cyberespace ouvert, déterritorialisé, non hiérarchique, réflexif, dans lequel des individus pleinement autonomes nouent des relations multiples”.[5] Keeping in mind that this proposition remains highly optimistic, it can be argued that over time and under the right circumstances the internet can be used to strengthen democracy within the EU through the effective employment of ICTs, rebuilding trust and transparency of it’s institutions, increasing participation of citizens, and promoting the proliferation of information as well as the creation of a European public sphere, all of which would culminate in the long-term process of constructing a unique European identity, further legitimizing the EU’s democracy.

Free and open access to information through ICTs is key to a healthy democracy.  When used correctly it can provide the tools necessary for citizens to actively engage in political life. Laura Neuman, a Senior Program Associate at the Carter Center, explains how “allowing people to seek and receive public documents serves as a critical tool for fighting corruption, enabling citizens to more fully participate in public life, making governments more efficient, encouraging investment, and helping persons exercise their fundamental human rights”.[6] While policies on the access to information are fairly liberal in Europe compared to other societies, there is an inequality on the demand of transparency from the private sector than that of the public. Such is the case of France where, despite recent efforts, “les sociétés commerciales sont soumises à une obligation de transparence (publications de données sur leur capital, leurs résultats financiers, etc.) bien plus forte que les administrations ou les organisations publiques.”[7] The old excuses employed as obstacles to the access of this information, including the cost of distribution and lack of personnel, are not longer valid considering the current technical capabilities to publicize immense amounts of information.[8] The EU, although strengthened by a strong legal foundation based in the EU treaties guaranteeing the right of public access to documents held by EU institutions, still has gaps in transparency of decision-making. On the EU Commission Website’s “Transparency Portal”, it is proudly declared that “As a European citizen, you have a right to know how the European institutions are preparing these decisions, who participates in preparing them, who receives funding from the EU budget, and what documents are held or produced to prepare and adopt the legal acts. You also have a right to access those documents, and make your views known, either directly, or indirectly, through intermediaries that represent you.”[9] However, the reality is that the EU has in fact several major transparency deficits, and the “intermediaries that represent you” do an awful job of representing. According to the 2014 EU Integrity System Report from Transparency International, “public scrutiny of EU law-making is hampered by blind spots… These include so-called ‘trilogue’ and conciliation discussions where EU laws are negotiated behind closed doors between the Council, Parliament and Commission. The work of the Council below the ministerial level, and of the Commission expert and member state committees remain difficult or impossible to trace despite their direct and often definitive influence on legislation. European Council meetings and EU Court deliberations also remain hidden from the public. Moreover, despite the presence of an estimated 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels alone, no rules oblige EU lawmakers to record and/or disclose their meetings with lobbyists when drafting legislation, nor any input provided by them for draft policies, laws and amendments…”[10] The report goes on to site several other shortcomings. Needless to say, the EU has a long way to go in becoming a truly transparent organization – something that the Internet can help facilitate by empowering citizens to demand transparency.

Once free and open to access of information is reached, the issue then becomes the manner in which the information is mobilized to empower not just the citizens but the government as well. More specifically, ICTs can be used to “facilitate the communication of citizen opinion to government. Information is a resource that can be used to provide better policy and administration. By using the speed and immediacy of ICT networks, governments can seek voter opinion on particular issues to guide policy making.”[11] In this sense, the institutions of the EU can become a “learning organization” that is able to “respond to the needs of its citizens, who are in turn able to influence public bureaucracies by rapid, aggregative feedback mechanisms such as e-mail and interactive web sites.”[12] This rapprochement between the citizens and bureaucrats of the EU is severely lacking and is one of the more striking instances of the democratic deficit. Without the presence of intermediary organizations such as political parties to link representatives and their constituents, there is a massive “lack of responsiveness of the elected members of the European parliament to the preferences and interests of their constituents”.[13] Furthermore, considering that European parliamentary elections are largely dominated by national issues and in 2014 brought out 42.61% of the population[14] to the voting booths, sources for legitimacy become rather scarce. The general public feels extremely distant from Brussels and more or less powerless in its ability to influence policy at the supranational level. Much of this is due to the dichotomy of “system effectiveness” and “citizen participation” that Robert Dahl outlines, where the latter has been largely sacrificed to the benefit of the former, in order to maintain the advancement of the EU. It is thus imperative that a solution is found to further include citizens in the decision making process. The Internet is already deployed to help include citizens through the EU’s “Citizens’ Initiative”, which allows for individuals to launch a petition that will be considered by the Commission if enough signatures are gathered. However, the practice is rarely used and there is no obligation for the commission to act on the proposal. Other modes of empowerment must be considered. For example, Edgar Grande proposes a model of direct political participation in the form of a European referenda composed of the following 5 points:

  1. Referenda on European issues should be organized on the European level, and not as a series of national referenda
  2. European referenda should be allowed on any subject held important by a qualified number of European citizens
  3. European referenda should be organized on the initiative of the voters; they should not be initiated by a supranational institution or a national government
  4. The outcome of European referenda should be binding for the relevant supranational institutions
  5. Supranational institutions should have the opportunity to respond to initiatives of European citizens and to integrate them into their own proposals

Grande argues that this can “increase institutional responsiveness to citizens’ preferences and interests and thus enhance the democratic quality of the decision-making process.”[15] Through the use of the Internet, this also allows the people to be heard without the need for their representatives in the EP, which, as argued before, lacks legitimacy without a single European polity. ICTs can go a long way in building the bridge to facilitate communication between the EU and its constituents and thus creating a EU that “learns” from the population, a population that is included in the decision making process and is empowered with the tools necessary to demand accountability from Brussels. However, the infrastructure for the discussion to take place is not the only piece to the puzzle; the people themselves must take interest in European issues and become active through public debates and through the voicing of their opinions. In this sense, ICTs can likewise be useful in constructing a vibrant European public sphere.

The traditional public sphere is defined as a form of social life where individual citizens come together to debate and share ideas pertaining to society and mobilize the discussion to influence political action. Its existence is indicative of a healthy democracy where the people are interested and engaged with political decisions through constructive debates. Jurgen Habermas, known for his visionary work on the transformation of the public sphere, defined it as, in its ideal form, “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state.”[16] Easily applied to small cities or towns, the concept of a public sphere becomes difficult to realize considering large geographical areas such as the EU. ICTs are thus crucial in the facilitation of trans-national communication between the populations of the EUs 28 member states. Through active discussion via forums, message boards, etc., the Internet can revitalize a genuine democratic debate. Every individual can express his/her opinions equally and without obstruction, engaging in sincere discussions without worrying about social images through anonymity. The public sphere through the Internet not only solves the geographic issue, but it also transcends social and cultural barriers, offering free translation services and permitting each citizen to a single equal voice regardless of age, income, sex, religion, etc. Considering the cultural and geographic scope of the EU, its diversity would allow for the confrontation of a wide range of ideas and new forms of thinking through the sharing of knowledge. Additionally, the cyberspace is self-regulated where the rules are mutually agreed upon through consensus and policed not by a few rich autocrats but instead by the community. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the Internet produced public sphere is a space that “génère du lien social et condense des identités collectives. Par l’échange, les participants aux forums prennent conscience de leurs problèmes et intérêts communs, et ainsi de ce qui les lies.”[17] Here we see the possibility of the birth of a unique European identity that will be discussed in the following section. Currently in Europe the public sphere is limited to the confines of each state, with pressure groups and lobbyists with sufficient resources exercising the most influence. For this reason the people have little interest in European issues, which results in low parliamentary voter turnout. Through the use of the internet the people can claim the public debate and create a genuine public sphere, overcoming national boundaries with ease, pushing European issues closer to the importance of national ones, and creating the public interest necessary to legitimize the forms of direct citizen participation to enter the decision making process, rendering the EU far more democratic than the status quo.

One might ask, “Europe is already connected to the Internet, so where is this e-public sphere?” Unfortunately, the EU and its member states have not taken the necessary steps to facilitate its creation, perhaps failing to see its value or member state governments fearing the loss of control over national political debates. In a study by Alexander Treschel named “Evalutation of the Use of New Technologies in Order to Facilitate Democracy in Europe”, Treschel notes that: “ e-techniques provide citizens with an online tool that allows them to exchange and share respective political opinions amongst themselves. The aspiration of e-democracy advocates is that e-forums will enhance the process of citizen’s opinion formation through their deliberative engagement. We saw in part III of the report that e-forums were not widely used by European political parties and Parliaments”[18] Treschel further explains the shortcomings of the political parties and Parliament as that “national and European political parties tend to favour the provision of information, i.e. merely displaying their stance on issues or circulating a newsletter, rather than using their websites for the purposes of mobilization. This clearly differs from the United State where websites are used extensively and frequently as platforms for mobilizing their followers… In Europe, a more traditional pattern prevails in which parties provide information more than they attempt to increase their organizational resources over the Internet.”[19] In summary, European institutions have set up websites and tools that provide information rather than help facilitate the conversation.

The e-democratic principles listed above, overlapping and reinforcing each other, provide the necessary environment for the creation of a European ‘identity’ or ‘polity’. As argued by many intellectuals, this aspect of the EU is the greatest obstacle to genuine legitimate democracy in the EU. Greven and Offe clearly explain the conundrum: “democratic legitimacy is bound to certain substantial presuppositions about the nature of political community and the source of a collective identity. Among these presuppositions are the absence of deep-seated ethnic, linguistic, religious, ideological, or economic cleavages, and the existence of a set of common norms and beliefs. In other words, the capacity of the majority rule to create legitimacy depends itself on a pre-existing sense of community – of common history or common destiny, and of common identity – which cannot be created by mere fiat”.[20] For the skeptics it doesn’t matter how much power is given to the European Parliament; without a common European interest spanning across the continent, democracy as we know it is impossible in the EU. Put simply, “If there is no collective self, there can be no collective self-determination.”[21] E-democracy, deployed under the circumstances listed above, can remedy this hindrance. The Internet can foster healthy, cross-cultural and multilingual debates across Europe necessary for the creation of a European public sphere and for citizens to begin to take interest in European issues. It would not be desired (nor likely) that the people drop their cultural traditions and national pride to populate the new European identity. In fact, the opposite would be the case. Europe prides itself in its diversity, and such would be the basis for its identity. Foreigners who travel through Europe marvel at the ability to travel a relatively short distance and find themselves in an entirely new culture, with its own language, customs, landscape, etc. This diversity can act as a unifying factor rather than dividing – we already notice the unifying affects through the adoption of English as the language to communicate trans-nationally. The end result is a vibrant, active, diverse yet cohesive EU polity empowered with the tools necessary to take matters into their own hands and influence political decisions directly while being heard by the EU institutions that in turn learn how to better govern.

The title of this paper includes the word “risky” due to the enormous roadblocks that stall the adoption of the Internet in governance and in some cases pose a threat to society as a whole. The 3 main points of contention are that the quality of information proliferated through the Internet is low, that there is an inequality of access, and the question of security. These issues pose genuine threats to e-governance and should be considered. While the first 2 may be addressed through quality assurance practices and the fact that eventually newer generations will be virtually entirely connected to the Internet, the question of security is worrisome considering the high frequency of yearly attacks on corporation databases and the lack of a coherent and effective response. Nevertheless, should these obstacles be surmounted, the evolution of e-governance and its benefits can help to eliminate the biggest obstacle to further EU integration – the democratic deficit. By empowering citizens in the decision making processes of Brussels, facilitating discussion and debate, and lowering state boundaries culminating in a European public sphere as well as a demos, if deployed correctly the results can be tremendous. Some even say that one day we can reach a level of pure democracy where an institutional government is no longer needed and the masses make collective decisions through the Internet… But let’s take one step at a time.

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Bibliography

European Commission, Transparency (online) http://ec.europa.eu/transparency/index_en.htm (searched in April 2016)

 

European Parliament, european elections 2014 (online) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/fr/election-results-2014.html (searched in April 2016)

 

CHADWICK, A., «Bringing E-Democracy Back In Why it Matters for Future Research on E-Governance » Social science computer review, 21(4), 2003.

 

GRANDE Edgar, « Post-national Democracy in Europe » in Michael Th. GREVEN and Louis W. PAULY (eds), Democracy beyond the State? The European Dilemma and The Emerging Global Order, New York, 2000, pp. 115-138.

 

HABERMAS, Jürgen, « The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society ». Trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

 

Hansard Society, « E-democracy program. » Retrieved April 3, 2003, from http://www.hansard- society.org.uk/eDemocracy.htm

 

JOLLY, Mette, « The European Union and the People », New York, Oxford University Press, 2007.

 

PERERA Mark, «The European Union Integrity System», (online) Transparency International, 2014, http://www.securityweek.com/data-breaches-numbers  (searched in April 2016)

 

The Carter Center (online) http://www.cartercenter.org/news/documents/doc1860.html (searched in April 2016)

TRESCHEL, Alexander H., KIES, Raphael, MENDEZ Fernando & SCHMITTER, Phlippe C., « Evaluation of the Use of New Technologies in Order to Facilitate Democracy in Europe » (STOA 116 EN), 2004, pp.1-50.

VEDEL, T., « L’idée de démocratie électronique. Origines, visions, questions. » Le désenchantement démocratique, 2003.

 

[1] GRANDE Edgar, “Post-National Democracy in Europe”, Rowman & Littlefield, 2000, p. 118.

[2] Ibid, p. 118.

[3] VEDEL, T., « L’idée de démocratie électronique. Origines, visions, questions. » Le désenchantement démocratique, 2003, p. 243.

[4] Hansard Society, « E-democracy program. » Retrieved April 3, 2003, from http://www.hansard- society.org.uk/eDemocracy.htm

[5] VEDEL, T., 243.

[6] The Carter Center (online) http://www.cartercenter.org/news/documents/doc1860.html (searched in April 2016)

[7] VEDEL, T., p.250.

[8] Ibid, p.250.

 

[9] European Commission, Transparency (online) http://ec.europa.eu/transparency/index_en.htm (searched in April 2016)

[10] PERERA Mark, «The European Union Integrity System», (online) Transparency International, 2014

[11] CHADWICK, A., «Bringing E-Democracy Back In Why it Matters for Future Research on E-Governance » Social science computer review, 21(4), 2003, p. 448.

[12] Ibid, p. 448.

[13] GRANDE Edgar, «Post-National Democracy in Europe», op. cit, p. 125.

[14] European Parliament, european elections 2014 (online) http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/fr/election-results-2014.html (searched in April 2016)

[15] GRANDE Edgar, p.132.

[16] HABERMAS, Jürgen, « The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a category of Bourgeois Society ». Trans. Thomas Burger with Frederick Lawrence. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1991.

[17] VEDEL, T., « L’idée de démocratie électronique. Origines, visions, questions. » op cit p.251.

[18] TRESCHEL, Alexander H., KIES, Raphael, MENDEZ Fernando & SCHMITTER, Phlippe C., « Evaluation of the Use of New Technologies in Order to Facilitate Democracy in Europe » (STOA 116 EN), 2004, pp.1-50.

[19] Ibid, 20.

[20] GRANDE Edgar, « Post-National Democracy in Europe», op. cit, p.120.

[21] JOLLY, Mette, « The European Union and the People », New York, Oxford University Press, 2007, p.52.