e-Democracy for the European Union
George A. Papandreou, Minister of Foreign Affairs, Greece
The views expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Commission.
It gives me great pleasure to co-edit this special issue of ‘The IPTS REPORT’, one of the first monthly journals to be published on the Internet. This special issue on e-Democracy coincides with the culmination of the Greek EU Presidency (January – June, 2003), which saw the launch of e-Vote, a bold initiative to enhance and expand e-Democracy across the European Union.
Building on our long history of democracy, Greece is committed to supporting and developing new democratic practices for our increasingly interconnected world. In the public meeting places of ancient Athens, such as the Pnyx or Agora, people could express their concerns before their leaders and fellow citizens simply by jumping onto a rock. As long as they shouted loud enough and had something valuable to contribute to the debate, their voice would be heard.
Radical New Possibilities
Ever since, democracy has been evolving and expanding. The technology of communications, from the first printing presses to broadcast media, has brought more information to more people, faster than ever before. More recently, the internet has created radical new possibilitiesto reinvigorate and enrich democratic dialogue. With interactive electronic communications, millions of people from all corners of the globe can actively participate in the public and political debate simultaneously.
These developments are taking place as the European Union is itself undergoing a far-reaching transformation, as it expands from 15 to 25 member states. Enlargement is a bold undertaking that calls for an equally radical overhaul of our democratic processes, in order to create a new framework of European governance equal to the wide-ranging needs and demands of its constituents. As the Union embraces some 450 million citizens, we must find new ways to ensure that citizens across the continent can identify with and partake in European politics. Preparations are already underway for a European Constitution that will reshape our democratic institutions and mechanisms to guarantee greater inclusion, transparency, and accountability for our growing number of citizens.
e-Democracy is About Participation
The e-Vote project is evidence of the Greek Presidency’s commitment to ensure that EU institutions respond to European citizens’ real concerns and needs. This innovative online voting project uses the latest technology to give citizens new ways to participate in ongoing debates and decisions about the key issues facing the Union, as it prepares to undertake the biggest enlargement in its history.
At the website http://evote.eu2003.gr , anyone can vote on important issues, share and compare their ideas and opinions, and make specific suggestions about the current and future Union. Already, at the time of writing, over 146.000 people from across Europe (and beyond) have participated in online votes on topical issues such as enlargement, immigration, the environment, and the EU’s role in the world. The e-Votes are available in all 11 official languages of the EU, as well as all the languages of the ten future member states. Ongoing results are available in real time on the e-Vote website.
An important feature of e-Vote is the capacity to react to international events. The most popular e-Vote to date, with over 105,000 e-Voters, has been on the Iraq crisis – an issue where public opinion and political leadership were deeply divided in many European countries. This demonstrates the value of e-Vote as a flexible and up-to-date tool for e-Democracy: new questionnaires can be added and old ones removed or archived as topical issues arise.
An Online Agora for Europe
Most importantly, for the first time, citizens’ responses are directly incorporated into the daily activities of the Greek Presidency. In chairing Council meetings during the Greek presidency of the EU, I regularly share the results of the various e-Votes with my colleagues in the Council of Ministers, the Commission, and the European Parliament. The e-Vote results will also feed into the debate among Heads of State and Government at the European Council in Thessaloniki on 21-22 June.
By actively soliciting public opinion, e-Vote is an important step towards bridging the gap between European leaders and their constituents, European institutions and citizens, but also between nations and regions. E-Vote is a unique experiment in that citizens are not simply invited to respond to fixed questions, but are encouraged to submit their own suggestions as to what issues should be given priority and how they should be tackled. In this way, e-Vote has created a new European forum, a virtual ‘Agora’ where people can express their views on issues that will affect their daily lives and their collective future. This will hopefully encourage a greater sense of European citizenship and, in turn, ensure that all Europeans feel better represented and more inter-connected in EU institutions.
Bridging the Digital Divide
Like ‘real’ democracy, the success of e-Democracy depends on maximum public participation. Of course, e-Vote is not a scientific analysis of public opinion: not everyone has access to a computer. While internet access in existing EU member states is relatively high (according to the latest eEurope 2002 Report, over 90% of schools and businesses are online, more than 50% of EU citizens are regular internet users and 43% of EU households are connected to the internet), the level of internet use in the future member states is considerably lower. This type of initiative highlights the importance of tackling the digital divide, through existing and enhanced EU policy directives. e-Democracy will only really work if access to information is available to all. If necessary, special online voting booths could be set up across the EU to ensure that those without access to technology are included in future projects of this nature.
Taking into account uneven access to the Internet across the EU, the high rates and wide geographical scope of participation in e-Vote, compared to similar exercises both in Europe and beyond, attests to the usefulness and necessity of such a channel of communication. The power of e-Democracy is its capacity to increase interaction between ordinary citizens and decision-making bodies and to harness the positive aspects of globalisation. New technology allows people to mobilise around common causes and build trans-national networks across regions, religions, and races, thus strengthening civil society, an essential pre-requisite of democratic governance.
What People Want
The extensive feedback we have received from both e-voters and the media has been overwhelmingly positive. One of the main reasons e-Vote has been such a success is the Greek Presidency’s commitment to sharing the results with top-level decision-makers in the Council, Commission and Parliament, thus ensuring citizens’ voices are heard. Far from being ‘lost in cyber-space’, the opinions of interested citizens have a real impact on EU policy-making. In addition, the Presidency has not shied away from asking controversial and even politically sensitive questions, which are not usually voiced through ‘traditional’ channels of communication with government bodies and official institutions.
Through e-Vote, we hope to develop a new dimension to e-Democracy, which has the power to mobilise citizens across borders to address the issues that concern and affect us all.
About the author
George A. Papandreou is the Greek Minister of Foreign Affairs. He has been a Member of the Greek Parliament since 1981 and has held several government posts, including Minister of Education. A Founding Member of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly and a Member of the Advisory Board of the Cambridge Foundation for Peace, he received the East-West Institute’s Statesman of the Year Award in 2000, together with his Turkish counterpart Ismail Cem, for their efforts at improving relations between their countries.