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Digital transition enriches representative democracy, say parliamentary Speakers

So is the digital transition a blessing or a curse for representative democracy? This was the question that the Speakers of European Union Parliaments addressed at their conference on Monday, 10 May 2021. A bit of one and a little of the other was the message that emerged. Several hours of discussion yielded no clear and unequivocal answer. The opportunity for improved public participation in political decision-making was cited as a plus point by many contributors. On the other hand, concerns were raised about platform operators’ misuse of personal data and degradation of the political debate by fake news, inflammatory speeches and condensed real-time communication. 

Nevertheless, the Speakers had no intention of burying their heads in the sand in the face of these challenges. Roberta Metsola, Vice-President of the European Parliament, put the view of most participants in a nutshell, saying that liberal democracy could only work through representative democracy and strong institutions. The direct democracy that digital communication encouraged might enrich representative democracy by reducing the distance between politicians and voters but could not replace it. 

Conference on the Future of Europe on “Made in Europe” platforms

The guest speakers likewise saw no reason to panic at the advance of digital technology, although action was certainly needed. Political scientist Jeanette Hofmann called for the regulation of online platforms while arguing that they should not be seen as a danger. Economist Francesca Bria referred to the Conference on the Future of Europe, which had held its inaugural session the previous day and which represented a fantastic historic opportunity. The technology used for this “large-scale participatory event on the future of Europe” did not come from the United States, as many other platforms did, but was made in Europe – funded through a European research and innovation programme. 

Wolfgang Schäuble: disappearance of the common discussion space on which democracy depends

At the start of the event, Bundestag President Wolfgang Schäuble outed himself as a “digital immigrant”. Purely digital politics was not an option, said the 78-year-old. Politics required encounter, it required partnership and opposition in the real world. The hope had been that the Internet would herald a better democracy, a “democracy-proof democracy”, Dr Schäuble recalled. It was true, he said, that digital technology was making it easier for every individual to make his or her contribution. One need look no further than the Conference on the Future of Europe, which was relying on digital tools to involve as many Europeans as possible. More participation, however, did not necessarily mean greater acceptance of decisions that were taken, said the President of the Bundestag. The “algorithm-driven clickbait economy” on the Web also cemented fragmentation into “sub-publics”, encouraged hostility and disinformation and “is polarising our societies”, he warned. In this way the common discussion space on which democracy depended was disappearing.

Professor Jeanette Hofmann: algorithms only have a reinforcing effect

Professor Hofmann, however, did not regard digital technology as the root of all these evils. It was people who were the drivers of disinformation, she said, citing a statistic indicating that one per cent of Internet users were responsible for 80 to 90% of all fake news. Algorithms merely had a reinforcing effect. There was no reason, in her view, to regard social media per se as a threat to democracy. To break or at least restrict the power of the major platform operators, she suggested a kind of “broadcasting council for the digital age”. Media regulation - the platforms are, after all, media - would be better exercised by a non-governmental body rather than assigning responsibility for removing content to the providers, effectively increasing their editorial power still further. 

Democratically driven and managed digital technology

Francesca Bria spoke of a crisis of confidence confronting parliaments in view of their inability to set themselves long-term objectives and to achieve them. A glimmer of hope lay in faster hybrid approaches to public participation in decision-making processes, she said. “That must become an essential element of our existing institutions”, she urged, otherwise the risk of alienation from these institutions would arise. What was also dangerous, however, was the privatisation of decision-making processes by the major platform operators. That was why alternatives were needed for digital democracy, said Ms Bria. Democratically driven and managed digital technologies, she added, were needed to strengthen democracy. 

Reiner Haseloff: we must resolve problems that preoccupy many people in Europe

Reiner Haseloff, Minister-President of the Federal State of Saxony-Anhalt and incumbent President of the Bundesrat, welcomed the start of the online Conference on the Future of Europe. At the same time, he emphasised that “The Future of Europe will not be decided at that conference”. It would be decided, he said, by success or failure in resolving the problems that preoccupied many people in Europe. There was a need for an underlying trust in the political process, said Dr Haseloff. If dissatisfaction with politics and politicians were to become so deep that people did not even expect a change of government to bring improvement, “that will endanger the stability of democracy”, he cautioned. It must now be shown whether it is possible in the digital world for competing opinions to coexist peacefully, whether it is possible to engage in discourse in which the opinions of others are regarded as an enrichment. 

Commitment to an “editorial principle” for Internet platforms

Conflicting views were exchanged peaceably throughout the subsequent discussion, chaired by journalist Anke Plättner. Wolfgang Sobotka, President of the National Council of Austria, called for restrictions on digital platforms. Providers of social media platforms, he proposed, should have to commit to an editorial principle, just as the traditional media do. 

Maria Elisabetta Alberti Casellati, President of the Italian Senate, emphasised, as did European Parliament Vice-President Roberta Metsola, that representative democracy was still crucially important and could not be replaced by digital communication. At the same time, she said, digitalisation could serve to increase trust in state institutions.

The Portuguese Assembly of the Republic, reported its Vice-President Edite Estrela, had scaled up its presence on the Internet and social media with a view to communicating more effectively what the deputies were doing in the Assembly and what subjects were being discussed in committee.

Gérard Larcher, President of the French Senate, called for digital media to be put at the service of representative democracy. He proposed the establishment of a register of examples of best practice, for instance in handling fake news, with a view to arriving at common European standards. 

Meritxell Batet Lamaña, President of the Spanish Congress of Deputies, drew attention to the homeworking arrangements that had been created as a consequence of the pandemic and to digital voting in Parliament. There were now calls to continue this practice after the pandemic, but she did not share this view. “I regard our presence in the chamber as an essential element of parliamentary business”, she stressed.

“Democratic censorship” of social media platforms

For László Kövér, Speaker of the National Assembly of Hungary, the question was how to deal with the “democratic censorship” of social media platforms. The political left, which was always exalting democracy, claimed that there must be no democracy for the enemies of democracy. The political forces on the left, however, wanted to decide who those enemies were, he charged, expressing his doubts about the openness of the debate.

For all the benefits of digitalisation, said Igor Zorčič, President of the National Assembly of Slovenia, there was also a need to be aware of the risks. Regulation was needed, he argued, because the markets were constantly developing new products, including products that led to a type of “pseudo-democracy”. For this reason the tech giants had to be reined in. “We must not rely entirely on their own rules”, said Mr Zorčič. 

Economist Francesca Bria: Europe needs its own digital sovereignty

At the conclusion of the debate, Francesca Bria also returned to the predominance of American providers in the world of digital services. “It is time Europe achieved its own digital sovereignty”, she said. The development of a European cloud was the right way to go, she added. There was a need to create data spaces in Europe that guaranteed the privacy and sovereignty of European citizens.

Finally, Reiner Haseloff asked how it could be that the Internet was developed by a European “and yet we were unable to develop the business idea thereafter in such a way as to move the world forward within a common Digital Village”. In future, ideas generated in Europe must also become business models with a global impact, urged the President of the Bundesrat, “so that we do not have to engage in another regulatory catch-up”. (hau/10 May 2021)

Conference film about the EUSC on 10 May 2021

00:03:11

EUSC conference film

You can gain a brief insight into the topics discussed at the virtual Conference of Speakers of the European Union Parliaments (EUSC), organised by the German Bundestag in cooperation with the Bundesrat on 10 May 2021, here.

More information can be found here.

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EUSC conference films

00:03:11

EUSC conference film

Recording of the EUSC

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