Saturday, August 14, 2010

From democratic deficit to “Avatar” Euro-democracy.

Published in Hürriyet Daily News, Un Monde Libre and EurActiv-ated.
Also published in a slightly different version in The Globe and Mail (Can.), The Providence Journal (USA) and The Australian (comme son nom l'indique).

The summer period is always an ideal time for administrations and legislatures to introduce unpopular measures or launch ridiculous projects. Enter “Citzalia”, a simulation game or the European Parliament’s newest communication tool. When you thought things could not get more disconnected from reality, they literally got more “virtual”. Soon citizen-avatars will be able to experience “democracy in action” in virtual reality. The democratic deficit has not been seriously addressed but the EU may be about to enter a new dimension: virtual democracy.

After the failure of its on-line TV “Europarl” (C-span à la EU), the Parliament is preparing to launch “Citzalia”, an educational "platform" described as a “3D world that captures the essence of the European Parliament”. Thus through “role play” and “social networking”, citizen-avatars will have the opportunity to walk the corridors of the Brussels’ nebulous power, and interact with MEP-avatars [1]. British journalist Christopher Booker was quick to spot the irony and drew a parallel with the situation in the UK under the present coalition. “We walk around, network, debate issues of the day, even propose legislation. But as with that computer game, it is an empty charade”[2] (Daily Telegraph, 7/08/2010).

Presumably the point - at 275,000€ - is to shed some light on the terribly important role of the EU legislature without which there would be no democracy worth talking about. With record low participation in the last parliamentary elections (2009, 43%), things are getting desperate. Frankly, the thought of citizen-avatars unleashed in the virtual corridors of power to try and figure out the “co-decision” legislative process is dizzying. Good luck to them with the arcane complexity of consultations between the Commission, the Council, the Parliament and the culture of deals behind the proverbial “closed doors”. Under the Lisbon treaty, a new consultation procedure with the 27 national legislatures (the so-called “Barroso initiative”)[3] should add to the bureaucratic fun.

Exposing the boring, poorly attended and entirely “managed” nature of debates in the hemicycle would be in the interest of transparency. Not to mention the outrageous nomadicity of the Parliament’s “democratic” business with its epic shuttling between Strasbourg and Brussels (annual cost, €200 million). But too much “realism” might confuse citizen-avatars who once back in the real world, would be entirely justified to question their MEPs - if they can find them. So the virtual experience is most certainly “idealized”. For the Euro-élite, the line between information and propaganda is not just “thin”, it is more often than not virtually invisible. The report by the Swedish think tank Timbro, “the European Union’s burden”, accuses the EU of “creating a propaganda machine” (EU Observer, 29/07/2009)[4].

The Lisbon Treaty “Citizens’ Initiative” (Article 11) should feature prominently in a compensatory sort of way. On planet Europe, the initiative purporting to enhance citizens’ participation by enabling them to propose legislation is hopelessly bogged down in red tape and controversy. It is slowly but surely being, well, bureaucratized to the point of meaninglessness. The unelected Commission is the sole arbiter in determining what constitutes a valid or “silly” proposal. The truth is that elected representatives are confined to a “rubber-stamping” job with the right to throw occasional “delaying tantrums” to earn their credentials as the guardians of EU “democracy”. The German Financial Times described the screening process as an example of “managed democracy” [5] (03/04/2010), a term one normally associates with Russia.

Forget the citizen-avatar. To really learn how it works, there should be an option for using a lobbyist-avatar. After all, interest groups are ideally suited for the European multi-layered, consensus-driven polity. Take the environmental policy sphere. It is hardly the utopian Navi community of planet Pandora. Behind the official discourse of “greening our economy” and “saving future generations” (and closed doors), lobbies are very active. But not just to save us from eco-Armageddon. The friends of Gaia have many friends in Brussels who allocate funds to them. As the International Policy Network study “the Friends of the EU”[6] (8/03/2010) highlights, green advocacy groups are subsidized to lobby for more funds and provide expertise. This self-serving cycle undermines the democratic process.

“Managed” democracy, virtual or real, is a risky business. Citizens - like avatars - can be unpredictable and uncommonly ungrateful. In Europe, the propensity of the former to rebel by giving the wrong answer (No-votes or abstentions) to the unique brand of “yes-only-democracy” is amply demonstrated. The game designers insist that there will be no censorship [7] (The Guardian, 06/08/2010). So maybe a formula for a freer Europe might actually emerge from a silly idea because in the real EU, all we get is more of the same old democratic deficit.


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