By Frederick van Mierlo. Originally published on 2013/02/06

Euro-sceptics and federalists alike readily put the words ‘democratic deficit’ and the EU together. Whilst the former conclude that exit is best, the latter that ever-closer union is the way forward.

Within the academic world arguments continue to rage over the existence of a democratic deficit at all. Moravcsik and Majone, both respected scholars in the field of European studies, deny its existence, albeit for differing reasons. Their arguments that the EU is unfairly judged against democratic ideals, not even met by nation-states, have fallen largely on deaf ears. What matters most to the future of the EU is that it has become regarded as ‘common knowledge’ that the EU is an unwieldy and undemocratic. David Carmon’s speech summed up the democratic consent as being now “wafer thin” in the UK.

The problem of democratic consent is not a new one. The EU responded to criticism of democratic legitimacy in the Lisbon Treaty, which came into force four years ago, by introducing the European Citizens Initiative. As the competition heats up for Fraternité 2020to be the first campaign to reach full maturity this year and finally achieve the right to have its voice heard at the European Commission, social media has sped past in the fast lane as theforum of choice for political discussion.

If true and lasting democratic legitimacy is to be achieved there can be no substitute for radical institutional reform that would constitutionalise a directly elected European executive and place it under the control of the European Parliament. However, while this federalist vision occasionally shows signs of flickering into reality, it remains for the large part a distant dream. The EU’s online presence however, could be used as a means to plug the gap between citizens and decisions that Cameron laments so much.

The Power of 243 million Faces

Facebook now boasts of over one billion active users. Approximately 243 million of these live on the old continent193 million of these in EU countries. Put another way, four out of ten EU citizens use the site regularly. With these sorts of numbers it is unsurprising that the European institutions have already developed extensive online presences.

The European Parliament, whose job it is to represent the citizens of the Union, has the largest and most interactive of the institutional pages. The page allows visitors to locate all MEPs on Facebook by searching by country and/or political grouping. Following your MEPs is one of the best ways to keep up-to-date with their activities, as well as enjoy sharing their frustrations with the behaviour of Nigel Farage in the Fisheries Committee.

A chat forum allows users to engage in debates and pose questions to high profile MEPs, including the opportunity to put questions to Martin Schultz himself. Although judging from the number of typos one suspects it may be stagiaire, suffering from the effects of one too many Belgian beers the previous night, replying rather than Mr. Schultz himself. The ability to chat to your representatives and leave comments does raise a serious question however. Who are reading the comments? Who are making them, and are they being taken seriously? The median age of a Facebook user is a mere 22, so they can hardly be considered to be representative of the population, yet if the EU is inviting comments they should at least be taken seriously.  The alternative is to disable comments and reduce the site to acommunication directoire.

Recognising the Limits of Social Media

The best way to get your voice heard remains to contact your member of the European Parliament of choice and present your case in a well-constructed letter or email. It is hard to articulate a genuine concern in the space 140-Twitter characters, or a Facebook message that scrawls down half a computer screen (thanks timeline!). Similarly, a one-word answer to a question posed by the European Parliament on nuclear energy doesn’t add much to the debate. Nevertheless, following your representatives on social media can keep you informed, foster a sense of involvement and enable citizens to greater control their activities.

Caution is also needed when venturing onto the World Wide Web. The world of social media is a fast paced game and learning how to use it has been a steep learning curve for some. Twitter in particular has been the nemesis of many a quick fingered MEP. David Cameron himself famously avoided its use until recently, fearful that “too many tweets make a tw*t”. Mr Cameron and I share a commonalty here in that we are both recent converts to Twitter. However, its ability to keep citizens engaged and up-to-date is unprecedented.

Productive Procrastination

Many of us spend much of our productive and leisure time online. In Europe, the average isover 27.5 hours a month. Facebook has woven itself into the fabric of our daily lives. Checking it has become an essential part starting the day, as normal as having a coffee or brushing our teeth. At work, we procrastinate on it so much that employers ban it, or that students resort to deleting their accounts during exam season. Following politics and current affairs on Facebook is a way to make it productive procrastination. So get online and get informed. Today I learnt that, at the same time as increasing its online presence, the EU is seeking to help its citizens to control their online footprint and what data they unwittingly reveal. How do I know this? It’s on Facebook of course!

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