By Teodor Kalpakchiev. Originally published on 2013/02/20

The recognition of the role of Internet and digital technologies can easily be judged by the self-criticism in the latest Digital Agenda for Europe communication . With the presence of 50 million wireless devices by 2020, Europe should provide the necessary digital solutions to pave the way to the already existent ICT growth. But when it comes down to the question of increasing public value through technology, the conclusions are superficially connected solely with money saving through e-Procurement and e-Government.

This means that the process in some member states continues to be unacknowledged, as for less than a decade Estonia, the country of the Baltic region, became a Tiger in one more aspect – providing a viable alternative to the traditional election process. With the help of “robust accountability and verifiable transparency“ the government overcame the largest problem of trust and the results in the last parliamentary elections in 2011 show: the number of digitally cast e-votes already reached the substantial quota of 24.3%.

Before appraising this operation it is important to diligently assess whether its introduction is justifiable. As already hinted above, the main issue with digitalization of direct participation is the building up of trust in technology, mainly due to apprehension of insecurity. On the other hand, once the voters adapt themselves to this commodity they will gradually abolish traditional bulletins. More practically, given the fact that a sufficient number of households have access to Internet, participation hampering due to age, disability or mobility restriction will be avoided. Another important consideration is that the introduction of the technology also might be costly, especially when it comes to building up a secure authentication and certification system and providing access to households to it. Nevertheless, learning from the Estonian experience show that electronic ID cards and electronic signatures for the whole population are an investment that pays off.

Moving on to the European electoral horizon a dreary tendency has been taking place: the turnout for EP elections has decreased gradually from 62% in the first universal EP elections in 1979 to 43% in 2009. Especially considering the latest events around the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, where referenda were bluntly held until a positive result was achieved, the forthcoming elections for the EP are going to be a turning point for the democratic constituency of the Union. Put simply, if this body represents less than half of the European citizens its decisions, even if unanimous, are not representative enough to be democratic.

Additionally, we have to consider also some inequalities, such as the mobilization of the extreme left, the rising voices of the discontent and the consequential scepticism of the pro-European activists, which was even addressed in the last “State of the Union”. Their only choice to bend policies and fill gaps in acquis were either through the purely advisory Committee of the Regions or through lobbyism. No wonder then that politically unapt individuals, though with a necessary degree of expertise and ideological entrepreneurship, feel underrepresented and unheard.
Yet since April 2012 thanks to the finalization of the European Citizens’ Initiative, the ordinary citizens can finally have a say on the direction of policy-making. And indeed, without the wide range of software checks this unique instrument would have hardly come to existence. Even if the process of contriving a functional online platform took more than two years, the trust in the instrument is yet to be built.

Apart from the educational incentives it is hard to imagine that the Commission will forward policies such as removal of the roaming tariffs (thus causing a huge corporate rebuff) or the full removal of restraints to a common European electoral code. This notion was reached earlier by authors, such as Christofer Hood, who argues that the virtualization of the direct democracy is not likely to bring new forms of policies. But what we can extract for our case is that the information technologies equip the government. Moreover, it provides the Commission, with a new “detection toolkit” for the moods among the citizens, which can set long-term operational agenda. Long story in short – thanks to this instrument of “super democracy” the constituents of the Union unilaterally strive for a strengthened, common citizenship.
We can learn a lot from the Estonian e-success and the new digitalized participatory instrument of the Union, but in view of the European Year of the Citizens two policy recommendations towards the European Parliament are to be considered:

  • Digitalization of the elections: The main concerns over the security can be brought down to two main aspects. The first one is the security of the authorization process – as mentioned earlier the ubiquitous introduction of biometric identification cards could be the solution. Although the process might be costly, the success stories (Estonia, Denmark, UK) show that effects are apparent.
  • Digitalization of voting procedures: The electronic signature and the biometric ID card will empower MEPs to vote remotely. This will allow them to spend more time in their respective election regions and devote themselves to strengthening the bond with the electorate. Thus, leverage in lessening the effects of political apathy.

The EU is falling behind with the use of information and communication technologies compared to its economic rivals (one quarter of the EU-27 population has never used Internet). Also the diminution of the budget for the next financial framework leaves not much space for manoeuvre. Still, the EU can be innovative in other aspects – such as being the first e-constituted regional actor. What can and should be done is to replicate and maximize processes that are already taking place, as digitalization is the key to a more legitimate functioning of the Union.