Democracy Needs Attention

Protests against ACTA: reaching from Europe's streets to the Parliament in Strasbourg. Photo: greensefa, Source: Flickr, License: CC BY-SA 2.0

8. August 2012
Jan Philipp Albrecht
In January 2012, when literally overnight thousands took to the streets in Polish cities to protest against the international Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), I was truly surprised. For many years, I had been trying very hard to explain the complex issues involved in this treaty to journalists and colleagues in Brussels – only to be dismissed most of the time. The responses I got were that the issue was too convoluted, too remote, and too intangible. Yet, when people in the US began to protest against the SOPA/PIPA laws (Stop Online Piracy Act/Protect IP Act) and, when at the same time the Presidency of the Council of the EU put ACTA into effect, the issue all of a sudden garnered a lot of attention. All at once, everybody was interested in this peculiar treaty that caused street protests not only in Poland but in almost every other EU country too. The result was that many governments postponed ratification of the law, and in the end, it was the EU Commission that pulled the plug by submitting it for review to the European Court of Justice.

It was broadly-based European protests that, at least for the moment, put a stop to the treaty. Such events are still a relatively new phenomenon within the EU. Previously, similar proceedings had occurred regarding the EU-US SWIFT treaty on banking data when, for the first time, the EU Parliament halted an international treaty. At that time, the power to do this had only been conferred onto the parliament a few months earlier within the framework of the Lisbon Treaty. Prior to that, it had been frequently happened that regulations passed in Brussels had only entered public consciousness months or even years after the event. By then, in most cases, it had been far too late to do anything about it, and national governments tended to deflect criticism by claiming that ‘evil Brussels’ had, once again, passed some outlandish rules. The fact that it had been the national governments themselves who had decided on these laws in the Council of the European Union had hardly ever been conveyed.

Greater integration through the Lisbon Treaty

All of this still presents one of the major obstacles for European democracy. Nevertheless, as SWIFT and ACTA have shown, some things have changed over the last few years. What are today’s improvements? First, as mentioned above, it is the better integration achieved through the Lisbon Treaty. Today, the EU Parliament has its say in almost all policy areas. And, in the Council of the EU, decisions are being increasingly made by majority. This has the effect that governments, including the German government, can be outvoted in the Council, which means that prior to a vote they have to find allies or, should they be outvoted, point the public’s attention towards problematic parts of a planned decision. At the same time, EU parliamentarians who now have a say, will follow developments in the Council more closely. This lively interaction between member states and Euro MPs has the effect that information about planned regulations as well as arguments for and against them will reach the public much earlier than it had been the case in the “old Europe” prior to the treaty of Lisbon.

Improved media coverage

In addition to that, media, national parties and parliaments, and interest groups have been showing much greater interest in reports, information, and possibilities to shape decisions, as these now seem relevant and amenable to their influence. In sum, all of this leads to a much earlier onset of the decision-making process.

Decentral public mobilising across borders

A second dynamic that is becoming apparent – one that is equally relevant, yet considerably less institutionalised – is simultaneous public mobilisation concerning Europe-wide decisions, one that transcends the borders of national media and languages. While, for example, mobilisation against the so-called Bolkestein Directive (for a single market for services within the EU) had the aim to organise rallies in central locations such as Strasbourg and Brussels – something that had little effect within member states – new forms of decentralised mobilisation manage to create much more public attention, which results in political pressure able to influence national policy debates on European issues.

Digital publics

This shift is especially tangible when it comes to the way today’s defining economic and financial crisis is being discussed in the media on the one hand, and on the other that it is especially valid where digital publics that have become increasingly independent from traditional media dominate the debate. Digital media have the ability to rapidly spread information in ways that transcend national and linguistic barriers. The controversy surrounding ACTA presents a new peak of such developments: Calls for simultaneous rallies spread all across Europe and news reports in different languages were exchanged and sometimes translated. This is how, in seemingly hidden places, a truly European public is developing – one without which European democracy would be impossible. Other than what received wisdom would have, such European democracy is not coming about through European media or improved PR work by EU institutions but on a grassroots level. And this is only the beginning.

Jan Philipp Albrecht is a Member of the European Parliament from the Alliance '90/The Greens. He is specialized in the field of civil rights, data protection and democracy.


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