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Social networks: a space for European political conversations?

Actualité 30.09.2010

To mark the launch of the new website Tweet your MEP, we explain why we developed this new tool for pan-European dialogue and how we hope that it will help develop a European public sphere. 

A recent eurobarometer survey reveals that only 38% of Europeans think the European Parliament is listening to them. 'Disconnect' between citizens and their representatives is a common explanation for the low turnout in European elections or the no votes in referenda. Why this disconnect is growing just at a time when the European Parliament is becoming more and more influential is a conundrum for political scientists. Many scholars see lack of communication as one of the ingredients in the EU's so called 'democratic deficit'. They underline the need for mass media coverage of EU affairs as a way of injecting legitimacy into the European project. But what of new social media? What can their role be in bringing Europe closer to citizens? Are social networks at the hub of the emerging European public sphere? Can they be a tool for creating active European citizenship?

Communicating Europe across borders


Europe has always historically constituted a space for communication and debate amongst a cultivated elite. Today, even if the mass media remain essentially national in outlook, there are signs of the renewal of a European political consciousness since the dark days of the Constitutional debates in 2005. The demonstrations against the war in Iraq, the support for the climate change agenda or the debates stirred up by the Lisbon Treaty are recent examples debates on issues that have mobilized citizens across Europe. Beyond issue driven campaigns, the public sphere is taking shape too in the form of new transnational media offering European content to all. Arte, Presseurop, Euronews, Café Babel and Toute l'Europe, not to mention the English language European press, as well as the institutional websites, provide a growing space for European news and information. These initiatives make it is easier, for example, for Danish readers to find out about what matters to Polish or Italian voters and vice versa. It means that gradually we are moving from being neighbours to cohabiting the same intellectual space. Thanks to the internet and instant communications, it is possible to experience European events first-hand as we saw recently with José Manuel Barroso’s State of the Union speech or debate about the treatment of the Roma people in the European parliament.

At the heart of the European political system are our directly elected representatives who vote laws that affect the everyday lives of over 500 million people. Regulating financial markets, passenger rights or genetically modified foods, the decisions made in the European Parliament matter hugely for citizens, states, corporations and civil society.  However, large constituencies and three weeks a month spent in Brussels and Strasbourg make it difficult for MEPs to stay in touch with voters. Out of sight, out of mind and, often, out of the traditional media too.

The Lisbon Treaty gives MEPs even greater powers and potentially reinforces citizen participation by creating the European citizens' initiative.  Now one million voters across the EU can propose new legislation to the European Commission. On paper, then, European democracy is fitter than ever before. Nonetheless the dynamic doesn't yet exist to unlock the potential of the tools provided by the Lisbon Treaty. The big question facing civil society is how to take advantage of the citizens’ initiative and to create pan-European debates around the values that unite us as Europeans thus bringing the European public sphere to life.

Connecting citizens to MEPs, the US example


In our view much more can done to put new technologies at the service of European democracy, to expand citizen involvement by bringing the EU up to date and in tune with how citizens wish to participate in politics and express their views. Blogs, forums and social networks are where public debate and political engagement are happening right now. 

This is also the view of the European Parliament which voted in favour of the Danish MEP, Morten Lokkegaard's report on new media at the beginning of September. He advocates greater use of social media by the Parliament to reach out to citizens, especially the younger generation, who may never have read a newspaper in their lives.

Social networks have the potential to connect citizens to their representatives in new ways. Barak Obama's presidential campaign, allying strong messages of hope and renewal with cutting edge communications strategy, delivered historic results. 'Organizing for Obama' took on-line campaigning to a new level managing to harness grass-roots participation with the mass virtual campaign. Granted the Obama moment and American politics are different from the European context, but what lessons can we draw for our continent?

 

European political conversations


At Touteleurope, we have taken our inspiration from two US projects using twitter. The first is 'Tweet your Senator' a Democratic party initiative to generate support for the health care reform by encouraging citizens to tweet their senator in support of the reform. The second, 'Tweet Congress' aims to foster transparency and improve communication between congressmen and their electors. According to one of the founders of Tweet Congress, Chris McCroskey, it is extremely difficult in the US to enter into direct contact with your representative. We have taken elements of these two projects and given them our own particular European slant to create a new tool: Tweet your MEP.
Tweet your MEP aims in a modest way to remedy the disconnect between citizens and MEPs by proposing a space for political conversations about European policy issues that are of concern to citizens. Tweet your MEP takes twitter technology concept one step further by going beyond the aggregation of tweets (that is simply bringing together the twitter accounts of MEPs in one place) to create a space for pan-European debate and interaction between citizens and MEPs. Our website gives MEPs the opportunity to show that they are listening and that they are open to dialogue. Be it employment, agriculture or consumer rights : all the topics of the European Parliament committees are listed and matched to MEPs working on these issues. For citizens, Tweet your MEP will be a place where citizen campaigns can begin by encouraging ‘bottom-up’ participation in the political process.

We hope that Tweet your MEP will reconnect citizens to their MEPs and will develop our nascent European public sphere by providing a transnational, multilingual space for debate. Harnessing social networks, such as twitter, can provide a unique opportunity to communicate and to debate political issues on a truly European scale.

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