European Democracy Project In the Making

The European Democracy Project (EDP) is a proposal published by three AEGEE members: Ivan Bielik (AEGEE-Brno), Armin Weckmann (AEGEE-Darmstadt) and Thilo Zimmermann (AEGEE-Pisa) on AEGEEDebate. The Project aims to give young people the possibility to influence European politics and to demonstrate that a European democracy is possible. This will be done by launching one or more European Citizens Initiatives (ECI).

You can find a detailed project description here.


Ivan Bielik

Ivan, you have been working on AEGEEDebate for a while now with the International Politics Working Group (IPWG), is it related with the new project, and how?

Ivan: AEGEEDebate had been launched at the beginning of this year as a place within AEGEE for discussion in general. There are not only topics closely related to IPWG. Such limitation may harm the potential of the idea, because we, as AEGEE members, do various activities not related only to international politics.

The link between AEGEEDebate and European Democracy Project (EDP) lies in the need of initial discussion before we set off the project. We should know opinions of AEGEE members, promote the idea within the network and potentially recruit new people into the core team. For these reasons, AEGEEDebate seems to be a useful platform to start.

How did you come up with the idea of the European Democracy Project?

Armin: For me it all began with an increase of newspaper articles and documentaries indicating the growing influence of lobbyism at the expense of civic participation and representation. Just think about the  documentaries We feed the world, Taste the waste or Catastroika, think about the discussion about water privatisation bureaucracy, genetically modified food (Monsanto rings a bell) and especially political actions dealing with “The Crisis”. I felt the urge to share my concerns about this process since I see a connection between those different things. I wrote an e-mail to Ivan telling him about my concerns. This is how the article on AEGEEDebate “The EU goes nuts?” came up and, in my opinion, this was the seed for the EDP.

Thilo: My concern about the current state of the European Union started with the euro crisis. If you look at the consequences that economic decisions have on (especially southern) European citizens it becomes obvious that we need a European decision-making process. However, a more democratic Europe is often rejected because some scholars and politicians claim that there is no ‘European Public Sphere’ and a ‘European Democracy’ is therefore not possible. I got so interested in this question that I started a PhD thesis about the euro crisis and possible models of European democracy.

As a former active AEGEE member I thought that it is actually AEGEE, with its pure European structure, which could demonstrate that a democratic European decision-making process is possible. I was therefore searching for activities that AEGEE was doing on this field and found AEGEEDebate and especially the “EU goes nuts?” discussion. I contacted Ivan and Armin and together we developed the idea of ‘The European Democracy Project’.

So already the origin of this project illustrates what we want to demonstrate: With AEGEE you can discuss and plan ideas directly on the European level, without any national procedures. A successful project could therefore show that European people can connect to fight together for their rights. Civic participation is possible also on the European level. So with a successful AEGEE project, supported by young Europeans, we could create a story that is interesting for all: politicians, journalists and scientific scholars.

Thilo Zimmermann

You mentioned the special structure of AEGEE without any national organizations. Why is this important for the European Democracy Project?

Thilo: The economic integration has made us Europeans highly interconnected and dependent on each other. However, when you interact with other people you need rules, otherwise you risk to create chaos. On a low level of integration this rules can be created by intergovernmental regimes, however, on such a high level like we have today in Europe, you need a democratic European decision-making process to take certain decisions, despite all cultural problems and language difficulties. With ‘The European Democracy Project’ we want to launch several initiatives to raise the awareness of this fact. AEGEE, as a European forum to connect young people, is especially able to do this.

The European Citizens Initiative is a quite weak democratic instrument. Why do you think you can change something by using an ECI?

Thilo: Yes, the ECI is a very weak instrument, but at the moment the only instrument to prove that a ‘European Democracy’ is possible. It is an instrument that connects European citizens for a common political goal.

The challenge is to identify a problem that is affecting a lot of European citizens and that could be, at least in part, improved by a simple legal act of the Commission who, however, was facing too much national opposition from single governments and their national interests/lobby groups to release this legal act. An ECI can strengthen the democratic legitimation of the Comission to release this legal act.

The first Initiative that you want to launch is the OpenFacebook ECI: You want to ask the European Commission with a European Citizens Initiative to open anti-trust procedure against Facebook (and other social medias). What is it about?

Thilo: It is about European democracy! The European Commission does not have a lot of supranational competences. For example, since several years Vivien Reding of the European Commission is trying now to improve private data protection with a new directive. However, due to the opposition of Great Britain she was not very successful so far. An initiative to improve our basic rights is blocked due to the opposition of one single member state. Since the prism scandal we now know why.

But there is another way to change something. The reason why Facebook can collect so many data is the application of a so-called vendor-lock in: You have to be a member of Facebook in order to be able to communicate with other users. You are not able to choose your social network provider (that for example fits your privacy preferences) freely. Competition is undermined. That is different for example with your e-mail provider: you can easily send an e-mail from hotmail to gmail. It is important to understand that this is in principle also possible for social networks, as the examples of diaspora and friendica show.

Internal market affairs and anti-trust procedures are a clear and strong supranational competence of the European Commission. With a successful ECI we could show that, when you have strong European institutions and a high democratic legitimization (1 Mio votes), change is possible.

Armin: Another aspect also has to be taken into account – change in Europe lays in the hands of many people but those who have to deal with it the most are the young Europeans because of their age and their not yet fostered position in life (you are still trying to find “your place” in society). Unfortunately it took a long time before politicians were aware of their problems especially with the economical crisis the EU faces nowadays. This has, to my mind, two reasons: First one is the still weak lobbying position of young Europeans (political influence is mostly created by money – sad but true), the second is the from a supranational point of view unorganised way of resistance in a great scale. Student protests for example may be well organised on community or even state level, but for having an impact youth must coordinate actions European wide.

Since the EDP as itself sounds a bit “unsexy” at the first glance and the ECI doesn’t have the best reputation, this demands some preparation in order to raise awareness of young people European wide by discussions about a very important young platform, Facebook, on one hand, and by showing what you really can do with an ECI on the other.

The master plan would be: Gain momentum from the first Facebook ECI and focus it on the second, actually main ECI about European Democracy.

This sounds all very complicated. Will people understand all this connections?

Thilo: The basic message of the OpenFacebook ECI is very simple: Open an anti-trust procedure against Facebook. Everybody who feels annoyed by facebook and its data privacy rules will immediately understand why it is necessary. The rest is learning by doing: by signing the ECI you can contribute to change something.

How many people are you working on it so far? Do you plan on presenting it in Agora Zaragoza?

Ivan: The project is still in its initial phase when we are looking for support within the association and also explaining why it is useful to do. So far, we got positive message from two other people, but I believe this is not a final number.

Concerning the second question, I might attend Agora Zaragoza. So I hope I will have an opportunity to present and to show what we are about to do.

Platforms like AEGEE-L and the online forum have been created in the past to promote interesting debates as well but people are not active there. How do you believe your project will change this? 

Ivan: Now I should make a distinction between AEGEEDebate and EDP because I am not sure which project you mean. Concerning AEGEEDebate, I believe that by using Facebook page and mailing lists within AEGEE I am able to promote the idea of forum in AEGEE more easily and to reach more people. Consequently, more people could be informed and take active part in the debates even though it is not so obvious many times.

On the other hand, EDP may change a lot in AEGEE. Starting a European Citizens Initiative (ECI) could bring more visibility for our association and their values as well as push for the change in the EU to be more democratic (i.e. take into account voices of citizens). It is at least worth trying.

Armin: During the presentation of the project in Izmir at the EURENSSA event there was a controversial and very vivid discussion about the Facebook antitrust ECI – and that is exactly what we intended: It addresses the young people in their socialisation demand and their main platform of interaction, hence anybody is inflicted about what happens on FB. So starting a debate depends also on the media you use. Discussions via texts seem to be quite old-school and therefore not used so much. However, mailing lists and forums are not the main part of the project, they just help us as a means. Our further goal is also to involve other NGOs in this process in order to represent as many Europeans as possible. So actually it is not really about activities on AEGEEDebate or AEGEE-L.

On the other hand I believe a side effect could be an increase of political discussions of course.

How has the idea been received in the Network so far, did you get any feedback yet?

Armin: The feedback was controversial – some did not see the link between the Facebook anti-trust ECI and the European Democracy Project, some even didn’t see a point in the FB antitrust ECI at all. Others encouraged us to go on and had the same opinion as we have.

The people of the Network Commission are talking about how they can help with this project. How are you planning to incorporate other European Level bodies?

Armin: Any helping hand is welcome! We do not limit ourselves to the IPWG or even AEGEE. As previously stated, we also plan to involve other NGOs as far as they are interested. Especially concerning the Facebook ECI it will be helpful to involve Data Privacy organisations (dealing with the scientific part of the project) and other media since I guess Facebook will not support the advertisement or discussion of an ant-itrust-ECI about itself…

Concerning the NetCom it would be helpful to coordinate some activities that come along with the ECI such as information evenings, for example about Facebook, data privacy in general, computational possibilities and threads (search algorithms, KI), plenary discussions with other NGO members, also about the political role in data and internet issues, and in general how active citizenship in Europe is possible nowadays.

Also it would be helpful to involve the AEGEE Academy for workshops and know-how.

How are you planning to incorporate members in general?

Thilo: We will organize this project via the internet, so we will use Dropbox, forums, Skype conferences. So everybody who is interested gets opportunity to contact us!

What are the steps for this project during the next couple of months?

Thilo: The next step would be to create a homepage and prepare the ECI. Both, homepage and ECI should be translated in as much languages as possible. Every member who is motivated can join us to realise this project!

Armin: We also plan to make an organisational core team as it is done for any other big project. So people who are interested should contact us soon!

Written by Ivan Bielik, AEGEE-Brno