Building European Civil Society - New tools and social media platforms

On the 12th and 13th of December, the city of Vilnius (Lithuania) hosted the closing conference of the European Citizens' Year. Lithuania held the EU Council Presidency until the end of 2013 and the event was part of a series of discussions and workshops that took place across Europe throughout the past year.

Many prominent speakers delivered speeches to the attendees of the conference. Among them were M. Algirdas Butkeviciusthe, the Lithuanian Prime Minister, Mrs. Viviane Reding, the EU Commission Vice-President, and Mrs. Emily O’Reilly ,the European Ombudsman.

After the speeches, various workshops took place in different chambers of the Seimas, the Lithuanian Parliament. Many representatives from European NGOs, social groups, political parties, EU institutions and national governments, as well as journalists, bloggers and members of European think-tanks participated in the gatherings.

Their debates focused on how to empower EU citizenship, make citizens more active, and help them influence policy making. There were also discussions on participative and representative democracy, EU citizens’ rights, the upcoming 2014 European elections and how Europe could increase voters’ turn-out.

Various issues were raised throughout the conference, and e-participation tools were one of them. Nowadays, the internet has become a tool for people to discuss their views. Indeed, most EU citizens have the opportunity to express their opinion on-line on various websites. However, it has been a one way communication so far, from people to governments. Europe should create on-line platforms to help politicians present answers to the citizens’questions in the right way, opening a two-way communication.

The importance of social media to the civil society was also discussed and was described as “essential.” It represents the collective intelligence of a population and reinforces the public opinion.

However, the Internet is only a tool to mobilize citizens that are already active and aware. More needs to be done to create an active civil society. As citizens’ participation is necessary in a democracy, there is need to design tools to achieve a greater level of it.

With the help of Internet innovation, Europe can beat the lack of citizen interest in public affairs, which is mostly due to the lack of trust and/or knowledge. We have had on our continent many initiatives that “died” at the project's end. We should create permanent tools for the people to express themselves and get involved.

The technology for e-participation is already there - the real challenge that Europe is facing is to gain the trust of the citizens. The language used in the platforms should be made easier to understand.

Democracy requires two tings: participation and governments' cooperation. Until now, the majority of people did not have the mentality to actively engage in civil society. If this trend changes and the citizens start demanding a larger say in policy-making then their governments will react to their needs.

Another point discussed at the forum was the need to teach people how to stage organized protests with clear demands and the need to start thinking of democracy as an active operating system, in constant need of updating.

The people must become aware of their rights - those they do not know that they have and those that they have lost over the years. Developments in countries like Ukraine and Bulgaria were also discussed and used as examples of how civil society can get organized and act.In fact, the most important events in Europe right now are taking place outside the EU, in the Ukrainian capital Kiev. The speakers expressed their wish for greater support from the rest of Europe to the Ukrainian people, as we could also learn from them ways to get organized and engage in civil society.

The need to educate our youth to become European citizens was underlined. The ongoing austerity policies implemented in Europe were blamed for the lack of education and information.Austerity is taking people out of schools and by that is killing democracy, as young Europeans tend to vote for populist parties. Europe wide educational projects such as Erasmus were considered to be invaluable in creating a new Europe, as they give the opportunity to young people to travel and live in a country other than their own, ending certain misconceptions about other nations.

The right use of social media like Facebook has also been noted. It is not just a platform for promoting narcissism, but can also become a place for action if only we stop limiting ourselves to “click-tivism", with most of us just “liking” pages on the website.

The quality of democracy depends on the policies that are implemented. If these do not express the values that the people would like to be dominant in their society then obviously democracy in this society is of low quality.

Finally, the idea that Brussels can solve all problems and is responsible for everything was condemned. European institutions have limited power and it is up to the citizens to become engaged and demand for things or reforms.

“Nothing should be decided about us without us” was one of the mottos that was recurring in the debates. This summarizes the attitude that all of us must start cultivating towards national and European affairs if we want to achieve a high qualitative level of democracy in our countries and in Europe.

 Edited by: Izabella Lobinska

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