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Boglárka BÓLYA: Could technology pave the way to a more democratic European Union?

One of the most basic principles of political thought is the fact that the essence of democracy, as the term’s origins reveal, entails the notion of giving the power of ruling (kratos) to the people (demos). Yet, to this day, the purest form of democracy, known as direct democracy has never existed in practice, instead, the system of indirect democracy has been adopted and applied by nation states worldwide. This should come as no surprise. As Churchill famously quoted: “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried”. It would not only be impractical, but in fact impossible for a demos to vote about all issues together, as it is likely to consume most of their free time, moreover, people simply cannot be experts in all interdisciplinary matters involved in the governance of nations. To this end, in order to overcome the administrative burden of self-governance, it makes sense to elect specialised officials, who devote their time and expertise to representing citizens’ interests. 

As a result, policymakers, and those in charge of governance structures have an inherent responsibility to enable citizens willing and able to devote more time to expressing their views on matters to do so, and reevaluate opportunities the implementation of which could enable a gentle shift towards the principle of direct democracy over time. With the formation and evolution of complex multi-level governance structures such as the European Union, the further away representatives are from their citizens, the less citizens are able to exert influence over the activities of their elected representatives, thus, at times, the ability of decision making on a European level to accurately reflect views and interests of the people often conveys the physical and psychological distance of Brussels from European citizens. This asymmetry of influence can result in a slow disillusionment of citizens concerning multi-level governance structures, questioning their legitimacy, and ultimately undermining their very existence long term. It is becoming increasingly clear, that while many in the European Parliament like to claim that they carry the uppermost source of democratic legitimacy, they are only using the European Parliament as a tool to expand their own powers and further their personal political agendas. But they are in a grave misunderstanding: direct source of democratic legitimacy remains within the walls of national parliaments and not the European Parliament.

Some Member States recognised the need to maximise the involvement of citizens in decision making earlier and accordingly developed innovative solutions on a national level to increasingly engage citizens in the process of policymaking. Hungary’s national consultations, a process launched in September of 2010 introduced by the freshly elected government led by Viktor Orbán sought to gather and analyze feedback from citizens on the most defining topics of contemporary Hungarian politics. The core aim of establishing National Consultations was to give a voice to people seeking to express their views on a wide variety of matters, including migration, the economy, family policy or the coronavirus. Relevant questionnaires, initially sent out by mail, later with the development of virtual infrastructure also made accessible online therefore provided a chance for millions of Hungarian citizens to voice their opinions on the most defining questions influencing their everyday lives. The National Consultations saw an unprecedented success, with millions of Hungarian citizens filling out and returning the questionnaires. This innovative institutionalisation of deliberative democracy has arguably contributed to the long lasting success of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, intrinsically counter-weighing criticisms concerning the state of democracy and the rule of law in Hungary. 

It always seemed somewhat surprising, that while EU officials were often the ones voicing loud criticisms concerning democracy and the rule of law, one of the main sources of disapproval concerning the European Union’s institutions is the claim that they are undemocratic and that their decision making or bureaucratic processes do not reflect the will of European citizens. Many continue to argue that the structure of the European Union is in fact overly static, failing to make use of technological developments, and as a result, there remains a lack of democracy and transparency in the decision-making process, which results in a constant democratic deficit. To this end, it is clear that EU institutions have an important task of ensuring they practice what they preach, and continue to look for solutions that help take into account interests and concerns of citizens more efficiently in relevant matters. 

Technological development and the information revolution have evidently opened up new channels of quick and efficient communication. Giving the economy a new impetus to provide better products and more targeted marketing campaigns to consumers worldwide, similarly, it has provided politicians with an array of opportunities to reach out to and engage with their constituents, and better understand their needs in order to make more informed policy decisions. Nation state governments, with more citizen-centric governance structures were willing and able to implement solutions overtime to enhance the quality of democracy. Their example should also provide a key source of inspiration to leading officials of multi-level governance structures to strengthen the legitimacy of their functioning in the long run, delivering policy solutions that increasingly reflect the views and interests of European citizens. As Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has stressed, while in Hungary, National Consultations have been organised in order to reinforce the government’s family policy, “in Western Europe and Brussels no one ever asked the people about LGBTQ propaganda or migration”. While the EU is the world’s largest single market and the source of a wide variety of laws, it still has room for improvement regarding one key component to make it truly democratic: direct representation from European citizens themselves.

In recent years, the EU has indeed been facing numerous challenges that tested its democratic credentials. With a growing sense of disillusionment, European leaders saw that new steps needed to be taken to ensure that democracy remains an integral part of the European Union’s identity. Launched in May 2020, the Conference on the Future of Europe was a unique, unprecedented scale initiative launched by the European Commission to bring together citizens, civil society, and political leaders from across the EU to discuss and shape the future of Europe’s continent. With the use of a digital platform, it finally gave European citizens an opportunity to express their views on a variety of topics directly, by uploading opinions, ideas, and conference conclusions, starting a seemingly inclusive international dialogue about some of the most future defining topics of the 21st century. 

In contrast with claims made by some EU officials accusing Hungarians of being eurosceptic, Hungary was one of the most active participants in the Conference on the Future of Europe, even advocating for an expansion of the Union. While Hungary’s Prime Minister was amongst the first to share his vision on the future of Europe, published in the form of seven theses, Hungarians organised and uploaded conclusions of hundreds of local conferences, quickly putting the country on the map of the most engaged Member States in the dialogue. Citizens truly believed that with their active participation and commitment, they would finally be able to tip the scale towards a European Union favouring voluntary cooperation between sovereign nations, as opposed to a federal European empire disregarding its diverse historic and cultural heritage.

While Hungarian citizens believed in the opportunity of change through sincere dialogue, hopes of technology paving the way to a more democratic European Union quickly faded. At the end of the day, it was revealed that the pan-European consultation was merely a tool to legitimise a pre-written script of the federalist elite, and that the initiative was not in fact aimed at gaining a true insight into citizens’ opinions, but instead, an instrument seeking to reinforce EU leaders’ own ideology, which placed a federal, nationless Europe at its core.  At the end of the day, Hungarian citizens’ views failed to make it to the final conclusions of the conference, despite their unprecedented collective efforts to make their voice heard. Once again, instead of the principle of democracy, the discriminating issue of double standards prevailed. No wonder that eventually, fears arose that European integration has become an end per se, with elites seeking to create a federal empire, ultimately dissolving the very Member States that contributed to their rise. 

Perhaps the most important lesson of the Conference on the Future of Europe is the fact that while democratic innovations can indeed pave the way to creating more democratic governance structures, in essence, technology is only a tool, and the outcome of a tool’s use fundamentally depends on the intention of the actor able to exert control over it. As history has often revealed, technology can be both constructive and destructive, and the results very much depend on the context in which technology is applied. If the intention of a tool’s owner is to enhance the quality of democracy using a bottom-up approach, as it proved to be in the case of Hungary’s National Consultations, it can achieve promising results long term, which in exchange will usually assure the success of those in charge with good intentions. On the other hand, a tool in the hands of an ideologically motivated elite can also be used in an attempt to further ideological goals top-down. After all, there is little doubt that federalist elites will sooner or later be faced with an exponential disillusionment of European citizens, as the contrast between their utopia and European citizens’ everyday reality further diverges. One thing is certain: Europe is in urgent need of a sincere, in-depth reality check.

Dr. Boglárka Bólya graduated summa cum laude from the Faculty of Law and Political Sciences at Pázmány Péter Catholic University. Later she studied European Studies at the University of Nice and obtained a Master’s degree in European Law in Brussels, ULB. She started her career as a paralegal, then she began working at the State Secretariat for European Union Affairs of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. From 2003 to 2019, she worked in the European Parliament, first as a political adviser int the European People’s Party and then as a legal adviser to the EPP, and finally as Head of Unit for Legal and Home Affairs. She continued her career as legal adviser to the President of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, from 2017 to 2019. During the Hungarian EU Presidency in 2011, she chaired the Council working group on the drafting of the Treaty of Accession of Croatia to the European Union. From 2019, she was Deputy State Secretary for European Union Relations at the Ministry of Justice and then Chief Political Adviser to the State Secretary for European Union Affairs. Currently, she is working on the preparation of the Hungarian EU Presidency in 2024 as Ministerial Commissioner. She speaks English, Spanish, French and German and understands Italian. She is married and has 3 children.

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