Discussion – Dialogue – Debate. That´s the slogan of the official discussion forum by the European Commission, “Debate Europe”. The Commission aims at actively listening to the public and getting involved into dialogue with citizens to raise trust in the European policy and to increase voter participation in the upcoming European elections 2009. The forum “Debate Europe” should gauge public opinion about the EU and about three important pan-European topics: climate change and energy, Europe’s future, Intercultural Dialogue. Additionally there is a forum for more general discussion about the EU and its institutions. European citizens from all Member States are invited to join and to debate with other citizens and members of EU institutions.
Forums are moderated. Each of the four topic-based forums is introduced by a short summary, accompanied by supporting links and videos as well as by a short poll. Furthermore there is a discussion section for every of the national languages of the 27 Member States. Once registered, the users can participate in all national forums – a possibility a lot of participants use to contribute to the English sub-forum, where they can most easily get into touch with users from other Member States. Some postings are translated into all languages by official EU-translators, predominantly more official news from the Commission rather than opinions stated by civilian participants.
“Debate Europe” is just one part of the ambitious Plan D (D for Discussion, Debate and Democracy, as is mirrored in the forums motto, ), a strategy for a more open and active communication about the political work on the European level, first implemented in 2005 and continued since 2008 : There seems to be a communicational deficit between the EU institutions and its citizens, leading to a decline in trust and confidence in the political system of the EU: While 52 percent of European citizens still give a positive response to being a member of the EU that number is about 6 percent under the percentage from autumn 2007, where 58 percent supported a membership.
Facing these challenges, the European Commission set up means for open and active communication, with “Debate Europe” being the overall motto of the projects. The forum itself is quite plain and simple – the Commission uses a ready-made forum software for its purposes. This offers some advantages: It is easy and cheap to implement and rather easy to use, it is proved to run stable on a lot of servers, there are standard FAQs concerning the most common technical questions and some users will already know how to navigate. But evaluating the results and feeding them into the political process could be rather difficult, especially with a very high number of postings, due to the rather unstructured outline of the discussion.
Moderation guidelines, as posted in the English sub-forum, are quite basic: no hate-speech, no xenophobia, no harassment, no party-propaganda. The moderators keep in the background most of the time, whereas moderator activity differs a bit from one national sub-forum to another: In the Dutch forum the moderators posted initial questions, the moderators of the English forum also raised some questions and posted polls.
There are about 3.376 registered participants – including civilians, moderators, translators and Commissioners as well as spokespersons. Most active discussion topic is the debate about the future of Europe. It is also interesting to take a look at the participation level in the different national forums: The English sub-forum contains the most postings, almost 78.600 in total – this does not come as a surprise, considering that a lot of non-native speakers post their opinion there as well; in the Greek (over 5300 postings) , French (about 3500 postings), Italian (about 1700 postings), and Spanish forums (about 2500), participation and posting frequency are also quite high, while participation to the other national forums is considerably lower. The German forum ranges in the middle, with about 740 postings in total.
“Debate Europe” is one step into the direction of a pan-European dialogue between citizens and members of EU institutions. The figures and the discussions themselves show that there can be raised interest and awareness of European topics by open communication. Yet there still is the challenge to enable a pan-European dialogue regardless of language capabilities, which enables also participants who cannot speak and understand English to discuss with people from other Member States – a task which will require a lot of resources. Another challenge is to raise awareness of the online-forum in the first place: citizens of the different Member States should have the same chances to get to know their possibilities to engage in pan-European discussions. Cooperation with national parliaments and also with national mass media will be needed to reach this aim.
Simone Gerdesmeier (Zebralog Berlin)