Summer is the ideal time for surreptitiously introducing unpopular measures or ridiculous projects. This year's silly season offers the simulation game Citzalia, the European Parliament's latest communication tool. Just when you thought the European Union couldn't get more disconnected from reality, it gets more virtual. Soon, citizen-avatars will be able to experience "democracy in action" in virtual reality: Let's hope they find it as disappointing as reality itself.
After the failure of its online EuroparlTV (C-SPAN à la EU), the Parliament is preparing Citzalia, an educational "platform" described as a "3D world that captures the essence of the European Parliament." Through role playing and social networking, citizen-avatars will walk the powerless corridors of the EU's talking shop (in the real world, power remains with the mandarins of the European Commission) and even interact with the avatars of actual members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
Presumably, their hope - at €275,000 ($370,000) - is to shed some light on the terribly important role of the EU legislature. That might be a bad idea. With record low participation in the last election (43 per cent in 2009), maybe people realized that their vote was pointless and that they couldn't even vote for their preferred candidate anyway (one votes for a party list).
The thought of citizen-avatars trying to figure out the "co-decision" legislative process is dizzying. Good luck to them with the arcane consultations between the Commission, the Council and the Parliament and the culture of deals behind the proverbial closed doors. Under the Lisbon Treaty, a new consultation procedure with the 27 national legislatures (the so-called Barroso initiative) should add to the bureaucratic fun.
Exposing the boring, poorly attended and entirely managed non-debates in the Parliament would indeed be in the interest of transparency. Not to mention the outrageous full relocation 12 times a year between Strasbourg and Brussels (annual cost: €200-million). But too much realism might confuse citizen-avatars who, back in the real world, might want to question their MEPs.
But the unelected and unaccountable Commission (its accounts have not passed audit for many years) is the main creator of the laws that Europeans must obey (about 85 per cent of all new U.K. legislation, for example, comes from the EU). The truth is, the MEPs are confined to rubber-stamping, with the right to throw occasional delaying tantrums to earn their credentials as the guardians of EU democracy - or, rather, as the fig leaves of this unique post-democracy.
One real nod toward democracy was the Lisbon Treaty's Citizens' Initiative (Article 11) enabling citizens to propose legislation, but it's hopelessly bogged down in red tape and controversy, strangled to the point of meaninglessness.
Forget the citizen-avatar. The real movers and shakers are the lobbyists - many of whom get EU grants to lobby the EU. As the International Policy Network study Friends of the EU exposed in March, green advocacy groups are subsidized to lobby for more funds and to provide research. This is a self-serving circle of bureaucrats and lobbyists, not democracy in any sense that citizens can recognize.
As Europeans' votes don't matter (a referendum can be run again for the right answer, as in Ireland, or merely avoided, as in Britain, and MEPs are pointless), they can make up for it with a tiny virtual thrill of involvement in a fantasy world inspired by a real nightmare: Europeans can get online and spend every minute complaining about the democratic deficit - and then pretend their voices make a difference.
Sophie Quintin Adali is a regular contributor to www.unmondelibre.org, a French classical liberal think tank.Report Typo/Error
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