Forum for the Future of Democracy
Concluding Plenary session
Statement by Mr Zoltan Szabo, General Rapporteur of the Forum
I have followed closely the deliberations over the last two days: on Wednesday in the plenary session and yesterday particularly in the workshop tracks on e-participation: ICT for participatory democracy and opportunities and challenges to representative democracy.
I shared my impressions with the two other general rapporteurs and you will find them reflected in the General Conclusions which will be presented shortly. Allow me to make two more personal comments:
Firstly, I would like to express my satisfaction with, and appreciation of, the high quality of the discussions. They were very intensive and extremely interesting and concrete. They proved clearly that you do not have to be an expert on computers to discuss, in a professional way, the use of e-tools for democracy. They revealed great interest in such new technologies among various actors of the political process gathered here in Madrid: members of parliaments, representatives of governments, of local authorities, of civil society and academics.
Secondly, I would like to emphasise the importance of this event. The great value of the Fourth Session of the Forum is not only that it has served as a platform for an exchange of experience, the sharing of good practices, illustrating good and bad models and examples, but also it has paved the way for systematic solutions and regulations. As it has brought together participants from so many different circles, the Forum has a good chance to succeed in passing its message across to those institutions which can assure follow up: national parliaments, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and national authorities.
This session of the Forum has demonstrated that ICT are used in many Council of Europe member states, sometimes very successfully and with spectacular results. I will only mention here one example of an e-initiative in Switzerland, where citizens can launch a proposal for a new law or for an amendment to the existing law or initiate a referendum on government policy.
We also heard of other examples of e-initiatives in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and in other countries. But there are also disconcerting examples of websites being set up and opened for signatures and being subsequently abandoned as well as of petitions signed by thousands which have been given no follow up whatsoever. This is not only a waste of public energy but also creates the risk of loss of confidence in e-tools.
I believe we should all acknowledge, and be aware of, this potential threat. I am very glad that there are so many representatives of the civil society with us here, who should be particularly responsible in this respect. Let us not rush into things blindly, let us advance in a fully responsible manner.
I trust that one of the far-reaching results of the Forum will be that it will inspire different circles of power to scrutinise the ways and means of systematising and harmonising standards and regulations relating to the use of e-tools in the political process.
We should acknowledge that this kind of activity requires financial resources, organisational capacity and know-how. Therefore, particularly in this case, the Council of Europe should use its resources with a view to creating better conditions for public initiative. These should include guidelines, assistance and the promotion of best practices.
Naturally, I am aware of the work already carried out by the Council of Europe in this respect, but there is still much more to be done. I am convinced that the Ad hoc committee on e-democracy must intensify its work and examine the various issues raised during this session.
This work should go hand in hand with the work of other sectors of the Council of Europe, including the Parliamentary Assembly.
As already mentioned by President de Puig at the opening session on Wednesday [to be confirmed!!!], the Parliamentary Assembly will use the conclusions and ideas of this session of the Forum to enrich its own discussions on the subject. As Rapporteur of the Political Affairs Committee, tasked with drafting a report and recommendation which will be subsequently debated and adopted in the Assembly, I intend to complete and develop my report based on the Memorandum which was made available to the participants and, once adopted by the Committee, to present it to the Assembly in January 2009.
I am convinced that the Parliamentary Assembly is well placed to promote further action at the pan-European level. As a strictly political body, it carries a particular responsibility to react speedily and in an adequate manner to the challenges and opportunities created by the use of new technologies in the democratic process.
Over the last two days much has been said about additional channels for democratic practice and participation, transparency, accountability and responsiveness of democratic institutions, promoting citizens’ democratic engagement, empowerment and inclusiveness. We have all agreed that e-tools offer an enormous potential to improve the situation, to remedy some shortcoming in the functioning of democratic institutions and to overcome decreasing confidence of citizens in the democratic process as a whole.
There is no doubt that e-tools can be highly instrumental in strengthening democracy. But in order to make them fully operational and effective, we also have to ensure that public initiatives produce tangible results. This requires revision of national legislation in almost all European countries, (except perhaps in Switzerland). Constitutions should include provisions allowing for a public initiative to launch a new law, to amend the existing law or to initiate a referendum. Legislation should also foresee the possibility for voters to recall a member of parliament.
Of course these all require political courage and political vision, or at least political debate on a broad, pan-European level.
We, in the Parliamentary Assembly, enjoy good conditions for such a debate, which I hope to launch at the next meeting of the Political Affairs Committee, and later, at the plenary part-session of the Parliamentary Assembly, in January 2009. I am confident that my colleaugues from other national parliaments will take this matter extremely seriously.
I am also confident that all participants, all of you, will react in a similar way within your own specific areas of responsibility: you will seek to convey the message, to identify those areas where you can contribute to implementing the good ideas launched here in Madrid and ensure follow up.
This is the essence of the concept of the Forum, which is an ongoing process in which the progress is evaluated systematically by all stakeholders and this is why I consider this session in Madrid to be so important and useful.
Thank you for your attention.