Concluding remarks - World Forum for Democracy

Strasbourg , 

Dear friends,

You have given me a very difficult task to summarize all that has happened here. Let me start by saying that this World Forum for Democracy has proved to be a truly exceptional experience, and all of you have given me a lot of new energy. Thank you for filling these halls with so many interesting, engaged, people with so many interesting ideas. I have tried to draw some conclusions, on five pieces of paper, so there will be five points.

On the first piece I have written ‘digital tools can make democracy more transparent'. Initiatives like e-government, e-parliament, can of course reinforce ties between institutional bodies and the people, and also then create links between citizens and elected bodies.

On the second piece of paper I have written ‘digital platforms may make democracies more responsive'. I think this is a crucial point, because the political parties are the cornerstones of democracy.  I see no other way to organise democracy other than to have political parties, not necessarily the ones we have today, but parties that can set up, list, or nominate people for elections discussing and deciding upon political platforms.  However these parties have to connect in a much better way to people than they are doing today. So I think that digital platforms can help political parties to respond more rapidly to grass-root inputs and better connect the political parties to the electorate.

The third point is that the digital platform can be a supplement to elected bodies. As I previously said I fail to see how elected bodies can be replaced by for instance social media. Social media is a very important tool but it cannot govern a country, it cannot govern a continent like Europe or at the global scale. These platforms can help reinvigorate elected representative bodies, and this is very important because there is, as many have said before me, clear evidence that representative bodies are no longer as representative as they should be. For instance, the numbers of party membership in European parties has fallen drastically over recent years, and what concerns me, which has not been so much in the debate, is that there are a number of marginalized people in our society and they don't have any say at all in any political body, neither in the political parties, nor in elected representative bodies, be it at the local or national level. All these marginalized people, where are they? I believe that, if we want to revitalize democracy we really have a very big potential here in giving them access to political parties and to political bodies.

This brings me to the fourth piece of paper. We have to step up online literacy. Digital tools may marginalize these groups even further.  This development can create new dividing lines in our societies if we do not focus on education and give everyone access to the online tools.  This is a very good tool, as I said, to empower marginalized people. There are however some dangers, which we have also spoken about during this forum. One is that this can increase political populism even further and I fear that if these new technologies fall in to the wrong hands they can be misused and even lead to modern forms of fascism. This development may also harm human rights.  I have heard that everybody has a right to vote directly on an issue and by doing that influence political decision.  All the same, we should bear in mind that we are not living in a society which is governed by majority rule any longer, because human rights constitute the limits of majority rule. 

We are living in a constitutional democracy where universal rights constitute the limits of majority. A majority can't put the rights of a minority to a referendum. It is an obligation for a majority to uphold the rights of any minority in the society; a point which Amin Maalouf stressed here at the opening session. This is even more important now that we have these tools to underline this basic concept of democracy. It is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and in the European Convention of Human Rights, which is the most concrete implementation of the universal declaration of human rights, namely that the rights enshrined in these documents are rights that you have as a human being.

These rights do not come from any law, they do not come from any authority, they come from the fact that you are a human- being. Therefore majorities are not allowed to put these basic rights to a referendum or to any vote. We must keep these rights in mind when praising all these digital platforms which give people the right to push the button on any issue. 

We also have to accept that these new technologies, new platforms and social media may harm private life. We must not forget that. What has been revealed by Snowden, for instance, scares me because if we are not able to combine the protection of private life with global communication what will suffer at the end of the day is of course global communication. People will no longer trust, for example the internet, if they see that their private life can be harmed and what is happening now is that a number of nation-states are discussing how they can protect their own mega-data.  This can lead to what has been called a balkanization of the internet which is a threat to internet and is a threat to global freedom of expression. So that is why it is so important that nation-states take measures to protect the private life of every citizen.

What I have heard in the debate is that you should not spy on your friends, but what about those who are not your friends? You should not be allowed to spy on anybody if it is not being done under the law and under clear procedures. We have to protect the privacy of every individual whether you belong to a friendly nation or whether you belong to a not so-friendly nation. Private life is private life for everyone.  Such threats are not only coming from the state authorities; they are coming from social media itself because it can be used to spread rumours and false allegations against private individuals.

Ladies and gentlemen, the enlightenment in Europe was built on the fact that there was always a curtain between private life and public life, and if this curtain is torn down we are all under heavy threat, so we need to respect the difference between private life and public life.  As is already the case, rumours can firstly be spread on the internet and then on to the printed media afterwards.  This is a threat to democracy itself.

So these were my five points, I would like to say at the end that we as political leaders have to ask ourselves if are we serving voters correctly, are they being heard, are they being understood? The answer is no, at least partially.

The big issue now is how we can use digital tools to remedy this, and how can we take advantage of the potential of the new communication tools and at the same time avoid all the dangers. If we think about this in a wider, historical perspective, I think that what is happening now is as deep as what happened during the second technological revolution that started in the midst of the 18th century and accelerated in the beginning of the 19th century.   All the new machines and new technology that came shaped this technological revolution in the whole world.

This revolution led to new social classes, to all the political parties that we have in Europe today and in most of the world which were shaped during this time. Political ideologies were based on these deep technological transformations.  What we have today stems from this technological revolution. I think that this technological revolution we are presently experiencing may have the same impact as the second technological revolution; that we may foresee a reshaping of the whole political landscape. I don't think that political parties will fade away, but I am convinced that new ones will be shaped, based on the new pattern of production and social patterns.

We all have to keep our eyes and ears open and those who don't will simply fade away, they will die.  Albert Einstein said, ‘the brain is like a parachute, if it is not open it doesn't function'.

So thank you very much. Thank you very much for keeping all your brains open, you have given me a lot of energy and I will come back next year. Thanks.