October 12, 2015

(Published initially on Open Society Foundation website, on 2nd of August, 2012)

For years, European Union (EU) institutions have been charged with a democratic deficit, falling short on practising those same democratic principles they claim to promote. VoteWatch Europe has developed new approaches to improving transparency and engagement around the EU’s previously obscure, decision-making processes.

The uniqueness of the European Union—combining supra-national and intergovernmental institutional decision making—makes understanding how it works cumbersome for EU citizens and others. This poses a serious problem for the future of the EU; EU-made legislation directly influences the lives of about 500 million citizens living in the (currently) 28 member states.

This legislation is not insignificant.  It was the European Parliament where the decisive vote on the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) recently took place. Many other key decisions are being made in the fields of civil liberties, migration, economy, environment, energy, trade, agriculture and so on. In spite of this, very few organizations outside Brussels really understand how EU laws are being made. Consequently, very few can provide input into the law-making process.

In addition to the complexity of the law-making process, there is another reason why EU politics has been so difficult to understand and participate in: the relative opaqueness of its institutions. In particular, just how each Government or Member of the European Parliament shapes a piece of legislation remains obscure. Until a few years ago, there was virtually no way outsiders could know which parts of a piece of legislation were inserted (or deleted) at the request of a particular Government (in the Council of Ministers) or a particular political family (in the European Parliament). The decisions were, and to a large extent still are, presented by these institutions as having been taken by the institution as a whole. This makes it impossible for European citizens to hold their own ministers and European parliamentarians accountable, as they are unable to tell what exact roles these actors have played in the process.

All this is about to change with new citizenship initiatives aimed at increasing transparency. One such initiative, VoteWatch Europe, reveals to citizens how each minister and European parliamentarian votes on EU legislation. In practice, this shows for example how Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) voted on the above-mentioned ACTA dossier.

Launched in 2009, VoteWatch has established itself as the go-to source for information on the voting records of MEPs.  Through its website, its publications, events and media appearances it has disseminated information on decision making in the European Union to tens of thousands of people around the world.

VoteWatch Europe presents this information to the public so that people can now distinguish between the agendas of various political families and make an informed choice next time they vote in European elections. Since the first European Parliament elections in 1979 voting turnout has continued to decline. European citizens increasingly find it difficult to believe that it makes any difference if one or another political family wins the European Parliament elections.

So while the powers of EU institutions have increased dramatically over the years, legitimacy continues to drop. For the EU to move towards the stronger integration many of its decision makers call for, this decline in legitimacy needs to be reversed. The next European elections in mid-2014 will be an important test of this. Holding politicians to account for their actions in Brussels and Strasbourg is one way European citizens can get more involved.

VoteWatch Europe collects information on the activities of parliamentarians and ministers and places it on its website. The information is user-friendly and displayed in a way that people can easily digest and share with each other. Citizens can also use a VoteMatch tool, where they can vote on the same laws as MEPs and see which individual members and party grouping best shares their views. Often citizen discovers that their best political match is an MEP from a different country than their own, with ideology playing a more important role than nationality in voting decisions.

Since July 2012, VoteWatch includes information on the voting of ministers in the Council of the EU. All voting information on VoteWatch is collected from official sources.  This can sometimes be a shortcoming, as not enough information is made available (or made available, but not in a machine-readable format). EU institutions have some way to go in facilitating access to truly, useful documents before voting transparency can become robust. Many transparency organizations have criticized this deficiency with some even suing the Council of the EU for not being transparent enough.

As VoteWatch continues to strive for more and better data on law-making in the European Union, the other side of the accountability equation remains with the public. Visitors to VoteWatch can now view voting data on everything from the“Forced Abortion Scandal in China” to the “Financing of the Common Agricultural Policy.”


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