MEPs: Demand VP Democracy, after Spitzenkandidaten setback

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A general view of the hemicycle of the European Parliament during the plenary session, in Strasbourg, France. [EPA/CHRISTOPHE KARABA]

Last week’s Summit did not bode well for Parliament’s Spitzenkandidaten process of electing the next Commission President. However, before endorsing the final ‘ticket’ put in front of them, parliamentary groups can make coalition demands: a new top job could help, for healthy media and sound platforms.

Christophe Leclercq founded the EURACTIV Media Network and the think-and-do tank Fondation EURACTIV, organizing #Media4Democracy; he was also a member of the EU’s High-Level Expert Group on disinformation.

Dear new MEP,

If you are pro-European, then the recent elections entailed two good pieces of news and two setbacks: could we also draw two possible actions?

More democracy and peace… or less?

The first good news is your own success and support for our Union: welcome to the club! The second reason to rejoice is the higher turnout: your like-minded colleagues have a stronger mandate to act. In principle.

However – unlike in 2014 – the Council has decided not to directly follow the election results. As expected [given the names involved and those missing], but not without consequences…

Moreover, the nationalist threat is not over: anti-European forces have nearly doubled, a trend that could lead to catastrophe in 2024. The EU has a tendency to forget too quickly from near-disasters; it should deal now with underlying systemic issues.

Policies for media, about online platforms, and against disinformation.

There are those across the EU that may have suffered from online disinformation, an under-informed public, and low quality of media reporting? All are related, and can be addressed, even using existing policy instruments.

What is required for sustainable media and sound platforms has been described before by some of your predecessors, and was summarised by asking for a Vice President for Democracy at the Commission. In this short piece, let’s not address strategy again but complement the debate with some tactics, transparently.

The Council will still need your majority support for its Commission President nominee. Granted, as a new MEP, you might not immediately chair a parliamentary Committee, but you can yield influence right away, suggesting policies, and joining forces with others across party lines: it’s the game in town.

Beyond top jobs and words: substance and impact

The first action I suggest: Go for substance! While the Council and your group leaders quarrel on few top jobs…

Indeed, the EU’s Strategic Agenda under negotiation will be presented to you on July 15, during your second week in Strasbourg. This will shape the next five years, like the ‘Juncker 10 priorities’ last time.

My advice on this first point? Don’t wait for Commissioners’ hearings in September. By then, the blueprints will be ready, the ‘mission letters’ nearly done. It is now that you have maximum say. If you think that Democracy risks worsening, that one should think ahead of future elections, then say so, loud and clear. To your group leaders and negotiators, who are preparing the pro-European coalition.

The second action I recommend: Go for impact! While policy words abound, making a real difference matters…

Indeed, notably about fake news and press freedom, there are enough well-meaning declarations.

What you wish is a ‘smart policy mix’, looking at economics and competition, and starting this year. To get results, you need both somebody in charge, and proper scrutiny behind him or her.

Somebody in charge, visibly: in the Executive, decisions required inevitably fall in different departments, led by different Commissioners and Directors generals. On sensitive topics, they could argue for ever… so you need an overall coordinator: a Vice President for Democracy. 

Proper scrutiny, indeed pressure: at the Parliament too, things fall in different Committees. These silos will be manipulated by nationalists feeding on disinformation and by platform lobbyists fearing co-regulation. To sustain momentum, one can help bridge fences with a media inter-group: between MEPs from different groups and various committees, all for Europe and for a healthy media sector.

Finally, my even more practical advice: if you have not yet done so, pick a top parliamentary assistant.  In fact, the envisaged media inter-group will be prepared not by VIPs but first by an assistants’ meeting. If you are interested in media issues, then your assistant is welcome too.  This Tuesday June 25th, MEPs can also attend a related policy conference, about sound platforms and independent media.

And a final reminder: welcome to EU’s techno-democracy.  It can sort itself out, if you act!

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