Chers dirigeants de l’UE : #changeEU est dans l’air

DISCLAIMER: Toutes les opinions affichées dans cette colonne reflètent l'avis de l'auteur, pas celle d'EURACTIV Media network.

L’UE n’est peut-être pas sur le point de connaître une révolution, mais elle devrait se rendre compte qu’une étincelle peut enflammer une ville ou un pays entier en quelques jours voire en quelques heures, écrit Radu Magdin. 

Radu Magdin est le directeur général de SmartLink Communications, un cabinet-conseil dans le domaine de la communication transnationale, basé à Bucarest. Il a travaillé pendant cinq ans à Bruxelles (de 2007 à 2012) avec le Parlement européen, EURACTIV et Google.

The recent turmoil in Turkey has proved that we live in a new ”#hashtag” era in the European Union and its neighbouring countries. This is also true at a global level, recent examples like Brazil being within reach: #changeBrazil. The Union may not be on the verge of a revolution, but this does not mean that authorities in general, and politicians in particular, can count on social peace.

If there is something that we can learn from the past two to three years, it is that a sparkle can ignite in a matter of days or even hours a town, a whole country, and further find speedily it’s way towards international fame.

This era has some interesting traits: community mobilisation, instant coverage, minority perception as the new reality, and, increasingly, hashtag ”duels”. Indeed, people do get mobilised by communicating online, if the spark starts from a topic dear to them, they engage as a community defending one common interest; then the media picks the online trend and turns it into news, so the ”hashtag” goes mainstream. What’s interesting is that nobody cares anymore if it’s a minority or a majority interest that is being expressed: a small vocal minority can now impose its agenda on the media –and the surprised majority; the perception this minority manages to multiply via online and media channels is the new reality. Last but not least, opinion makers and politicians start to take sides and ”duels” are on the online menu.  

Turning back to Europe now, the events in Turkey have a different cause and development than the May Swedish riots or the UK riots that happened in 2011, but what they do have in common is Twitter, used as a communications and mobilisation instrument. The riots in 2005 in the French banlieus probably would have had more steam and coverage if social media was around at the time. The lesson to learn is that social media will remain ”at the table” in all cases of social unrest from now on, so we can start getting used to it and particularly to hashtags. The fact that Facebook introduced, recently, the #hashtag among its more than 1 billion users, makes the combined power of the Twitter and Facebook ”#” a true activist weapon.

But let us look at how different EU leaders in Brussels used Twitter during the #occupygezi Turkish crisis. There were no ”duels” between Brussels leaders and Turkey’s Prime Minister Erdogan or their chief EU negotiator, Egemen Bagis, simply because Erdogan demonised Twitter as ”a menace” (although, ironically, he has a Twitter account, with plenty of followers) and  Bagis was in the difficult position of sending strong sovereign statements (”Turkey is not a second-class democracy to surrender to pressures neither in domestic or foreign policy”) while trying to mend EU relations (his latest tweets and retweets on the EU accession process stand proof of that).   

In the lack of EU-Turkey online duels, we should focus on EU #hashtag action. In this context I propose we look into the Twitter activity, since the beginning of the #occupygezi crisis till the date of publishing of this article (26 June), for the EU trio – the presidents of the European Council, Commission and Parliament- as well as the leaders of the three main political groups in the EP, the European People’s Party (EPP), the Socialists and Democrats (S&D), and the Liberals and Democrats (ALDE).

The results are as follows: Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Barroso didn’t really think #occupygezi was an issue, there are no tweets on the topic since the beginning of the situation. The European Council president has a tweet before the crisis, dating from 23 May, ”Joint press conference with PM Erdogan after good meeting” – if he only knew … The one who saves the Twitter honour of the EU trio is EP President Martin Schulz. Schulz tweeted, on 3 June: ”#Turkey: severity with which the police responded is completely disproportionate and will only lead to the expansion of the protests”. 

Where things get more passionate is the European Parliament, within the political families. The most active leader and political group were Hannes Swoboda and the Socialists & Democrats. Next in line are ALDE and Guy Verhofstadt, with special mention for MEPs Marietje Schaake and Andrew Duff. The latter has also one of the most retweeted (and Facebook re-shared) messages: ”@”06melihgokcek Dear Sir, Have you gone completely mad? #euwhatevernext #Gezipark”. Clearly, there is passion within EU politicians as well, beyond politeness. The EPP and Joseph Daul have chosen Twitter silence – as a sign of protest, or not.  

Let us look a little bit at the S&D/ Swoboda and ALDE/ Verhofstadt tweets. In the first case, the tone mounted each week, 22 Junemarking an interesting degree: ”When will Erdogan stop to undermine Turkey’s democracy and civil liberties? Freedom fighters need support and solidarity”. Verhofstadt’s most impressive tweet seems the one from June 12, from the EP plenary debate: ”#Turkey is the biggest prison for journalists in the world”.

One final word on the hashtag. Like any instrument, it can be used for the good (fighting censure, for example) or the bad (urging people to head for anarchy, chaos or violence). In conditions of democratic deficit and austerity, its use only awaits for the right opportunity; its main users are the young, who are also the victims of unemployment in Europe. EU leaders are right in trying to make youth jobs a priority, the question is if they will manage to move things concretely and not just make commitments in speeches or on paper. We may not be heading too soon for #occupyEU or #occupyEUCO (the European Council), but that does not mean that 2013 will not be an active prelude to #changeEU, particularly with a view to the May 2014 European elections. #changeEU is in the air, dear #EU leaders, prepare!”

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