In Brussels. (PDFs, lobbyists, votes and that pesky democratic deficit.)

Our mini-civic-tech-tour-of-Europe* begins in Brussels, the great beating heart of the bureaucracy.

Of course Brussels is far more than a bureaucratic playground: it’s a genuinely lovely city. It’s easy to skip the European quarter and the Eurocrats — though harder to miss the amazing melange of languages and nationalities that mix in the streets and bars of this cosmopolitan city. Even ignoring the amazing Grand Place, there is beautiful residential architecture scattered throughout the surrounding city. Certain areas reminded me of the oldest parts of Manhattan: narrow brick townhouses, often of varying heights, each in a different style, along long treelined streets ending in quiet gardens. 

Enough travel blogging. What’s happening in civic tech in Brussels? Mainly EU projects, it turns out. I didn’t meet a single Belgian civic technologist; apparently its bigger in the Dutch-speaking cities of Ghent and Antwerp. In this post, I’ll summarise the people and projects I came across — on who’s lobbying, how parliamentarians are voting, how voters are choosing candidates, and how people are engaging outside of elections. I’ll then look at what we might be able to borrow for the UK. Continue reading In Brussels. (PDFs, lobbyists, votes and that pesky democratic deficit.)

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“But most of all you’ve let yourselves down.” Brexit: the view from Brussels

I spent last week dodging rainshowers and testing the beer in Brussels. I know I’m supposed to be writing about civic tech — and that will happen — but it was a good two weeks on, and Brexit was still the first word on everyone’s lips when they discover that you’re British. Mostly jokes, then sympathy, then the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

I’m not a political journalist. And I wasn’t meeting with EU experts. I was mainly chatting with friends of friends, and folks I met to talk about the effects that digital tech might have on European democracy. But these were junior folks in EU-related institutions — several of them will grow up to run these things. They were the kind of well-educated youngish folks who had all assumed the UK would vote to Remain. I also scanned the French language newspapers, read Politico Europe (the closest thing to an EU newspaper) and listened to local Bruxellois radio. 

First, there was shock at the result. Not surprisingly, the Brussels bubble (‘the 29th member of the EU’ – M. Lowry) had followed the Westminster bubble, and not understood the depth of anger or malaise outside places journalists live. Many had quickly moved onto denial: trying to follow the legal story of whether or not Article 50 would actually be invoked — and the craziness of the resignation train. Farage quitting was a silver lining. 

Second, there was definitely a sense of disappointment. Not anger, as such, but a feeling like we’d kind of let the party down. And that we’d done something truly self-harming. Before getting to Brussels, I’d seen some argument that suggested that the EU might be strengthened by Brexit: the moany, special-case problem child having exited itself, the rest of them could get on with the real business of governance. But no, there was genuine shock, sadness, and universal agreement from those I spoke to that Brexit has weakened the EU. Watching the Wales game (sob) in a bar in Châtelain, I was approached by a mildly inebbriated bloke, who — upon hearing that I was supporting les Gallois — said he was all for Wales, but he couldn’t understand why the Welsh had voted to ‘go with the English’. He was quite upset about the whole thing.

Third, people were getting on with it. In the UK, in the week after the referendum, it felt like Brexit was signalling the end of the world, or at least the collapse of the political class and the economy. But of course there are another 27 member states, another 490m people, for whom the bureaucracy must work. It struck me that we Brits can tend towards solipsism — my knowledge and understanding of the EU institutions was found woefully wanting while in Brussels — and it’s not always about us. And this is a lesson we’re going to have to learn more and more, as we slip away into whatever oblivion it is we choose. I love Norway, I do, but I can’t help thinking there’s more to be gained from taking an active role in our neighbourhood.

I was only in Brussels for a week, but you can immediately get a sense of the bubble. Someone kindly explained to me the order of where you should be each evening of the week in order to do the networking, gossiping and politicking. Tuesday is one area, Wednesday is Châtelain, Thursday is Place du Lux(embourg). Fridays and Saturdays are rest days. Of course there’s something a bit ugly about this way of working, but as I watched hundreds of multilingual, educated young people from all over Europe spill out of the bars into the squares of Brussels to excitedly debate the football, Brexit and the future of Europe — it felt a bit like a party to which we burned the invite. 

Photo credit: Thorfinn Stainforth • CC BY 3.0

How I (probably) failed to register my neighbours to vote…and how I might succeed next time

A door.

Last weekend I posted some leaflets through the letterboxes of all the flats in my 1930s building near Waterloo. I was supposed to be knocking on doors and asking people whether they’d registered to vote. But I’d run out of time – and, feeling it was too late to disturb people, posted the voter registration pack – a letter and form from Join The Vote (a non-partisan, charity-supported, 38 Degrees-led coalition) through the letterboxes instead.

I went back several days later – this time earlier in the evening – and knocked on the relatively few doors into flats which showed signs of life. No answers. Well, one answer – but he was the local activist type, who is often whipping up support for some petition or other. Not surprisingly, of course he’d registered to vote.

And really, it would be a surprise if many of the building residents had failed to vote – this locale is easy-pickings for local party activists, particularly Labour and Lib Dems who are battling it out to define who is more useless, ‘barmy’ or wasteful in regard to running Lambeth Council. We’ve all had a lot of leaflets. A lot. Flats are great for the letterbox/minute ratio. And canvassing too – at least twice in the last few months – and that’s only counting the times I’ve been in.

So was it likely that many people weren’t registered to vote? Did it matter that I failed miserably to allow enough time to do several rounds of door-knocking?

Who knows, but it’s worth looking a little more deeply at the Join the Vote campaign. Continue reading How I (probably) failed to register my neighbours to vote…and how I might succeed next time