Yesterday was the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, a.k.a. the Treaty Establishing the European Economic Community, which was the precursor to the Treaty of Maastricht, a.k.a. the Treaty on European Union, signed thirty-five years later. It is no exaggeration to say that the Treaty of Rome was an event of world-historical importance; one of the most momentous of the past seventy years. To mark the occasion, I want to strongly, enthusiastically recommend a terrific 1½ hour German documentary, Democracy, that I saw for the first time last October at the Festival du Cinéma Allemand in Paris, and with director David Bernet present (the film’s title in German carries the subtitle “Im Rausch der Daten”: inside the noise of data). The subject is the legislative process within the institutions of the European Union—and the European Parliament in particular—over the General Data Protection Regulation, a process that began in 2012 and lasted three years. ‘Democracy’ is, quite simply, the best behind-the-scenes documentary one will see on how the European Union actually works—of how EU legislation is crafted and adopted—and over an issue of great importance to the 500-odd million citizens of the Union’s member states—and who, thanks to the GDPR, will enjoy greater protection in regard to their personal information on the Internet than do Americans or others. Among other things, the documentary will also lay to rest any lingering notions of a “democratic deficit” in the institutions of the European Union (of a deficit greater than that in the institutions of any given member state, in any case). Here’s a synopsis from this website (and where a trailer with English subtitles may be seen)
Few things are more unwieldy and lacking in transparency than European politics. Who’s really running the show in Brussels? What’s the true role of the European Parliament or the Council of Ministers? And how do the new laws and regulations that apply to all 28 member states get made? For two years, Democracy followed several key figures behind the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation, a controversial issue among European policymakers. The film starts in 2014 with the European Parliament approving the new regulation, and then leaps two years back to the start of the negotiations. Rapporteur Jan Philipp Albrecht is the German Green Party [member of the European Parliament] tasked with steering and overseeing the entire process. We see him talking with lobbyists and civil rights activists, joining fringe gatherings and debates, participating in think tanks, talking with colleagues in the corridors of power, and reporting to EU Commissioner Viviane Reding [who held the Justice, Fundamental Rights, and Citizenship file]. Often patient but sometimes visibly frustrated, he counters opponents’ arguments about a new regulation that met particularly intense resistance from big businesses working with large amounts of personal data.
The documentary has protagonists and heroes, notably Jan Philipp Albrecht and the Luxembourgeoise Viviane Reding mentioned above, but also, among others, the citizens’ lobbyists Paolo Balboni of the European Privacy Association and Katarzyna Szymielewicz of the Warsaw-based Panoptykon Foundation. And, indirectly, Edward Snowden, who naturally makes an appearance. The stakes in the legislation were huge for big data-mining corporate interests—Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Amazon et al—but the only lobbyist interviewed on that side was from the Cary, North Carolina-based IT company SAS; I initially thought this was a shortcoming of the documentary, but, as one learns, the big data operators (Google et al), though omnipresent throughout, declined to be interviewed by director Bernet.
After seeing the film last October, I declared to all and sundry that every citizen of an EU member state should be obliged to see it—so as to see how the EU actually works—and that the film should also be screened in university courses on contemporary Europe. When I asked Bernet how one could obtain the DVD (and with English and French subtitles), he said to look on Amazon.de, so I had a copy ordered for a course I teach on European politics to American undergraduates on a semester abroad. As it happens, we watched it in class last week, with the students finding it most interesting—and one saying that she wanted to see it again—and a good discussion ensuing. The pedagogical value of the film was confirmed.
University of Cambridge technology law and policy specialist Julia Powles had a review essay on the film in The Guardian, “Democracy: the film that gets behind the scenes of the European privacy debate,” on its debut in Germany in November 2015. The lede: “As nationalism sweeps Europe, a subtle cinematic triumph about an unlikely subject animates the hopes of transnational democracy.”
Also see the review from June 2016 in ZDNet, by journalist Wendy M. Grossman, who specializes in IT and privacy issues, in which she writes that
Democracy is almost as extraordinary an achievement as the passage of the GDPR: Bernet manages to make data protection law and legislative compromise engrossing. Who knew that was even possible?
Film critic Jordan Mintzer has a review in The Hollywood Reporter, which begins
Watching a government at work can be akin to watching flies fornicate, so director David Bernet deserves credit for making the most out of a particularly tedious bureaucratic nightmare in Democracy, a rare and insightful glimpse into the inner workings of the European Parliament…
Two thoughts. First, Democracy is an excellent antidote to the half-baked, ill-informed Euroscepticism that presently pervades public opinion in the EU’s member states. Second, it makes Brexit that much more incomprehensible. Honestly, why would the Brits want to be left out of the legislative process one sees in the film, which will necessarily affect them whether they remain in the EU or leave? It makes no sense.