Brussels is buzzing with talk of the forthcoming Conference on the Future of Europe. The Commission, the Council and the Parliament have all been thinking individually about how to plan the future governance of the EU, in a two-year process that will involve all the institutions, and which – we are promised – will have citizen voices as a central part of the process. 

Compare the approach with that of the Convention on the Future of Europe, in 2002-3, and how times have changed! The network society, the rise of participation, and the demonstrable success of deliberative reform processes in Ireland and elsewhere have made citizens the essential partners in these processes, and shown that there are ways to bring a wide range of different voices into some of the most difficult political questions. 

However, now the inter-institutional negotiations are starting, and the compromises are about to be struck on how the Conference will actually happen. During that process, citizen voices won’t be in the room. So we’ve taken it on ourselves, over the next few days, to set out the citizen negotiating position for those negotiations. We don’t presume to know what citizens think. They think all sorts of things, that’s the point of asking them. Rather, what’s the best way to bring them into the conversation – based on the ideas already proposed by the different institutions.  

The proposals that have been set out in the different positions of Council, Commission and Parliament are positive, but they are incomplete and not very well aligned. If you took a rough average and implemented that, citizens would be involved to an extent but they would not be truly engaged in the decision making process.

No-one is asking for citizens to be at the Council table when the final decisions are taken, staring down the leaders of Europe. However, a broad and deliberative process can ensure they are more than one set of opinions among many. Citizen voices could set the broad framework within which the institutions and other stakeholders find the best ideas and reflect on their compromises – and in the process create a success story for European democracy.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with some basics.

What does good look like?

Democratic Ambition: dialogue must be a two way interaction. Citizen participation cannot just be consultative and must include citizens from the earliest stage, including how to shape their own involvement and decide on topics. 

European Connections: This project should not be a Europe-wide series of national conversations, but must instead find a way for participants to discuss issues across national boundaries.

Well informed: it must include an information element, at the very least for those involved in deliberation, but ideally more widely. Participants must understand the policy context to ensure that the process has as many applicable recommendations as possible, but we also need to make sure that policy officials understand human stories and the importance of lived experience and expertise.

A learning process: this should not be a standalone project, but the beginning of a culture change throughout the EU and institutions. If done well, this Conference can be used to develop democratic skills and confidence, that will influence future work and embolden citizens to demand a role in decision making.

Process recommendations: the process should be designed to ensure that some of the recommendations to come out of the conference are specifically about how to continue and deepen democratic participation in European decision making. We should be asking citizens how best to include them, and how they think participation in the EU should work. 

Lasting relationships: at the end of the Conference of the Future of Europe the aim should be to keep connected with all those who participated and to cultivate the networks and relationships that have been created. This is an essential element of  creating a European public sphere for the longer term.

Case studies

Ireland: In 2012 Ireland held a Convention on the Constitution, asking 66 randomly-selected citizens and 33 politicians to discuss eight topics selected by the Oireachtas (Parliament) and two they had selected themselves, and to come up with recommendations for constitutional change. All of these recommendations were responded to by the Government, and six were accepted including: ‘on marriage equality, reducing the voting age to 16, reducing the age threshold for candidacy for Presidential elections, [and] removing the offence of blasphemy from the Constitution’. This was followed, between 2016 and 2018 with a series of citizens consultations, which most famously set the terms for the referendums on same sex marriage and abortion rights.

Scotland: The Scottish Government, is currently running a citizens assembly. 100 broadly representative citizens will meet over the course of six weekends in late 2019 and early 2020. The conversation aims to find common ground on Scotland’s future direction, in the context of Brexit and the Government’s plans for a future independence referendum. Discussions are centred around three broad questions about the future of the country and the recommendations that come out of this process will be set out in a report that will be laid in the Scottish Parliament.

UK: There has been a proposal for a Citizen Convention on UK Democracy, as one of the responses to the significant constitutional change in the UK. A multi-stage process, with an open call for ideas followed by thematic then collective deliberation, was published by a group hosted by King’s College London in summer 2019.

Ostbelgien: In February 2019, the German-speaking community of Belgium became the world’s first region to approve a far-reaching form of citizen participation – a sitting assembly drafted by lot. As of September 2019, the parliament will install a citizens’ council, or Buürgerrat, comprising 24 citizens who will each serve 18 months to determine the broad outlines of the policy together with politicians. With 100 signatures, citizens will be able to bring a theme to the attention of the citizens’ council. Once the citizen council has chosen the themes, these will go to the citizens assemblies, or Bürgerversammlungen, made up of approximately 50 people who will meet for three weekends over three months. It is these assemblies that will make the final recommendations, which the parliament will be bound to respond to within two hearings. This is the most important aspect of this form of citizen participation in that the parliament is obliged to put it into practice the proposals put forward by the council or explain why they will not do so. The fact that this is a long-term deliberative exercise with a clear link to politics makes it a unique experiment.

Gdansk: In the summer of 2016, the city of Gdansk experienced severe flooding that caused millions of euros in damage and took the lives of two residents. Unwilling to accept the city’s lack of preparedness against a situation that was to worsen in the face of climate change, environmentalist and activist, Marcin Gerwin, successfully persuaded the Mayor’s office to organise a citizens’ assembly to better prepare for extreme rainfall. Over the course of four Saturdays, 60 citizens chosen via random selection software came together to hear expert testimonies and devised strategies for flood mitigation. What made this citizen assembly ground-breaking, however, was the fact that the Mayor had committed to adopting proposals that received at least 80% of the participants support. The final 16 proposals included investment in monitoring systems and infrastructure, incentives to improve water management on personal property, and an educational campaign to highlight emergency resources – schemes that have resulted in the city responding faster to flooding. All of this has led to the Gdansk example being considered a well-designed public problem-solving exercise with the potential to respond to ‘formidable challenges’.

France: As a result of the ‘gilets jaunes’ protests, President Macron launched the Great Debate, a two month period of citizen engagement in the form of consultations, debates, discussions, and citizen proposals. The aim was to give citizens a voice on the development of public policies that concern them. Four themes of discussion were chosen by the government, and anyone could organise an event to contribute on one of those themes, or give their opinion on a dedicated website. More than one and a half million citizens participated, with 1,932,884 online contributions, 10,134 local meetings, 16,337 municipalities passing on citizens’s submissions, and 27,374 letters and emails received. This was followed by a similar process on climate change, called the Citizen Conventions for the Climate, which is currently underway.

The particular challenges of European scale processes – language, culture and politics – mean that none of these examples can just be copied directly. The scale of ambition in the question also means that a single approach alone will probably not work. However, cumulatively these projects provide lessons – both positive and negative – that can help to make the most of the Conference on the Future of Europe. Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at what the different institutions are proposing. 

Original source – The Democratic Society

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