Democracy expert: CoFoE at risk of being PR exercise

Citizens and MPs discussing in the French speaking Parliament of Brussels

The Conference for the Future of Europe is well underway. Still, concerns have been raised from the get-go that citizens’ proposals might not be taken seriously or implemented fully by European lawmakers for various reasons. But there is still time to turn things around and for institutions to demonstrate they are listening to citizens, said Jonathan Moskovic in an interview with EURACTIV.

Jonathan Moskovic is the democratic innovation advisor to the president of the French-speaking Brussels parliament, Magali Plovie.

What is deliberative democracy, and why is it so innovative?

I can explain this by sharing my experience in Dublin observing the Irish citizens assembly back in 2012. Ireland was experiencing a financial and political crisis, as there was no consensus among different parties regarding certain polarised issues, such as same-sex marriage or abortion.

The country was then politically stuck, so they decided to randomly select 66 citizens and appoint 33 politicians to discuss the controversial issues and elaborate recommendations. They worked on this for a year and a half, meeting one weekend a month.

Interestingly, while I was following the same-sex marriage deliberation process, where Irish people were listening to each other and debating with politicians, the same weekend, there were violent protests in Paris against same-sex marriage.

Why do you think this is an interesting coincidence?

You might think that Ireland is less progressive than France. In that regard, it wasn’t. I discovered deliberative democracy is a more productive method to “depolarise” controversial issues. Deliberative democracy is a way of going back to the core principles of democracy, where free and equal citizens (and their representatives) make mutually acceptable and accessible decisions. Political parties fight and theatrically confront each other without finding a solution; citizens can do much better. 

Another example of deliberative democracy occurred in Belgium exactly 10 years ago. We didn’t have a government for 541 days, and because of that, a few citizen initiatives took place. For instance, the G1000 was a grassroots citizen initiative. We randomly selected a thousand citizens with stratified sampling (gender, age, geographic position, and other criteria), and we put them in a room to discuss. They debated on three different subjects that were proposed previously through an online platform. Another 32 citizens worked on the follow up of the proposals.

However, there was no concrete follow up from any institution at the time.

Do you have deliberative democracy experiments in the Brussels Parliament?

We are the first Parliament in the world to change our internal rules to institutionalise mixed committees between randomly selected citizens and MPs’. When citizens ask to discuss a particular topic, they send a “petition” with at least 1000 signatures to the Parliament. Then the conference of Presidents decides to launch a mixed committee.

To select citizens, we send 10 thousand letters to Brussels residents that are older than 16 years. Our selection considers, of course, stratified criteria to have a diverse representation, a snapshot of Brussels. Then we have three stages of discussion. In the first information stage, experts introduce the topic to all participants, citizens and MPs’ alike. In the second stage of deliberation, citizens and MPs’ discuss in divided groups with facilitators.  Finally, the last stage concerns the final formulation of recommendations and the vote.

At all stages, MPs and citizens debate on an equal footing. 9 months after the end of the third stage, a meeting takes place between MPs, citizens and the government on how the recommendations have been followed up. Politicians have to explain for every recommendation what they did, what they will do or eventually why they haven’t foreseen a proper follow-up.

Do you know that the structure you described of the G1000 and the Brussels deliberation is very similar to the CoFoE one?

Sure, but there are some significant differences here. Among others, the G1000 launched the political message that citizens deliberation can eventually reach an agreement much more easily than political parties in the Parliament. We didn’t expect to follow up by institutions.

If EU institutions hope to retain credibility, then CoFoE has to ensure a proper follow up of any recommendation that comes out of it. I have the impression that there still isn’t a clear idea about how recommendations will be followed up.

Furthermore, the online platform is the core of the CoFoE project. This is problematic because online platforms should support offline deliberation, not the other way around.


We know that citizens who participate in online debates are already interested in politics. Deliberative democracy aims to involve those who feel left behind and are hostile towards politics. It could have been more interesting to use the platform to discuss the agenda of the four areas of thematic panels.

For example, the G1000 platform didn’t collect inputs but supported the deliberation process through agenda-setting. It is the same idea with the Brussels platform “democratie. Brussels”, on which people can submit a petition that could become the discussed topic of the deliberative committee.

The CoFoE outlined a wide range of topics that have been included in the panels’ themes. Thematic panels mirror the areas discussed in the online platform.

They should have asked the public, “what would you like to discuss?”. With such a wide range of topics, there is the risk that recommendations will be very superficial. If the platform had been used to design the agenda of the panels, this would have not probably been the case.

So, you recommend choosing not too broad or too specific topics.

Exactly. That balance has to be decided with the citizens. By not consulting them on the agenda, CoFoE also risks bypassing important preoccupations that “ordinary” citizens may have.

Going back to the first difference you pointed out. What do you mean by the “follow up”?

I will make a premise here. When I heard that they were starting a deliberative democracy process at the EU level, I was excited and optimistic. However, after digging into the design, I came away with the impression that CoFoE resembles a PR initiative to show that the EU is listening to its citizens rather than promoting an actual deliberative process.

When we look at how CoFoE was prepared, more energy was invested into the pseudo pageant to select the CoFoE president instead of investing it into the most important part: the design of the process according to the OECD good practice standards of participation.

I can demonstrate what I am saying by coming back to follow-up. I can’t express enough that CoFoE still clearly has not explained how recommendations will be followed up. They generally said that MEPs would discuss them with delegates, and the three presidents of Commission, Council and the Parliament will assess them. That is not enough for a deliberative democracy process. A standard on the follow up must be outlined before starting.

We cannot ask citizens to spend their weekends deliberating if their proposals will be forgotten or strategically bypassed. We risk failing the process and alienating participants even more than before. Studies in the field show that if there isn’t a design for this, it is far better to don’t start the process.

What did you do in the Brussels Parliament to avoid the absence of a follow-up?

We decided to be completely transparent with citizens, we give them all the information, and we don’t tell them what they can and cannot discuss. It is against the main idea of deliberative democracy. In the introduction of every recommendation, we state what level of government has the authority to follow up on them. If the citizens’ recommendations concern the federal level of Belgium, the latter should do the follow-up.

Can a similar method be applied to the EU?

Absolutely. If the EU hasn’t the jurisdiction to deal with a recommendation, member states must step in.

What about the relations between participants and politicians? Are they managing well?

The idea of deliberative democracy processes is to rebuild confidence between citizens and the political system. According to our evaluation report in Brussels, by making MPs’ more accessible to citizens through our deliberative committees, 85% of the citizens who participated feel closer to MPs. But if the system remains crystallised by opposing citizens and MPs’, the entire process won’t rebuild any confidence.

We took two important measures to avoid power dynamics between MPs’ and citizens: first, we decided to train the MPs’ on how to behave constructively during deliberations, and second, we applied a 1 MP/3 citizen ratio to limit the possibilities of dominating the debate.

For the plenary session of the CoFoE, I fear that citizens will be quite invisible, as they will be a minority in proposing recommendations to MEPs. The danger of MPs’ not co-constructing the results is that parliamentarians who did not participate in the panels will see the result as challenging their authority and illegitimate.

What should definitely be avoided is “we cannot do anything with this because it is up to member states to make such a decision”. We should not let the Lisbon Treaty become so narrow that citizens no longer feel they have a place.

That is typically an answer that the Commission gives.  

Yes. I feel that the process will finish with institutions picking one, two or three main recommendations they like to show they are listening to citizens. This is not the way we should conceive citizens’ participation. Otherwise, we will give credence to an instrumental vision of deliberation. This is not about throwing citizens a bone. It is about systemic change.

So not only MEPs but also the Commissioner vice-president Dubravka Šuica, which is following the Conference, should participate and discuss with citizens in each session to make them feel at the same level?

This is an excellent proposal, which Ireland opted for ten years ago by including executive members in the constitutional convention. However, I think it is better to opt for co-construction between citizens and parliamentarians, as we do in Brussels, and then invite the executive branch to position itself both on the last day of the panel and during the follow-up event. Speaking of follow up events, people must see the day for all the CoFoE participants to come back on the way recommendations have been integrated…or not.

One problem experiencing the CoFoE is quite low media coverage. Can you explain why?

It is more interesting for the media to talk about confrontations among politicians or polarised debates than consensual deliberation. They are more attractive in our media landscape.

When I was in Ireland, as mentioned before, there was a lot of media attention about same-sex marriage and abortion debates. However, the media attention centred around the referendum, which presented a binary polarized vision it craved instead of the previous mixed assembly.

In that regard, I can say it is not a mistake of the CoFoE. The core problem is that deliberative democracy challenges the role of the media in our current society.

In brief, do you have any final suggestions?

In these uncertain times, where climate change and the COVID-19 epidemic are the most pressing challenges we are facing, one could believe that citizen participation is only accessory or cosmetic in the face of these major issues. It is true the opposite.

More than ever, we need citizens to be involved in helping design a long term vision for society. The CoFoE can make history and become the first experience in the world that involves citizens to answer the great stakes of society through the prism of ambition and social justice. Or it can be known as the conference that ignored its own recommendations, frustrated the citizens who placed their hope and time in the initiative.

[Edited by Alice Taylor]


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