In her closing speech at the Conference of the Future of Europe (CoFoE), Ursula von der Leyen made a historic declaration on the fundamental role of citizen participation. This has allowed reflection on another historical instant in the Brussels Parliament, writes Magali Plovie.
Magali Plovie is the President of the Brussels French-speaking Parliament and initiator of the Brussels deliberative committees in 2020.
A few weeks before the launch of the CoFoE, the Brussels Parliament hosted the first mixed deliberative committee of randomly selected citizens and elected representatives. This was the first time a public body had institutionalised this kind of mixed deliberative process.
Despite the European and the Brussels parliaments being a few kilometres of distance apart, the two institutions did not share ideas or best practices to design a deliberative democracy exercise. In particular, EU institutions have demonstrated little forethought to allow connecting local grievances and translational ones.
Rely on politicians
There is no doubt that CoFoE proved to be a profoundly transformative experience for both the citizens and politicians involved in it; participants of deliberative assemblies are often left feeling that they were part of something deeply important.
As a participant in the Brussels Parliament deliberation process said, “I am sure that this will raise our awareness and encourage [citizens] to get involved in the future.”
Our challenge now, as politicians, is to make sure that this feeling does not turn into the bitter realisation that the citizens’ time was used in vain.
We must ensure that their work will be translated into laws to change and challenge the EU and member states’ current institutional assets and policies.
Similarly, the transformative experience of CoFoE must avoid disappointing people who participated in it and eventually become the rule instead of a mere exception.
The EU needs a long-term and multi-pronged deliberative vision, a model that coherently weaves together different forms of citizen participation to pierce every impenetrable rung of the institutional ladder from the citizen halls of local villages to the mirror-like façades of the European institutions. A model based on transparency and inclusion, with citizens at the centre.
What would this look like
If we draw inspiration from the Brussels model, one could imagine that you could be called to your local parliament to discuss alongside fellow randomly selected citizens a contemporary issue.
You spend a week or two on this question, facilitated by the new political holidays and political pay implemented to ensure that citizen deliberation is taken seriously and accessible to all.
You are overseen by professional moderators and informed by experts. You pour over files designed to be as pedagogical as possible, ask questions and get specific answers, deliberate with your peers, and draft a series of recommendations collected in a report that testify to the local or national stance.
You are then selected as one of a few delegates from that citizens’ assembly to travel to Brussels and sit amongst your homologs from other European states. You will contribute to shaping the European horizon that will steer the continent in a general direction.
Back in your national deliberative committees, amongst your peers and your MPs this time, you present the European Citizens Assembly’s recommendations and the general thinking behind them.
Now, you go home knowing that you have been an essential part of shaping the future and that your peers will build on your work to decide how the recommendations you have presented to them shall be implemented.
You stay informed, participate in local panels and forums, contribute to agenda-setting online/offline, and have an incentive to stay involved because, at any moment in the coming years, you could be called upon to be a part of some other form of citizen deliberation.
From utopia to reality
What some may see as a utopia, I see as vital. It has, quite literally, become a question of maintaining democratic legitimacy and bridging the gulf that our lack of political ambition and vision has dug for too long.
We forget how young our democracies really are. A mere sixty years ago, none of the institutions we take for established even existed.
Europe is at a crossroads: business as usual could sign its doom, and a bit of imagination could establish it as the global bastion of democracy and solidarity.
CoFoE proved it could be done, even if the method needs improvement. The question now becomes: will CoFoE be anecdotal, or can it be the first of many incrementally better and permanent citizens’ deliberations?