Restoring citizens to the forefront of democratic decision making

Auteur Marcel Grignard

Chairman Confrontations Europe

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The Conference of the Future of Europe, which has been announced by the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen, and which is organised by the Commission, the Council and the Parliament, will start in 2020 and run for two years. Its aim is to involve a representative sample of the civil society and to allow citizens to reform the EU.  Such an approach cannot avoid an analysis of the deep crisis faced by the representative democracies in Europe and  the reasons of the gap (even the distrust) between the citizens and the European institutions.

Seminar 13 November 2019 in partnership with Osife

Introduction

The European institutions are beginning a new term of office amid a crisis in representative democracy and myriad other challenges (climate, migration, economic transformation brought about by fierce competition between the major powers, social inequality, and so on).

To assert its sovereignty, Europe must overcome divisions and national retrenchment through citizen involvement and empowerment. The European Union has taken a significant step in this direction with the European Citizens’ Consultations, but how can we move beyond this limited and inherently flawed experiment? This is the question that Confrontations Europe attempted to address at the seminar on 13 November.

The seminar was part of a reflection on citizen participation and on the need to reform the European Project that Confrontations Europe has supported for years, and it built on the latter’s work and commitments.

  1. A context of crisis in representative democracy and in the European institutions.

 Citizen distrust in institutions and politicians runs deep: according to the latest Eurobarometer survey, just 34% of Europeans trust their national parliament (25% in France).

  This crisis in representative democracy is reflected in the rise of neo-populist parties, the growing divide between ordinary people and the elite, and the promotion of direct democracy tools (some are calling for a citizens’ initiative referendum and the right to dismiss elected officials). Political movements that advocate direct democracy now account for 25% of the vote, compared with just 10% 25 years ago.

There are several reasons for the crisis in representative democracy[1]:

It is difficult to translate general government objectives into policy that anticipates and considers the impact on the everyday lives of all citizens (for example, the “yellow vest” movement stemmed from a government decision to introduce a carbon tax). This reflects a failure on the part of politicians to listen to and understand citizens’ problems.

  • The problems to be addressed are increasingly complex and intertwined. At the same time, the means of public debate are changing. The Internet fosters both communication and social isolation. Social media and their algorithms are polarising and radicalising opinions.
  • The high degree of polarisation in national political systems is being exacerbated by attempts to address it through a top-down approach, which is effectively undermining efforts to bridge the gap between representative democracy and citizens.

In the European Union, political decision making has become complicated and difficult, especially since the current context (including population change) is challenging the established order and encouraging choices based on a form of social regression.

 The expectations of Europe’s citizens.

In 2019, participation in the European Parliament elections increased significantly. It was the highest since 1994, when the context was very different (reunification had not yet taken place and the Euro – which was and still is a controversial issue – had not been introduced).

This confirmed the growing sense of Europe’s necessity (as evidenced by the Fondapol survey, among several others). At the same time, history has proven that solidarity and cooperation between European nations are vital to their future place in the world. Global warming, migration patterns, the generational changeover and the demographic situation in Europe all strongly suggest that our countries will be unable to address future challenges alone, while the United States has made it very clear that it will focus exclusively on its own interests, and China could prove to the whole world that it is possible to be both authoritarian and highly successful on a material level.

 By reasserting the necessity of Europe, European citizens are confirming their desire for strong government and for the possibility of political intervention for the common good. But these common sentiments are expressed in two contradictory ways: some Europeans support the European project as the most effective means of strengthening market regulation instruments in the current context, while others vote for political movements that disagree with the European Union.

But citizens who disagree with the European Union do not necessarily want to leave it. Nationalist leaders have understood this, and seem ambiguous and embarrassed about their EU membership (Orban, Le Pen, Salvini, etc.).

There is a demand to protect those who feel threatened by aggressive globalisation. And for more than 20 years, the most important issue for Europeans has been work and employment (access to the labour market, vocational training, etc.).  This is followed by immigration (connected with the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015). Neither institutional nor environmental issues are a priority for Europe’s citizens.

And their conviction that Europe is necessary contradicts the doubts they have about Europe’s ability to act. The public perception is that European policy and its implementation have failed to keep pace with the speed at which the situation is deteriorating. As a result, citizens are questioning the representativeness and legitimacy of Europe’s institutions.

 The European Parliament, which is elected by Europe’s citizens, has just demonstrated at the European Commissioner hearings that its power is quite real. Each government is represented in the European Council, and is accountable to its national parliament. But this democracy is regularly criticised for being too elitist and obscure, and is widely believed to be ruled by diplomats and technocrats who are out of touch with ordinary people. The discrediting of political parties is undermining the legitimacy of the candidates they put forward for election. The Spitzenkandidaten process (which has its disadvantages) has been called into question. Not everyone agrees with the concept of transnational lists.

The institutions seem out of touch with citizens, whereas the latter are interested in the European debate when the issues at stake are comprehensible and will affect their future[2]. Besides the general objectives pursued by the institutions, citizens have no insight into what the European Union might look like in the future.

  1. Participatory democracy to preserve Europe’s democratic heritage

Europeans share a strong political and democratic heritage (based on rule of law, fundamental freedoms, citizen equality, democratic procedures, etc.) and all the surveys show that they are very attached to it.

 However, it takes a different form depending on the country. German democracy was founded in 1949, shifting away from a direct relationship with citizens. Estonia, the Irish Republic and Iceland use a deliberative form of democracy.  Countries with a federalist tradition view democracy differently to those (such as France) with an absolute republican tradition. Europeans also have different relationships to liberalism.

Representative democracy is an integral part of this heritage. It allows every individual to take part in decisions that will affect their collective fate, and protects human freedoms and rights. But it is increasingly fragile.

Participatory democracy fosters high-quality deliberation and reconnects citizens with the political process.  It has the potential to push out the boundaries of representative democracy and to give it new legitimacy. However, it must address the risk of leaving behind the most marginalised members of society (due to their social situation, cultural capital, family responsibilities, etc.).

From a community perspective, the fact that democratic trajectories and practices differ from one European country to another must be taken into consideration.

Participatory democracy must be organised within the territories to ensure that this cultural diversity is taken into account and that as many people as possible are involved, to allow concrete problems to be addressed, eliminate social isolation and create a territorial dynamic (including through European initiatives such as Erasmus+). Achieving effective citizen participation calls for in-depth cultural and practical changes within representative democratic systems and the institutions. Citizens must be able to see the results of their participation. The link between participatory democracy and representative democracy is a key factor. The challenge lies in routinising deliberation, which means deciding on an overall method and progressive phases.

4 – European Citizens’ Consultations: benefits and limitations.

 Prior to the European Parliament elections in spring 2019 (from April to October 2018), each Member State organised citizens’ consultations to give people the opportunity to voice their expectations regarding the future of the EU.

Each Member State developed its own approach to the citizens’ consultation process. In France, civil society organisations (local authorities, schools, associations, institutions, private-sector undertakings, etc.) organised over 1,000 official events. In other countries, there were far less, or indeed very few at all.

At the same time, an online consultation was carried out based on a survey prepared by a panel of 100 randomly selected citizens from across the entire European Union.

 In many respects, these citizens’ consultations represented a qualitative leap forward in the relationship between citizens and institutions (acculturation to citizen participation within the institutions), and the feedback of citizens’ expectations to these institutions is a first. They really changed attitudes regarding the need for participatory processes.

However, besides creating the general conditions for effective participatory democracy, the inherent limitations of these citizens’ consultations must be measured:

  • The challenges of replacing the customary conference format with interactive discussion, and reaching a different public to usual;
  • The varying levels of national involvement: many citizens’ consultations in France, Luxembourg and Belgium, and very few in other countries (Germany, etc.).

Conclusion

If Europe fails to respond effectively to labour market, economic, social and environmental issues, it will be side-lined; it will not withstand attempts to call it into question, and the time will come when national retrenchment will take the upper hand.

A “Green Deal” and a Conference on the Future of Europe are two of the main priorities put forward by the new institutions.  The Conference on the Future of Europe is expected to begin in 2020, last for two years, and establish the EU’s priorities based on the preoccupations of its citizens. It should address the development of a permanent mechanism for citizen participation.

Theoretically, this initiative recognises the need to involve citizens in discussions on the future of the European Union. But will the methods be equal to the democratic challenges?

We are expecting a process that breaks with the top-down approach to democratic debate and aims to establish a dialogue at the local level based on methods adapted to national cultures and practices, while fostering discussion and education in order to gradually develop a common European democratic language. This will require a huge change of mindset, which should be fully embedded in the Conference on the Future of Europe, and should allow territorial and business stakeholders to play a significant role. The relationship between national parliaments and the European Parliament should – as part of a bottom-up approach – be integrated into these future processes to finally give real meaning to subsidiarity.

The challenge is not so much to give citizens a role in defining general goals but to involve them in the implementation of these goals within approaches tailored to different needs, and within territorial approaches.

Conversely, an institutional response, the prospect of treaty changes not resulting from a participatory democratic process could well be in vain and could exacerbate what are already deep divisions.

[1] See the Fondapol study of 42 democracies published in June 2019, http://www.fondapol.org/debats/presentation-de-lenquete-democraties-sous-tension-a-bratislava-et-a-vienne/

[2] In July 2015, 45 million people watched the debate between Greece’s Prime Minister and the European Parliament about the plan put forward by the troika.