Participatory democracy is a tool. European Democracy is the goal


The Citizens Assembly which in Ireland paved the way to an historical referendum on gay marriage is a very often mentioned experience showing how revolutionary “participatory democracy” can prove to be. Indeed, enthusiasts of such a form of citizens direct deliberation believe it may be “the” remedy for sick democracies, due to the opportunity this methodology offers to bring citizens, experts and decision-makers all together and find common ground for shared solutions. Citizens Assembly seems to be such a Panacea for democracies, so why don’t we set-up one to bring Democracy in Europe?

Ahead of the Conference on the Future of Europe, a number of organizations, scholars and think tanks are indeed focused on the goal to grant citizens an effective role in the upcoming reforming process by setting-up participatory tools such as a Citizens Assembly. Coherently with experiences held around Europe (and outside Europe) the expected output would be a bottom-up major reform of EU, leading to a much needed revolutionary change toward a full democratic Europe. What best!

Since Citizens Assemblies proved to be able to succeed where institutional democracy failed, a participatory tool - such is a CA - becomes a shortcut for a goal - a democratic Europe.
This is a compelling vision indeed. Though there are (at least) two issues suggesting that what worked at national and local level may not work when it comes to a European dimension. These issues are inclusiveness and effectiveness.

European citizens don’t speak one but 27 different languages. A European Citizens Assembly should be arranged so to let participants express in their own native tongue. Pretending this is not a problem - or just an easily affordable one - is a mistake. Simultaneous translations can be used during the CA working times but cannot help people one-to-one discussions during coffee-breaks or later by email and social networks, so reducing the effective opportunities for spontaneous interaction.
While during a local or national-based CA personal relations among participants are a relevant asset for mutual understanding, in a multi-language environment this inter-personal opportunity would simply be missing, reducing the informal exchange to same-language citizens clusters. That’s indeed what usually happens within groups of people from different language environments assembled to work together. They interact in a shared second language if able to - which in most case is English - or by the support of translators, until they have some work to do together. Then they switch to their native tongue once work is finished, translators are home and they want just to enjoy chatting with their fellow colleagues while sipping a beer.

English may be the most spoken second language among Europeans, but it is not so for the most of Europeans - and those who would benefit more from taking part to a CA (or any other democratic means of participation) are those less likely to be multi-language speakers. Inclusiveness is a fundamental asset for democratic participation. Language may be an obstacle.

European citizens clearly have a phone number (or an email address) to call when they want to speak to whom is in charge in their city (the Mayor) or in their Government (the PM, the Chancellor, the President). Though, they don’t have a number to call when they want to speak to whom is in charge in Europe.

Europeans may already count on citizens institutional rights to democratic participation. They can submit ECIs to the Commission or Petitions to the Parliament - both tools are increasingly popular among organized civil society and activists, despite being very little known by ordinary citizens - who mostly lack knowledge of what one EU institution or the other is in charge of.

When they get engaged in a participatory process at a local or a national level, citizens know who will be responsible for the process they are in. The same can’t be said for Europe where power is shared among three EU institutions, with one of the three - a multi-national, not pan-european body such as the Council - charged with the final say which is usually a non-say. The Council - as known - needs unanimity to deliberate. There’s no reason to believe that one country - let’s say Poland - may feel somehow compelled by a citizens assembly deliberation asking for a European legislation enforcing gay marriage. Effectiveness of deliberation is, together with inclusiveness, crucial to Democracy.  

There’s plenty of evidence of how a responsible, informed citizens participation to democratic life may finally lead to an improved quality of decision-making. A well designed, effective, inclusive democratic, rule of law-based framework is beneficial to citizens as well as to institutions.

Experiences of participatory democracy have been held so far at local or national level. Some of them worked, some of them did not. It is not the tool CA - or the tool Participatory Budgeting, or the tool Public Debate - which change democracy. It is the whole institutional, regulatory and political framework where the participatory process is held which may prove effective.

The problem with Europe is that it lacks a democratic framework where people can understand what the rules are and who’s responsible for them. The Treaty is not equivalent to a Constitution, the EU Parliament is not equivalent to a national Parliament and the Commission is not equivalent to a Government. Above all, the EU Council is expression of divergent national interests and has no binding links with a wholly European citizenship - such as that which should be engaged in a European Citizens Assembly.
It is in such an institutional chaos that a Citizens Assembly for the Future of Europe would be established.

Pointing to Participatory Democracy without taking into account the pointless institutional context where it would be framed in could result in a mere rhetoric exercise. Such an unproductive result may finally undermine the purpose itself to engage citizens in an effective bottom-up democratic process for european reform.

Means shape goals. Democracy is based on cooperation - not contraposition - among citizens and institution. The only way I can figure out to shaping a future for Europe is a process where citizens and acting MEPs work together toward a common goal: a democratic, constitution-based Europe. Some named this goal “Republic of Europe”. I can’t deny it sounds to me dramatically more compelling than a generic claim for Participatory Democracy.


This article is part of the differnet perspectives and insights in preparation of the 1st Meeting of the Council on Participatory Democracy
***Learn more about the 1st Meeting of the Council on Participatory Democracy  and how you can participate in the debate ***