Promise of democratic renewal or shaky idea? Recommendations for the Conference on the Future of Europe

Camille Dobler |

Can participatory democracy be the solution to the EU’s democratic deficit? This seems to be the European Commission’s intention with launching the Conference on the Future of Europe. If this is to work, the Conference must however itself be democratically legitimate. Based on past experiences, Camille Dobler gives four recommendations for citizens’ consultations.

A wooden dome on a public square

The European Public Sphere project travelled Europe with a mobile wooden dome, inviting citizens to discuss the future of Europe © Public Sphere Tour,  Democracy International, Cologne, 2018

Can participatory democracy be the solution to the EU’s so-called ‘democratic deficit’? With the Conference on the Future of Europe, the European Commission and the European Parliament are betting to ‘increase legitimacy and trust in our Union’ by promoting new forms of citizens’ participation. Challenge accepted! But for the Conference to mend the EU’s democratic deficit, it must first itself be democratically legitimate, lest it exacerbates those very same problems it claims to address. The political significance of the Conference can only be as high as its capacity to meet basic standards of input and procedural legitimacy. Fortunately, it does not start from scratch. Here are four take-aways from past experiences of citizens’ consultations.

A Conference, not a Convention

The Conference was first a wish from French President Emmanuel Macron. Ursula von der Leyen made it an electoral promise in July 2019 and part of her agenda for Europe as president of the European Commission. A position from the Council is still pending, but the idea of involving citizens in shaping the Future of Europe is settled.

A ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’: the choice of ‘conference’ over ‘convention’ might itself be confusing. First, who wants to be reminded of the Convention of the Future of Europe (2002-2003), which drafted the Constitutional Treaty that was rejected by 61.6 and 54.7 per cent of Dutch and French voters, respectively? This failure still haunts academic debates about the EU’s democratic deficit and looms over political discussions about the Union’s future. Second, a conference sounds much less participatory and deliberative than a convention.

The Constitutional Convention gathered 105 representatives from national parliaments, EU institutions, Member and Candidate States’ governments. This time, the three EU institutions agree that the Conference should involve citizens regularly and intensively by putting them at the heart of the process. Better, they argue, the Conference should be a European-wide participatory democratic exercise: citizens’ rather than experts’ deliberations.

Past experiences of citizens’ consultations

The Conference does not build in a vacuum: over the last years, several EU member states have carried out citizens’ consultations. Ireland established a Citizens’ Assembly for the second time in 2019 with an institutionalised follow-up mechanism. In Belgium, the German-speaking community will soon have a Citizens’ Council working alongside its parliament. The French Citizens’ Convention for Climate was set up in 2019 after the government carried out a nation-wide cycle of political debates following the Yellow Vests uprising.

The EU itself has been pro-active in reaching out and empowering European citizens over the last decade. Most notably through the European Citizens Initiative and  Citizens’ Dialogues since 2012, the White Paper debate and the online consultation on the Future of Europe since 2017, and the European citizens’ consultations (2018-2019).

We can learn important lessons from all those attempts. First, they often fail to be inclusive and to bring together participants who are representative of the population, with an over-representation of pensioners and higher-educated citizens living in urban areas, while minorities, citizens living in rural areas and more modest socio-professional categories are under-represented. The 1,500 citizens’ dialogues held by the European Commission have overwhelmingly attracted the former, falling short of meeting the basic criteria for participatory democracy to be legitimate: representativeness of participants (input legitimacy).

Second, the quality of the procedure for citizens’ participation itself (procedural legitimacy) often leaves much to be desired. The most recent citizens’ consultations severely lacked a shared methodological design. In the Netherlands, consultations consisted of surveys, one online dialogue and eight focus groups. By the end of 2018, Italy had not held any, Germany had held 119 dialogues while Polish authorities had organised 15. In most cases, the format mirrored citizens’ dialogues and led to a similar bias, with a clear lack of political independence in some countries.

Four main recommendations

How then can the EU optimise the chances that, this time, participatory democracy will be successful, and not merely window-dressing?  As the current process is in its early stage, with the three EU institutions still to agree on its scope and organisation, here are four recommendations derived from ten years of European democratic experimentation and ongoing research on citizens’ engagement on European integration.

1. Give a clear mandate. Why engage with citizens? Do we want to listen or do we want to share decision-making? It makes little sense for the Conference to be another consultation exercise, since we already know from Eurobarometers and reports what citizens are most concerned about. Rather, citizens could be entrusted to actively contribute to drafting policy proposals, or at least revise, improve or reject existing ones.

2. Do not fear random selection of participants. There is a decent track record to prove that random selection works. If citizens’ consultations remain a top-down initiated process, selecting participants randomly rather than on a first-come, first-served basis would optimise chances that all citizens are reached. Political polarisation is the biggest challenge to European integration, thus it is imperative that the Conference be a place for the representation and expression of all views, to find common ground.

3. Follow a structured and standardised format. If more than one agora is to take place, they should all follow the same structure. This makes it easier to aggregate and compare results, and harder to question their legitimacy. The same goes for the moderation and organisation of discussions, which should also be politically independent.

4. Boost deliberation. The argumentative capacity of citizens, their ability to engage in high-level discussions on constitutional issues, and to learn and engage on technical subjects are no longer a question, researchers have shown. However, deliberation needs time, appropriate assistance and trust, and the organisation must encourage the co-elaboration of ideas. Work in smaller groups is strongly recommended.

After the Conference, who decides?

The better the process, the higher the stakes and the steeper the fall: can the Conference develop into a promise of renewal, or will it end up further frustrating partly disillusioned citizens? No outcome would only confirm public opinion that representative democracy is immune to the voices of citizens, and the biggest challenge is to move from citizens’ proposals to political decision-making. This is where the European Citizens Initiative stumbles.

Loïc Blondieux has nicely theorised the challenges of combining different democratic paradigms, and of adding legitimacy derived from participatory assemblies to the legitimacy of elected institutions. Difficult, but not impossible. Successful examples do exist, such as the Irish Constitutional Convention and the French Citizens’ Convention for Climate (although its final outcomes are still pending). What these two cases have in common is a strong and clear political commitment of governments to deliver, by submitting the citizens’ proposals either to a referendum, or to an ordinary legislative procedure, with the aim to transpose them into executive decisions. Surely, the EU can commit to the latter two.