Citizens' Assemblies Must be Part of European Commission’s “Defence of Democracy” Package

In response to a recently announced “Defence of Democracy” initiative to protect EU democracies from covert foreign influence, experts from DemocracyNext, G1000, and FIDE (Federation for Innovation in Democracy Europe) say the initiative risks falling dangerously short and must be strengthened by including deliberative democracy—using the proven model of Citizens’ Assemblies—as a defining feature. 

“Citizens’ Assemblies should be a central part of our thinking about security and resilience against foreign interference,” said Claudia Chwalisz, founder and CEO of DemocracyNext and co-designer of the Paris Citizens’ Assembly. “This is not a time for piecemeal reforms that risk failing to deliver the change we need to counter the tide of autocracy. We have the chance to begin to shift toward a deeper, more resilient paradigm of democracy in Europe. Let’s not miss it.”

"If the Conference on the Future of Europe has taught us one thing," said David Van Reybrouck, founder and director of G1000, " then surely it is that everyday citizens are willing and able to engage meaningfully with complex, European policy challenges. The future of Europe should not be discussed without involving Europe."

The European Commission’s “Defence of Democracy” package consists of plans to strengthen regulations on transparency of political advertising and funding of European political parties, as well as ensure the electoral rights of ‘mobile EU citizens’. While these are welcome steps, they only provide a minimal backstop to counter the vulnerability of EU democracies to foreign actors. To meaningfully resist covert foreign interference and autocratic tendencies in the region, we should be focusing on strengthening European democracy by investing in the resilience of its citizens and making elements that have proven to work central to the "Defence of Democracy" package. This is not the case at the moment.

Europe can build on progress that has already been made. Over the past several decades, governments across Europe and beyond have been reaping the benefits of deliberative processes, such as Citizens’ Assemblies, that bring together a group of people broadly representative of society, giving them the time and resources to grapple with complexity, learn from experts and stakeholders, listen to one another, and find common ground on challenging policy issues.  

A recent OECD study has documented a global “deliberative wave” with over 600 cases of Citizens’ Assemblies with random samples of participants. Citizens’ Assemblies have been proven an effective method that can help to tackle the underlying drivers of challenges to democratic institutions – giving citizens a meaningful say in shaping decisions affecting their lives to counteract the feeling of powerlessness, helping strengthen trust between governments and citizens, and leading to better decisions on complex public problems. By making citizens central to democracy, they recognise everyone’s right to meaningful power to shape their societies. Designed to include the diversity of people that are not usually at the decision making table, often disillusioned with politics, and bringing people selected by lot to hear from each other, deliberate and come to a shared decision, they reduce polarisation and build trust. By giving people time to hear from stakeholders and learn from various sources, they help counter misinformation, not only for those in the room, but also the broader society following the Assembly. These skills of critical thinking, reaching out for multiple sources before making decisions, and interest in public life continue to accompany those who took part in a deliberative process throughout their lives.

Citizens’ Assemblies enhance the transparency of the decision making process as it is built-in in their design: all stakeholders wanting to speak to the members of the Assembly have equal time allocated and their list is disclosed to the public, making back-room deals difficult and strengthening integrity. All of the information Members’ use to guide their deliberation is made available online. Members aren't pitted against each other across partisan fault lines and are there to find common ground. The presence of observers and evaluators ensures the democratic integrity of the process.

“Elections can be influenced by foreign powers, indeed they already have in many countries. Citizens’ Assemblies are less vulnerable to mass disinformation operations, because they are based on principles of random selection and in-person deliberation in which citizens hear from experts and have ample time to deliberate,” said Ieva Česnulaitytė, DemocracyNext Founding Head of Research and Learning. 

Česnulaitytė and Chwalisz are authors of OECD reports analysing Citizens’ Assemblies at all levels of government, tackling issues from abortion to climate change, infrastructure investment, some of which have recently evolved into permanent models.

The EU has been a trailblazer of applying deliberative methods on a transnational level over the past several years. In her State of the EU Speech in September 2022, Ursula Von Der Leyen reiterated the EU’s commitment to strengthening democracy and continuing the use of Citizens’ Panels for EU policy making. The European Commission has demonstrated its priorities more broadly by officially supporting the deliberative democracy cohort of the upcoming President Biden’s Summit for Democracy 2022, which recognises that investing in deliberative democracy is an effective way of combating the underlying drivers that create conditions of authoritarianism to flourish. The European Commission has already joined the ‘deliberative wave’ with the Conference on the Future of Europe. 

“It is strange that the EU would not include deliberative methods in this package while at the same time saying that they are a method that they will themselves use to make the EU more democratic,” said Yves Dejaeghere, executive director of the Federation for Innovation in Democracy Europe (FIDE). “The EU has recently established The Competence Centre on Participatory and Deliberative Democracy and is increasing the know-how on these methods throughout its own administration. It should be the trailblazer to spread and support Citizens’ Assemblies throughout Europe to counter democratic stagnation and even backsliding. The EU wants to be a force for innovation in all fields of policy, but now it seems that with the outline for this package, in the crucial field of democracy they are lacking ambition to be a frontrunner.” 

Yves Dejaeghere was coordinator at the G1000 organisation for the expert groups that established the Permanent Citizens’ Council of the German-speaking region in Belgium and for FIDE to establish the Permanent Paris Citizens’ Assembly.

As the war rages in Ukraine, time is of the essence. The young democracies on Europe's eastern frontier face the ever growing spectre of autocracy, as their people grow more disillusioned with democratic practices that fail to deliver on their promises and engage everyday people in making decisions that affect their lives. This is a fertile ground to the rise of polarisation, populism, and deteriorating trust, as demonstrated by recent democratic backslide in Hungary and Poland. Not to mention they are also the primary and most vulnerable targets of the information war from their authoritarian neighbours. 

We are at a pivotal moment of the shift towards the new paradigm of democracy in Europe. Let’s make it count.

To speak with Chwalisz, Česnulaitytė, or other DemocracyNext experts, contact Ansel Herz at hello@demnext.org

To speak with Dejaeghere, email info@fide.eu 

DemocracyNext

DemocracyNext is an international non-profit, non-partisan research and action institute. Our mission is to design and build new institutions for the next democratic paradigm of citizen participation, representation by lot, and deliberation. We want to create a more just, joyful, and collaborative future where everyone has meaningful power to shape their societies.

G1000

G1000 is the Belgian platform for democratic innovation. We develop and support new forms of citizen participation. We are active in municipalities, cities, regions and on national level. We are also involved in various international networks.

FIDE

FIDE is an international non-profit organization dedicated to the participation of everyday citizens in policy-making. Based on the extensive experience of our members, we see deliberative democratic methods and the use of civic lotteries as the optimal way to achieve this goal and strengthen representative democracy. 

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