Citizens’ Assembly can chip away at EU trust deficit

Only through this kind of democratisation process can Europe’s social model overcome the decision-making of technocrats who are far removed from ordinary life

People taking part in the fourth European Citizens Panel
People taking part in the fourth European Citizens Panel

Over the last decade, citizens’ mistrust towards national and European institutions and political elites has persisted: giving rise to new political movements that seem to pursue populist, nationalist and anti-European discourses, as alternatives to the federalist solutions. 

But the experience of the Conference on the Future of Europe - which ran from October 2020 until April 2022 - seems to have offered us a shift in the way Europe forges the paths ahead for its political evolution. 

Over the past decade, the European Union has broadly retained the usual institutionalised, Brussels-based system, in which MEPs canvass citizens, industry, lobbyists and experts alike, in a to-and-fro with the EU’s executive and elected leaders to develop the way forward.

The Conference on the Future of Europe has been a clear step away from this model, with a ‘citizen-led’ approached that started with an online platform to collect ideas from EU citizens, and the use of citizen panels that hosted European citizens and EU experts in conferences and dialogues. 

The success of the CFOE could provide a new model for further democratisation of the EU, even though the clear disparity between citizen-led initiatives and the ‘realpolitik’ of Brussels experts, and the government ministers who call the shots at Council level, cannot be so easily bridged.

But it is clear that democratisation of the EU cannot be simply extended to entities that include industrial and social stakeholders, lobbies, or parliaments – the citizenry needs to be allowed a role of unfettered contribution to a dialogue that is also organic. The digital age has allowed this to become even more possible. 

It is clear that the urgency to rethink the role of Europen citizens at this time of great digital transition and post-industrial evolution, requires greater trust from the EU institutions; as does the need to phase out dependence on Russian energy and the call for carbon neutrality. This means emulating the CFOE’s inclusive instrument for participatory democracy beyond national parliaments. 

This in fact forms the backbone of a call for a permanent European Citizens Assembly that could become part of the EU institutions: as yet another way of bridging the decision-making inside Brussels, with the need for a popular voice that properly communicates the social and economic realities on the ground. 

The manifesto for the European Citizens Assembly by Citizens Take Over Europe is one such initiative, backed by NGOs who demand more democracy from the EU, and who see the Conference on the Future of Europe as groundwork for such a forum for deliberative democracy. 

As proposed in their manifesto, the key feature of a Citizens’ Assembly is the direct involvement of citizens, drawn by lot and gathered to represent the cultural identities and the diversity of society – beyond partisan divisions, particular interests and nationalities – in the decision-making process. 

They see the ECA as a possibly powerful, new participatory pillar that can serve the greater good, including on politically sensitive and technical issues. 

Digital platforms and online consultations remain powerful instruments for transnational deliberation, but they can also promote a digital divide. And this is why a European Citizens’ Assembly needs a physical place where citizens from all corners of the continent can meet several times.

The premises of the European Parliament are ideally suited to welcome and facilitate such a multicultural and multilingual dialogue. A well-designed digital space could then ensure continuous transnational deliberations in-between the physical gatherings of the citizens, as well as for the preparation of the agenda setting phase. 

The ECA will ensure participation of citizens before and after European elections, to a larger extent than the European Citizens Initiative and the right to petition.  

The Conference on the Future of Europe has been an experiment in learning about democratic citizen engagement across the European continent. Continuing this exercise would be beneficial to civic activism and deliberative democracy. And as we get closer to the 2024 European elections, capitalising on the CFOE now should be the way forward. 

Only through this kind of democratisation process can Europe’s social model overcome the decision-making of technocrats who are far removed from ordinary life, and only interested in sustaining market forces’ dominance over society.