Citizen assemblies were a distinctive feature of Ancient Greece. Excluding women and slaves, men gathered to discuss and debate about how the city of Athens was run.
Fast forward to Tuesday 26 September 2023. In the late afternoon, small groups of people start climbing the hill leading to the Pnyx. They are citizens of Athens, Europe and beyond who have responded to the call to join a new journey to increase the voices of citizens in democratic decision-making.
Consortium members of the Democratic Odyssey project, coordinated by the EUI’s School of Transnational Governance, make the last preparations before STG Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis and European Alternatives Director Niccolo Milanese welcome participants. They encourage all to close their eyes and think about those who gathered in the same place thousands of years ago and those who will look back at us in a few thousand years from now.
Nicolaidis asks participants about their feelings about being in this historic place. Most feel inspired, but a young woman remarks that she would not have been there in an assembly thousands of years ago, for the simple fact of being a woman.
Time to open the assembly
The invited citizens make themselves as comfortable as possible on stones scattered around the hill. Camille Dobler of Missions Publiques and Ophélie Masson of European Alternatives open the assembly with the Parthenon and the city of Athens as a backdrop.
The idea of this session is to inform the preparation of a full peoples’ assembly in Athens in September 2024 as part of the voyage towards a standing assembly of citizens selected by lot across Europe.
For three hours, dozens of citizens discussed issues ranging from climate change to democratic backsliding, debating which topics would be suitable for the peoples’ assembly in September 2024.
“We’ve been pleasantly inspired by the quality of the conversations, the mutual empathy that was on display and also the pragmatism of the challenges that we’ve got ahead,” says project coordinator James Mackay. “This was the first step that will take us to the September 2024 assembly in Athens…the contributions that citizens gave here today in this afternoon’s session will be feeding directly into the design process.”
At the heart of the Democratic Odyssey lies the belief that part of the solution to restore faith in European democracy is the creation of a standing peoples’ assembly for Europe. This assembly, composed of individuals selected by lot, serving on a rotating basis, will deliberate on topics of its choosing and those suggested by EU institutions and civil society. The assembly aims to become a visible and popular force by convening across the continent.
STG Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis, the driving force behind the endeavour, calls democracy “the sense and the capacity of every person to write themselves in the collective story”, which has not always been easy. “So, democracy is also the sum of all the struggles that have happened before us…our hope is to renew democracy, connect back to the ancient time when it was here in Athens about deliberation and reinvent this for the 21st century.”
“The Democratic Odyssey is a utopia,” says Ophelie Masson, “albeit one that can be realised”. The academics, activists and civil society members involved in the project all stress the fact that this project really is about the journey, about taking incremental steps to involve citizens more in decision-making, rather than defining the perfect formula to do so.
As the night falls over Athens, participants vote with green and red cards on the issues to keep and discard towards the September 2024 assembly.
During closing remarks, Professor Nicolaidis encourages attendees to join the Democratic Odyssey’s Constituent Network, where people with a particular interest can contribute to the design and methodology of the 2024 assembly and the way forward for the project overall.
The next day, the project receives a warm welcome at the Athens Democracy Forum. Members of the audience engage enthusiastically, coming up with ideas and suggestions on how to deal with challenges on the road towards a permanent peoples’ assembly.
Talking about the standing peoples’ assembly the Democratic Odyssey is aiming for, Professor Nicolaidis says it requires “a mixture of bottom-up civil society making it happen, but also endorsement from above. Because we want such assembly to have a real meaningful impact on policies, politics, decisions and regulation.”