Who can doubt that people in Europe are frustrated about democracy? How can we address their sense of disenfranchisement? Yes, this is an old and difficult question. But there are pathways to renewal.
Earlier this year, the STG’s Transnational Democracy Programme secured funding to help develop a concept and strategy to institutionalise a permanent citizens’ assembly and participatory eco-system in the European Union. The project, which is supported by the Berggruen Institute, comes at an opportune moment. National, regional and municipal governments are busy experimenting with citizens’ assemblies to inform everything from participatory budgeting to sustainable urban development. In the past five years, in Europe, there have been ten national assemblies and around 70 local assemblies on the topic of climate change alone, some of them on a permanent basis. The EU itself took a huge leap with the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) which integrated transnational, multi-lingual, sortition-based deliberation into the policy making process.
Testing a proof of concept
As part of the new project, the STG team will build on lessons learned from CoFoE and the few other transnational citizens assemblies in order to test an original “proof of concept.” The aim is to develop a prototype or “proxy” for an EU-wide European Citizens’ Assembly which will showcase how deliberation can be enacted in all stages of the EU’s policy processes, from agenda setting and legislative initiative to co-legislation and even constitutional treaty change. The launch meeting of the assembly will take place in Athens in September 2024, after the next European Parliament elections, at the time of the new European Commission starting work. The team will also be exploring how to concretely embed citizen participation and deliberation in the multilayered ecosystem of representative democracy in the EU, as well as direct democracy experiments like the European Citizens’ Initiatives.
Potential for transformation
Professor Kalypso Nicolaidis, who is leading the academic work on transnational democracy at the EUI, and James Mackay, the project coordinator, are keen to emphasise the potential for radical transformation. “Organising transnational assemblies means more than just scaling-up smaller models,” Kalypso Nicolaidis explains. “Our vision is that of an interconnected assembly, within the ever-growing network of participatory and deliberative spaces around the continent, in towns and cities, in schools, workplaces and theatres, in political and corporate seats of power. It will be a recognisable assembly, made up of ordinary citizens selected by lot to serve for a little while in turn; a travelling assembly ready to sit in various configurations, in various places, assembled and reassembled with various civil society actors; an empowered assembly, trusted to deliberate responsibly on the big issues of our time, in constructive conversation and equal standing with other claimers on the levers of power.”
Over the past few months, the STG team has been working with an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional team to interrogate some of the most pressing design questions. “One of the biggest challenges we face, inevitably, is to work our way through so many case studies at local, national, regional level to draw lessons that could inform our transnational practice,” says James Mackay. “Personally, I’ve been looking into the Peoples' Assembly in Victoria in 2001 which, for the first time, provided aboriginal communities in Australia with a real institutional voice. I think that case can teach us a lot about how our European process can and should empower marginalised groups. Others in the team are exploring how digital technologies like Orbis AI might be wielded to assist selection and deliberation. Others still are working on follow-up and how to secure political buy-in. This is an iterative and collaborative process, the core of our work. Something to ensure our ‘proof of concept’ evolves in a democratically credible manner.”
The project consortium
In April 2023, the STG team formalised a core consortium that will work together to implement the practical side of the project. Deliberative practitioners from Particip’Action will oversee the budgeting, selection and facilitating. Democracy Next, a non-profit institute, will contribute to advocacy. European Alternatives, the transnational civil society organisation, will build bridges with grassroots networks, bring minorities and non-EU citizens into the process, and introduce experimental and theatrical formats of assembly. It will also ensure the Citizens Takeover Europe coalition of over 60 civil society organisations is involved in the campaign. The Democracy and Culture Foundation, based in Athens, will bring their expertise in arts and technology while also helping to embed the process in the Greek capital. For it is there, in September 2023, in a city that has such a rich history of democratic innovation, that the team will launch the public campaign, and widen the net to include a broader range of collaborators who will co-design the future ‘proof of concept.’
“Two years ago, along with my co-convenors Alberto Alemanno and Niccolo Milanese we created our transnational democracy forum as a space where academics, activists, policy makers and journalists could discuss the future of Europe beyond counterproductive divisions,’” explains Professor Nicolaidis. “Now, this process has grown into something bigger, bolder, more action-oriented and citizen-centred. Yes, we are setting out to test an assembly model. But our ‘proof of concept’ cannot be reduced to a single moment. This journey began a long time ago. The European University Institute and its School of Transnational Governance - with its community of experts - is the perfect hub to launch this project, but we will remain one player in an ever-expanding flotilla of explorer ships on the sea of democratic renewal; ships big and small, crews of all types, sails of all shapes and colours, all embarking on a transnational democratic Odyssey.”