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An EU Citizens’ Assembly to enforce European democracy?

Democracy needs to be improved and updated. Today, due to the fast-changing nature of our society, democratic structures have difficulty to respond to the demands for more participative and transparent political processes, both at national and EU level.

However, it is often easier to ask for an improvement than to propose solutions. This is also the case with the improvement of democracy, which is ultimately defined by the way people discuss, interact and come to an agreement. All these characteristics have not essentially changed even though the modern means of communication have.

Events like Gilets jaunes demonstrations in France underline the importance of involvement in the democratic process of ordinary people. For some years now, high expectations have been put on the power of Internet to bring people closer to politics as well as on direct democracy tools such as direct voting. However, various Internet-based political initiatives have not been groundbreaking, and after the Brexit referendum doubts are increasing whether the direct vote is the way to go to improve democracy.

The Irish Example

Citizens’ Assembly, Ireland’s own example and experience with innovating deliberative democracy, is worth studying when tackling politically sensitive and potentially divisive topics.

For years, the topic of abortion was seen in Ireland as a highly controversial theme. The establishment of the Citizens’ Assembly proceeded two previous assemblies (The independent We the Citizens initiative in 2011 and the government sponsored Convention on the Constitution from 2012-2014) which helped to create space and acceptance for the assembly.

The Irish Citizens’ Assembly was launched in November 2016. Ninety-nine citizens from across Ireland gathered in Dublin to begin a national conversation on abortion. Assembly members were selected by a private marketing research firm hired by the government aiming to be broadly representative of the Irish society, based on citizens’ geographic location, gender, age and social class.

The results of the Assembly’s final, highly anticipated vote were released on April 2017: 87% of the Assembly voted in favor of easing the Irish abortion restrictions. In their formal report to the Irish Parliament, participants recommended legislation legalising abortions.

The Irish Citizens’ assembly showed that purposeful smaller representative groups can indeed make a difference. The Assembly facilitated the presentation of various views and insights on the topic. The media coverage of presentations triggered intensive discussion and expert input and the forum informed public opinion and thus facilitated greater understanding of the issues.

However, the Assembly still had relatively limited public visibility and the majority of the population was not aware that the assembly actually took place. Thus, it is important that such a process is supported by the political system in order for the opinions to reach the public debate. For example, the University College of London organized a Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, but due to total lack of visibility, the assembly did not have any impact on the public debate.

An EU Citizens’ Assembly?

The European Parliament has a clearly defined role to represent European citizens. However, the question whether a European Citizens’ Assembly, with an advisory role, could be valuable in engaging with the citizens when the EU has a clear decision to make, remains.

The Irish example shows that a Citizens’ Assembly is the most effective when the debate is on a specific topic. An EU’s Citizens’ Assembly could take place when discussing enlargement, trade agreements or major EU institutional changes. The first Citizens’ Assembly should have a limited lifespan, related to a topic. If the Assembly was a success, it could be relaunched.

A European Citizens’ Assembly with rotating members could enforce the view that the EU is accessible to ordinary citizens and enforce the dialogue between the EU institutions and its citizens. The Assembly could bring some fresh air to Brussels and provide the Brussels-based EU officials with a better sense on the concerns of citizens.

In any case, the Citizens’ Assembly is a tested and useful idea when considering a referendum in EU member states. In the Irish case it created a basis for a passionate, yet rational debate leading to a decision which did not appeal to everyone, but which the Irish society was able to digest. In light of the current situation with Brexit, that is what one would hope from all referenda.