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How an EU citizens' assembly could help to renew European democracy

Discussions on a citizens' assembly in Cluj, Romania in June 2018. Tudor Brabatan of Declic, Author provided

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There’s an urgent need to reduce the distance between citizens of EU member states and the EU’s political institutions, to challenge the rise of populism and to renew citizen engagement in the way those institutions make decisions. An EU citizens’ assembly – a representative group of randomly selected citizens, brought together to learn about and deliberate upon an issue, and then make a policy recommendation – would be a major step towards achieving this.

That’s the recommendation from EU citizens who took part in a major cross-European research project that I led.

States across the world have held citizens’ assemblies. Ireland is a notable example. It held a constitutional convention in 2012-14 and a national citizens’ assembly from 2016-18 on topics such as abortion and climate change. The UK has also held citizens’ assemblies on difficult political issues such as Brexit and social care funding.

The EU has also started to experiment with forms of citizens’ assembly, such as an 80-member Citizens’ Panel on the future of Europe in May 2018. But there are still doubts as to whether a citizens’ assembly can be effective in an area as large and culturally diverse as the EU. Our project aimed to challenge these doubts with an innovative, decentralised form of citizens’ assembly.

Options for a greater say

Over two weekends in May and June 2018, representative groups of between 25 and 30 citizens met in Berlin, Budapest, Cluj and Rome. They discussed how to increase citizen engagement in debates about the future of Europe, and how to increase citizen influence over EU policy.

One of the strongest criticisms of group assemblies like these, known as mini-publics, is that they are simply too small. This means the selection of the participants is key. We used a three step recruitment process to ensure a range of opinions and demographics in the events. We had a relatively high number of participants who considered themselves to be EU citizens, but also strong eurosceptic voices and a high number of people critical of EU engagement with citizens. Although our spread was reasonably good, there were some over-represented groups, such as participants with a relatively high level of education.

On day one, experts presented the participants with five options to strengthen citizen participation in EU decision-making: legislative crowdsourcing (where citizens use online crowdsourcing tools to agree laws to propose), citizens’ assemblies, referendums, enhanced consultations and citizen lobbying. In small groups facilitated by a helper, the participants discussed the different options and chose two to examine further the next day. After a vote, all four of the groups in Germany, Hungary, Romania and Italy voted to examine referendums and an EU citizens’ assembly more fully.

On the second day, we provided the participants with more detailed information about key design choices for referendums and citizens’ assemblies. For example, we asked them to think about whether referendums should be related to treaty change or all EU policy areas, whether they should be triggered by citizens or by the treaties in specified circumstances, and whether their recommendations should be treated as consultative or legally binding.

For an EU citizens’ assembly, we asked them whether such a body should be a centralised single assembly or decentralised to member state level, and whether it should convene regularly or only be triggered for specific topics. Again, we asked whether its recommendations should be consultative or trigger a binding response, such as starting the process of making a law.

Support for citizens assemblies

Overall, 42% of the participants in the four member states voted to recommend the establishment of an EU citizens’ assembly, compared to 40% who voted for referendums. Drilling down into the mechanics, they preferred a single citizens’ assembly at EU level, wanted it to be convened regularly as part of the framework of the EU, and to be directly able to influence EU policy.

But they recommended that the assembly’s decisions should be consultative – because while they thought an assembly should exert political pressure, they didn’t think it should be legally binding. One of the main reasons the participants gave for this was the desire to avoid any risk of the assembly mounting a populist challenge to fundamental rights such as equality and justice.

As the pie chart shows, there was also strong overall support for EU referendums. And, as many of the participants didn’t see the options as being mutually exclusive, 18% overall abstained to avoid choosing. Many wanted different forms of citizen participation used together – for example an EU citizens’ assembly used as a precursor for an EU-wide referendum.

At the end of the project, all the participants said that discussions were useful and constructive, that they had an opportunity to speak, and that they were listened to. One of the important benefits of reasoned deliberation is that people have the opportunity to change and develop their opinions. In our survey, 94% of participants said they’d changed their mind occasionally or frequently as a result of the conversations during the weekend.

If this form of citizens’ assembly is to be rolled out more widely, the issue of how participants will be selected will remain central. One way to assure a spread of participants would be to pay a polling company to match participants against demographic characteristics, and use a wide range of communication channels to target hard to reach groups.

Our project has shown there is a real appetite for doing politics differently in the EU, with citizens keen to participate in informed deliberation about the complex questions facing Europe. My colleagues and I hope that EU politicians will endorse the recommendation from EU citizens and start the process towards implementing a citizens’ assembly.

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