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Can Democratic Conventions Save the EU? Three Questions to Claudia Chwalisz

Can Democratic Conventions Save the EU? Three Questions to Claudia Chwalisz
 Institut Montaigne
Institut Montaigne

Claudia Chwalisz is the author of The People’s Verdict: Adding Informed Citizen Voices to Public Decision-making (2017) and The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change (2015). She is a consultant at Populus and a Crook Public Service Fellow at the Crick Centre, The University of Sheffield.

Emmanuel Macron has claimed that his priority will be to relaunch the European project. In order to do this, your view is that he should, alongside his European counterparts, promote the organization of democratic conventions. Could you explain to us what this means?

At his very first ‘diagnostic’ meeting in October 2016, before announcing his presidential candidacy, Emmanuel Macron’s chosen theme was democratic reform. Looking beyond national borders, he announced that En Marche ! plans to organise democratic conventions in every EU country to develop a common vision for the future of the EU.

Eight months later, as President of France, Macron made this point again in his speech at a rare joint session of the French parliament. His ambition to launch democratic conventions to "refound" the EU remains. "A new generation of leaders must take up the European idea again at its origin, which is essentially political", Macron argued. Jean-Claude Juncker, in his most recent State of the Union speech, voiced his support for the idea.

The French president is right in arguing for new ways of bringing European citizens together and giving them a meaningful voice in shaping the EU’s future. In a continent politically shaken by populism and creeping authoritarianism, finding long-term solutions for tackling the underlying drivers of these phenomena is crucial. Democratic conventions would not just be an end in themselves as a democratic process, but could help to re-establish a broad consensus about the EU’s purpose and objectives.

While many politicians and pundits think that focusing on immigration and the economy alone will do, Mr Macron understands that disillusionment with the democratic status quo is equally part of the problem. Only 8 % of the public say that politicians care about what people like them think. Such sentiment will not go away without radical ideas for giving citizens genuine influence on policies that affect their lives. If properly designed, democratic conventions precisely fill this need. They engage people in a deliberative way over numerous months, aiming to find the common ground between them, and giving a platform for the recommendations to be heard and taken seriously. 

According to you, has Emmanuel Macron been vocal enough about delivering such democratic conventions in France?

However, beyond the admirable continuity of Macron’s commitment, few details have ever been mentioned about when and how these democratic conventions might work. It seems unlikely that Macron is referring to the elite-driven format used for the 2001-2003 Convention on the Future of Europe, where the 102 members were appointed from national parliaments, governments and heads of state. That would not exactly chime with his statement that "we will engage citizens in this adventure."

Fortunately there is no shortage of international inspiration which demonstrates that a more citizen-driven approach can successfully deliver concrete, pragmatic and robust recommendations which give governments the legitimacy to make tough decisions.

What would be some of your ideas for how democratic conventions might work in the European Union?

There are two different ways in which these conventions could work: either as a series of mini-democratic conventions in each EU country, or as a single set of democratic conventions bringing together citizens from all over the EU.

The first option would be more practical logistically. There would be less language barriers; travel would be quicker and easier. But arguably such an approach would be less impactful. Could a unified vision for the future of the EU really arise from an approach where 27 different countries each have their own national conventions? 

The second option is optimal: one democratic convention with people from every EU country. Translation would not necessarily be an issue – fortunately there are already facilities in Brussels and Strasbourg for real-time translation in every EU language. While the deliberation itself may not be as fluid, this is not an insurmountable problem. As examples from Belgium’s G1000 and Canada’s national reference panels show, deliberation can still work well with translators as the in-person interaction helps establish trust and builds rapport between people.

To choose the participants, there could be a ‘Civic Lottery’ like the kind used in Canada and Australia: in each EU country, 5,000 invitations to participate could be sent completely at random. The invites would outline the objectives of the democratic convention and the meeting dates. People could easily sign up online or by phone (with a unique bar code/identification number for them alone so it’s non-transferable) saying they are interested and available. Among all those who say yes, they want to do this, say around 10 would be chosen from each country. Five men and five women. A mix of ages, ethnicities and social backgrounds.

Using a lottery instead of allowing anyone to sign-up is fair and transparent. Every EU resident has an equal chance of receiving an invitation. The two stages guarantee that even if some demographics disproportionately respond at the first stage, the overall group will be representative. By reaching out to those who are not necessarily engaged in EU politics, it also helps to ensure a greater diversity of voices make it to the table, not just those who are always already present.

This group of 270 people from all over Europe would form the European Democratic Convention. A mix of people, perspectives, ideas. Their task would be to identify the key priorities for European reform in the long-term. To do this, they would be given the chance to meet for one weekend every month for one year. During this period, they would be able to learn (hear from officials and experts about how the EU currently operates; what works well; what doesn’t), to deliberate with one another about what needs to change, to prepare their ideas for the future of the union, and to find consensus between them.

All information that is presented to the European Democratic Convention could be posted online for the wider public to see, read, and engage with. Their final recommendations would be presented to all EU heads of state, the EU Commission President and Commissioners and the European Parliament. From the outset, they should be obliged to respond within three months. Meanwhile, during all this time, a wider public debate in the media, in schools, in universities, in work places, among friends and family members could take hold.

Would democratic conventions save the EU? Perhaps not in the short term. There is the first task of convincing other EU leaders to get on board. But if the process was well-designed, it could enable the EU to send a strong signal that people’s voices are being taken seriously. It could give the EU the much-needed legitimacy to act on tough choices. Perhaps it would inspire national governments to give their citizens a more meaningful voice in domestic policy issues. Finally, an outcome where the recommendations lead to real and significant change could also help restore trust in politicians and governments in the longer term. There are many "ifs," but the potential is there.

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