Will the new COFOE digital platform live up to its promise? From Barcelona to Brussels and back

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Today, on 19 April, the long-awaited Digital Platform of the Conference on the Future of Europe (COFOE) will be unveiled. This ought to give EU citizens, civil society and the political establishment some time to familiarise themselves with this cornerstone experiment in ‘virtual transnational democracy’ ahead of the formal launch of the Conference in Strasbourg scheduled for 9 May.

The platform will be the Conference’s central hub, a place where all contributions will be shared, including decentralised events, the European Citizens’ Panels and Conference Plenaries, according to the European Parliament’s press release.

The launch comes after a year of preparation lost to the pandemic and the political infighting over the concrete form and scope of the Conference. Moreover, the originally planned two-year process will be cut in half, owing to the deadline created by the French elections in 2022. Nevertheless, as we inch closer to the kick-off, doubts and reservations give way to expectations and optimism with all interested stakeholders on the edge of their seats waiting to see what the Platform will bring.

The challenge: that European publics at large eventually come to own it too. And so we will ask in the weeks to come: what will it take for citizen engagement to become a reality?

One part of the answer to this vast question comes under an enticing label: Decidim.

When the Conference Executive Board announced the launch following its last meeting on 7 April it clearly expressed a crucial hope, namely for the Digital Platform to bring Europeans into a transnational public space allowing them to engage not only vertically with their representatives but horizontally, with each other. Although the concrete features of the Platform have yet to be put to the test, we do know already that this interactive, multifunctional and multilingual platform will make use of “Decidim”, a free open-source platform for citizens’ participation, which was initially developed by the Municipality of Barcelona with support from the European Regional Development Fund.

The adoption of Decidim is an invitation to take the name of this platform literally: “Let us decide” from Catalan, or “decidiamo”, “Lasst uns entscheiden”, “decidons”!

And indeed, in this case, the medium could truly be the message.

Decidim is an open source, free, web environment that allows any organisation to create and configure a website platform for comprehensive democratic participation. It enables anyone to digitally structure a complete system of participatory democratic governance by way of choosing and amalgamating features that include strategic planning, participatory budgeting, collaborative regulatory design, conferences, sortition, virtual meetings, elections etc. Decidim can also help organize governing bodies, councils or assemblies, the convening of consultations and referenda, or the channelling of citizen initiatives into public decision-making processes.

Harnessing the power of ICT to facilitate complex democratic processes is one of the most alluring promises of XXIst century democratic politics. It is also arguably the only way to bring millions of Europeans together in a transnational debate on the future of Europe. At the European Citizen Action Service, we have been critically analysing the pros and cons of digital democracy for over a decade. We have also pioneered the field, by introducing our own multilingual digital crowdsourcing platform to enable mobile EU citizens to voice their views on topics as diverse as their residence and political EU rights, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and improving air quality of their host communities. Decidim works on the same principles. The important difference is that it is open source and will be scaled up to an unprecedented scale!

But we also believe that the true success of the EU digital platform will depend not only on successful scaling up from Barcelona to Brussels, but also on our capacity to scale back down: From Brussels to Barcelona, in order to facilitate a truly decentralized democratic appropriation throughout the continent.

When it was first developed in 2016 by the Barcelona City Council, Decidim was born out of a larger Spanish municipalism movement attempting to create a network of Open Cities whose leadership dared a commitment to co-deciding policies with their citizens. This radical democratic mood was sustained by a new wave of politicians coming to power from social and political movements like the Indignados which emerged out of the deep disenchantment of Spanish voters with the lack of accountability of traditional institutional politics.

The cornerstone of the new local authorities’ agenda for reinvigorating citizen dialogue and deliberation, and opening up political institutions, was the development of a participatory digital platform that would catalyse “rhizomatic, autonomous self-organisation of citizenry”  and reinvigorate democratic decision-making. This led to the launch of the Decidim Barcelona portal in February 2016. Clearly, Spain is but one of the member states where municipalism and participatory politics has taken hold and is being reinvented every day.

Against this backdrop, the EU Platform should not be perceived as an additional layer, above and beyond local democratic effervescence, but rather as a glue that can help link them together and lead to the appropriation of EU issues and politics by all citizens involved on the ground.

We cannot wait to see and try out the potentialities offered by the COFOE Digital Platform. And you? Of course, we need to stay democratically vigilant. Given its limited duration, the COFOE will have a hard time fulfilling the democratic expectations it has given rise to. Much work needs to be done to make participation truly inclusive, geographically and socially. Indeed, what is at stake here is not only scaling up and scaling back down, but scaling across, across countries and across generations, for digital democracy to effectively support an EU that articulates debates about the long term and whose democratic ethos is reflected across the board. In short, the conference Platform needs to be thought of and used as an experiment whose vocation is to become a permanent feature of the European adventure.

This is a tall order. Our students have been known to ask us, presumably naively: jf democracy is supposed to be rule by the people why aren’t the people doing the ruling? Of course, this age-old question requires a complex answer, because democracy is a complex proposition if we are to reconcile the local, national and transnational.  But if successful, Decidim’s journey from Barcelona to Brussels and back will contribute a piece of the puzzle by demonstrating the benefits and sustainability of digitally enhanced citizen participation across borders, not only as a one-off legitimation boost for the powers-that-be but as a permanent space where citizens can also say: We decide.

Stay tuned!