Seven lessons on citizen participation for CoFoE
What can the EU Convention and the French Climate Convention tell us about how to develop successful models for deliberative democracy?
Experiments with deliberative assemblies – whether successful or otherwise – offer valuable learning experiences for all involved with the incipient ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’ (CoFoE). Among recent examples, the ‘European Convention’ of 2002-3 (EC) and the French ‘Citizens Convention for the Climate’ of 2019-20 (CCC) provide particularly valuable insights, not least because they could hardly differ more regarding the opportunities for, the quality of and the political consequences of citizen participation:
- The European Constitutional Convention (ECC) drafted a “Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe” (TCE) on behalf of – rather than alongside – European citizens. Heads of states and governments firmly held onto the steering wheel while citizens were left with marginal opportunities for participation, via brief meetings of a civil society and a youth forum. Ultimately, citizens could only get out to vote for or against the TCE in member states where a popular referendum for treaty ratification was in place. In 2005 French and Dutch voters rejected the process. This negative result has left a bitter aftertaste, and today many EU politicians have little appetite for another risky attempt to fundamentally reform the European treaties, let alone to draft a “European constitution.
- The French case, by contrast, was kicked-off by citizens from the very beginning; by the “yellow vest” movement (gilets jaunes) on the streets of France, which was established to protest the Government’s increase in fuel tax. In response, President Macron convened the first French citizens’ assembly, which was tasked with drafting proposals as to how France could reach a ‘zero emissions’ objective in an equitable manner. Nine months on, the 150 citizen members of the CCC presented 149 propositions. One year later, nearly half of these had been transposed into legislative and even constitutional change.
Despite their contrasting approaches to citizen participation and their diverging outcomes, both the EC and the CCC have triggered intense politicisation, notably in France and to a lesser extent across the whole EU. They have also left traces in popular memory. Many protagonists of the EC are again in steering positions for CoFoE, such as co-chair Guy Verhofstadt. Compared to many other citizens’ assemblies,, the French CCC is arguably of particular relevance for CoFoE. In the words of Björn Bedsted, Project Manager at The Danish Board of Technology: the experiences from that moment are the “cutting edge” for upscaling assemblies to multi-national contexts.
What can CoFoE learn from these precedents?
Citizen participation in CoFoE does not follow a single blueprint; it is a work in progress. The four ‘European Citizens’ Panels’ – that will run from September 2021 until January 2022 – pose manifold unresolved questions of a practical, societal and conceptual nature. Here I want to highlight seven key take-aways from the EC and the CCC which could provide lessons for these transnational panels.
Language: The outcome of the EC – the failed TCE and its replacement, the Lisbon Treaty – strengthened the European Parliament, by making co-decision under the majority principle the ordinary legislative rule in all areas of community competence. But they failed to pull the legislative initiative away from the hands of the European Commission (and the Council). By comparison, the French CCC with its 150 citizens – drawn by lot – has successfully demonstrated that citizens’ assemblies are indeed capable of complementing the work of elected parliaments, by drafting legislative proposals that are subsequently written into law. This raises the question of whether the French experience can be upscaled to the EU level, and to the CoFoE’s transnational panels of 200 citizens. My answer is a conditional yes. If the conveners of CoFoE panels want to live up to this objective, they would not need to call for radical change. They could simply adjust the language to acknowledge the ordinary citizens of the panels as would-be “citizen-legislative initiators.” If the European transnational panels strive to turn an exclusive bureaucratic prerogative into a democratic power, citizens will become more interested in the entire CoFoE process.
Design: To enable citizens’ assemblies to truly live up to this ambition, they need to be designed in order to enlighten and empower ordinary citizens from all walks of life. The French CCC again serves as inspiration here, through processes such as the following:
- Support for panels: on the first weekend participants are given information about unresolved challenges faced by Europeans in the policy sectors assigned to the panel, with pluralistic inputs from policy experts and politicians. Smaller transnational ‘working groups’ are set up, mediated by facilitators, in which citizens can deliberate regarding alternative solutions. On the final weekend: voting takes place on proposals that citizens have elaborated with assistance of legal experts who transcribe their intentions in official language.
- Reducing topic overload: citizen panellists are free to choose to discuss the issues they truly care about, e.g. using the ‘Sensemaker consultation methodology’.
- Deliberative methods of consensus building: “fractal dialogues” and “speed meetings” allow a certain number of citizens to meet in person/virtually, in order to create rapport, so that participants can adapt to agree with results that diverge from their own ideas and interests.
Digital Platform: The European Constitutional Convention was the first initiative of its kind to broadcast its sessions via “Europe by Satellite.” Given that satellite dishes were the exception and not the norm at the time, and that conventional media coverage was limited, few ordinary people were able to access the information. Nearly two decades on, digital innovations provide us with tools to virtually connect citizens’ assemblies with European society at large. CoFoE’s innovative digital platform should be further developed into a tool for internal (intranet) and external panel communications about the issues under deliberation. It would publish information about panel members, agendas and proposals, and livestream proceedings. Moreover, it could turn ‘citizen outsiders’ into ‘panel insiders,’ by inviting them to share their comments, critiques and ideas. It could also construct digital links between panel members and local, national and transnational constituencies. Finally, it will help create spaces for press releases, for interaction with European correspondents, local and regional news outlets and for press conferences.
Attractiveness: As in the case of the French CCC, a film-maker could be invited to document the European Citizens’ Panels and gather testimonies about how the CoFoE experience has impacted on the personal and professional lives of the individual members. This will give visibility to transnational citizen participation in wider European society.
Polls: After the conclusion of CCC, two nationwide polls were taken. Both demonstrated that 60% of the French population supported CCC proposals. CoFoE cannot even dream about such success without moments of public contestation and politicization (which, for now, seem unlikely.) In any case, in Spring 2022 Eurobarometer /Parlemeter should conduct a survey to assess to what extent the European public supports or does not support the legislative proposals put forward by the citizens’ panels.
Research: Before the CCC was launched, a nationwide call was issued to offer accreditation to social scientists with an interest in critically observing and assessing different aspects of the citizens’ assembly. 40 researchers took up the opportunity and have since fed critical and contrasting insights into this evolving field of study.
Narrative: Both the EC and the CCC raised high expectations about their political outcomes: “Towards a constitution for European citizens” (Laeken declaration); “no political filter when transcribing the CCC’s proposals into law” (President Macron). Faced with a reality test, they have each provoked popular frustration. So far, CoFoE lacks any clearly defined target. Inevitably, from their very onset, the plenary sessions and European Citizens’ Panels will therefore have to tackle this ambiguity. There is a risk that a cacophony of competing narratives will jeopardise citizens’ mobilisation and engagement. If they are to be successful, the European Citizens’ Panels require clarity about the criteria for measuring their success. They will need a coherent narrative about the place of European citizens, citizen participation and citizens’ panels in the European institutional system and political process. This narrative needs to be coherent with European values. It must explain the rationale for citizen participation in the CoFoE. It should show the way forward for European integration through participatory, deliberative democratic innovation.
 The European Convention was established and mandated by the European Heads of States and governments in 2001. It consisted of 102 delegates from European and national parliaments and governments who were expected to resolve a list of open questions by delivering constitutional reform proposals (see “Laeken declaration”, European Council, Presidency Conclusions, December 14-15th, 2001).
 Guy Verhofstadt, in 2001 was Head of the Belgian Government and of the rotating European Council Presidency that adopted the Laeken Declaration on the Future of the European Union (12.-13. Dec 2001) and convened the European Convention (February 2002 – July 2003).
 To date, the OECD has delivered the most comprehensive stock-taking of the “deliberative wave”, see “Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions. Catching the Deliberative Wave”, OECD Report, June 10th, 2020.
 See International Conference “Toward Citizen-Legislators?“ Yale University, May 19-21, 2021: https://campuspress.yale.edu/citizenlegislators/sessions/
 As previously stated: over 10 months the CCC has drafted 149 recommendations; roughly half of which were enacted by the Assemblée Nationale during the subsequent year.
 See: https://sensemaker.cognitive-edge.com/sensemaker-for-social-good/
 See Youtube recordings of research presentations at Yale Symposium (footnote 4, above).