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10th Dec 2022

Opinion

Whatever happened to the EU's 'citizens' panels'?

  • Citizens' panels can be yet another democratic disillusionment, or they can play a meaningful role in a European democracy (Photo: europe@home competition)
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In her State of the Union keynote annual speech last month, EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen announced, among other things, that citizen panels would become "an integral part of our democratic life."

Citizens' panels can transform European democracy, but only if used correctly.

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Von der Leyen announced three major projects for European democracy. She wants to draft a Democracy Defence Act, convene a new convention to amend the European treaties, and introduce citizen panels into European policy-making.

Although the first two projects seem to have more heft, it is citizen panels that can truly sow the seeds of European democracy.

Citizen panels can contribute to what the European Union has lacked for so long: a European public sphere. Democracy requires democratic debate.

Such a debate can only happen if we have an arena where all EU citizens, academics, politicians, activists, and media can expound and debate different views. We look at cross-border issues such as climate, energy, financial stability, and migration no longer from a national but from a European perspective.

A European debate is not created by a one-time event — such as a treaty convention — or by a law to protect democracy. A public sphere is not a one-time event but continuous, and it also requires continuous effort. A public sphere is the precondition for building a European democracy before we can protect it.

Financial crash, Brexit, refugees, Covid

Paradoxically, it was the many crises plaguing Europe over the last 15 years that showed us what such a public sphere could look like, from the financial crisis to Brexit, from the refugee crisis to Covid-19.

Take the refugee crisis.

When the German chancellor said "Wir schaffen das," the opposition was not national but European. We did not have an opposition between states wanting to do more for refugees and states wanting to do less, but a cross-border debate among Europeans about the best response to the increase in refugees.

Ditto on the corona pandemic. The opposition between states taking stricter measures and those being more flexible was drowned out by the debate between Europeans who wanted to prioritise health or economics.

A public debate involves presenting and comparing alternative views. It is a sometimes irrational game of policy and opposition. Citizen panels, on the other hand, revolve around a rational debate between individual citizens.

They do not present alternative visions but focus on consensus. Nevertheless, it is precisely they that can contribute to a European public sphere.

The proposals from citizen panels are the outcome of what a society would have decided if everyone had participated in a rational conversation with each other.

But not everyone participates in a citizen panel, and public debate is by no means a rational conversation. The result is that policy proposals from citizen panels can evoke strong opposition.

The Conference on the Future of Europe provides a good example.

At this conference, EU citizens and politicians, in citizen panels and online, discussed over the course of a year the future of European policies. The conference was set up to be a rational debate between EU citizens.

Some proposals coming out of the conference include that "the EU should encourage member states to simplify the process of reception and integration of legal migrants and the access to the EU labour market" and "reducing subsidies for agricultural mass production where it does not contribute to a sustainable transition."

Will all Europeans agree with the first proposal? Will European farmers happily go along with the second proposal?

Importantly, the opposition to these proposals will be European and not national. The debate will be between all Europeans who want to expand legal migration and those who do not.

No one can present the debate as 'the EU or a member state imposing their values' because the proposal comes from EU citizens, who do not represent a member state but only themselves.

Regular...and respected

However, there are some preconditions if citizen panels are to fulfil this role. They must be recurring and have sufficient weight.

If a citizen panel is a one-time event, they are not capable of carrying a European public space because it is a continuous exercise. If the policy proposals from citizen panels are not sufficiently binding or authoritative for European policymakers, no one will care.

Moreover, citizen panels alone may not be enough to make a European public sphere. We need to complement them with institutional reforms.

We can, for example, introduce transnational lists (as the European Parliament recently approved) and directly elect the EU Commission president.

What European democracy needs is not more 'big moments' like the Conference on the Future of Europe or treaty conventions. European Democracy needs a European public sphere to enable democratic debate.

Citizens' panels can be yet another democratic disillusionment, or they can play a meaningful role in a European democracy.

The choice is ours. Von de Leyen's commitment to make them "a permanent part of our democratic life" is a vague but hopeful sign.

Author bio

Jan-Baptist Lemaire is a researcher and doctoral student at KU Leuven in the law faculty. This piece is based on research at Yale Law School. He was also Volt Europe policy facilitator for citizen empowerment, and a candidate for Volt in the 2019 European Parliament.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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