Citizen Power Europe

Groupe d’Études Géopolitiques – In December 2021, two simultaneous events spoke radically differently on the conundrum of our age. The first, ‘The Summit for Democracy’. The other, the Conference on the Future of Europe.

On the same weekend in December 2021, two simultaneous events spoke radically differently on the conundrum of our age. Both were engineered by ‘the West’, one by Biden’s United States, the other by the European Union (the ‘EU’). Both were framed as ‘kicking off’ a process of democratic renewal at home and abroad, a response to the profound democratic fatigue experience throughout the world. The first, ‘The Summit for Democracy’ gathered over 100 states to launch ‘a year of action …to make democracies more responsive and resilient, and to build a broader community of partners committed to global democratic renewal.’ The other, the Conference on the Future of Europe (the ‘COFOE’), convened in Florence 200 randomly selected EU citizens to produce a list of recommendations addressed to EU political leaders on how to improve European democracy 1 . While the former, state-centric event took place within the traditional Westphalian paradigm, the latter sought to flip that paradigm by putting citizens at the centre of cross-border relations. Yet, while the US-led Summit was abundantly covered by the media, the EU citizen-led assembly – despite its transformational, original nature – passed without a bang. To be sure, the first was full of the kind of political drama news agencies love to cover, above all about who should be out but was invited (Brazil), who was out but should have been in (Singapore), who was out but expected to be in (Hungary), or China’s claim that it was unfairly excluded despite being a democracy ‘that works’. And it may yet herald the kind of renewal that is so dearly needed for democracy in America 2 .

Nevertheless, we believe that the European – not the US-led – event is the one that could stay in the history books as the beginning of a process that values the creation of democratic citizen-centric ecosystems, inhabited by participatory processes increasing participants’ sense of efficacy in politics while addressing the most intractable issues of our times.

We admit our bias here: we found the deliberative energy in the European Citizens’ Panel in Florence contagious and inspiring. The EU has never truly succeeded in mobilising such a non-expert audience across borders to discuss its own future. Previous institutional reforms were the preserve of national governments, and past citizens dialogues were more akin to exercises in public relations than deliberation, with speeches by EU commissioners preaching to the converted. When measured against this backdrop, the citizen-centric Conference on the Future of Europe emerged as a healthy, and somehow counterintuitive development, especially at a time of global democratic erosion affecting also the Union from within 3 . Indeed, if embraced, many of the citizen recommendations that are already emerging from the conference could potentially be game changers for the EU’s democratic quality, calling for developments that are prefigured but not entrench in current EU practices: making the disbursement of EU funding conditional upon the respect of media pluralism and the rule of law by its Member States, making the EU Parliament elections more ‘European’ through the creation of a pan-EU electoral competition – instead of 27 parallel ones, mandating public broadcasters to better cover EU developments and holding EU-wide referendums 4 . Even if this initial batch of citizens’ recommendations was generally not crafted in kosher legal language and still needs to be refined through deliberation by the plenary of the COFOE – which unprecedently mixes random citizens and political representatives –, they add up a clear and urgent message: let’s tap into our collective intelligence and democratic imagination to construct a pan-European public sphere by enhancing mutual connections, knowledge and empowerment between citizens across borders.

To be sure, there has been plenty of pitfalls to this process, many of which are familiar to the world of deliberative assemblies and mini publics. For one, the panels failed to be as inclusive as one would have hoped of marginalised groups across Europe, from residents without EU passports to racial and ethnic communities 5 . And there might be a pro-EU bias on the part of those saying ‘yes’ to a phone call requesting your participation in an EU-led exercise. The methodology for random selection can therefore be improved to take not only socio-economic but also ideological factors into account. Observers have also noted the unequal deliberative quality of the discussions within and across the Citizens’ panel, the lack of contradictory debate or laying out of difficult trade-offs, and the fact that the whole COFOE process has been less than transparent including on how these ideas will be treated 6 . Moreover, some fundamental relationships are not clarified in this process – to what extent are EU institutions and politicians right to seek to tightly manage these citizens’ led processes? What is a healthy non deferential relationship between citizens and so-called experts? And for that matter, the relationship between officials and experts in helping manage these debates 7 . 

These are all important questions, many of which are familiar to citizens’ assemblies held and scrutinised around the world for many years now. Nevertheless, we are entering new territory with this transnational pan-continental multilingual exercise. This may be an EU-sponsored event, yet the core methodology used by the consortium of experienced facilitators running it responds to well-established participatory deliberative practices 8 . As we have been arguing since the beginning of this process, the ‘COFOE moment’ must be appreciated and lived through as a macro experiment, and, as such, it will offer lessons from its imperfections as well as from its strengths. In fact, this is an experiment to the power three – a citizens assembly experiment, within the wider COFOE experiment, within the broader experiment that is the European Union.

Arguably, the recommendations that will emerge from the Conference by next Spring will be more the by-product of the genuine transnational experience gained by the Conference’s participants than the inevitable result of a supposedly pro-EU biased initiative. Already, those emerging from the panel on democracy and the rule of law show that once offered the opportunity to reflect upon their personal experience of the EU project together with their European peers, the randomly selected citizens didn’t shy away from acknowledging the Union’s imperfect nature and ask instead for a more intelligible, responsive, and accountable Europe 9 . Ultimately, asking to be better informed about what and how national leaders decide in Brussels, or calling for greater, pan-EU public debates are not the exclusive prerogative of pro-European voices, but rather a pre-requisite to contribute to the Union’s democratic life, or that of any other democratic community worth of this name. As such, the conference’s citizens panels carry the potential to liberate the European project from its deeply engrained so called affective polarization between the pro-EU and the anti-EU voices, by eventually giving voice to the silent majority of EU citizens not belonging to any of these two camps 10 . Indeed, deep analysis of public opinion in the EU shows that even among self-described ‘Eurosceptics’ many are more concerned about reforming the EU than being bent on their country’s exit 11 . In other words, they are transformative rather than existential Eurosceptics 12 . More generally, a plurality of European citizens seem to want both more EU when considering what the EU does or ought to do, and less EU when considering how it does it, namely hoping for more decentralized approach to managing our interdependence 13 . To simplify, many Europeans are integrationist on the first count and sovereigntist on the second. And this may be because, if we scratch below the surface, we might find that most of us, before we fall under the seductive power of so-called ‘affective polarization’ tend to be ambivalent about the politics of shared sovereignty 14 . Europeans, like citizens around the world, value both, cooperation with their neighbors and control over their lives. And in fact, one of the great virtues of deliberative assemblies is that they have the potential to draw citizens out of their polarized bubbles and political tribes into a space where it is possible and even valued to tap into this underlying ambivalence – although this impact is highly context-driven, especially given the importance of presence for democratic politics 15 . The citizens who met in Florence were no exception to this story.

From this perspective, the Conference on the Future of Europe can be seen as the ultimate testing ground for Habermas’s normative concept of deliberative democracy in a transnational context 16 . The German philosopher has over the last decades insisted on the necessity for the construction of a transnational space for deliberation to bring the idea of EU supranational democracy to the next level 17 . Admittedly, he may have over-emphasized both what deliberation can achieve in our agonistic politics, and what deliberation must achieve in contexts where conflict is right and proper and needs to be managed rather than overcome. After all, the power of debate, dialogue and persuasion cannot always transcend deep differences in interests and relative power between parties in presence. It can even be absorbed, and therefore annulled, by the consensual operation of ‘politics as usual’. Indeed, the risk of an ‘illusory dialogue’, as an instrument that forestalls rather than fosters articulations of dissents that lead to political change can’t be ruled out 18 . Yet, deliberation has a critical role to play as a central pillar of a democratic eco-system in Europe. 

Such a statement can appear trivial to national and European representatives who reflect both on their daily practice and on past exercises in Treaty reform. Indeed, the last similarly ambitious convention held twenty years ago which led to the Treaty of Lisbon clearly exemplified the dynamics of bargaining under the shadow of rhetoric 19 . But these representatives and the governments they support or oppose do recognise that the exercise was notorious for its failure to genuinely bring deliberation all the way down, a failure that was redeemed through the failed 2005 French and Dutch referenda. In some ways, todays’ COFOE can be seen as a much delayed, post Euro-crisis, democratic atonement 20 .

This is what this Conference strives to offer. Its participatory architecture establishes, albeit on an ad-hoc basis, a transnational space for deliberation without which neither its citizens nor elected representatives would be exposed – and pay attention – to the viewpoints that are expressed in other parts of the Union. It can therefore be seen as providing a new, experimental democratic ecosystem that might enable – through the creation of a temporary opportunity structure – both institutional actors and citizens to gain an entirely unprecedented, and thus enriching, exposure to transnational, bottom-up preferences 21 . Even if media and wider public awareness is still wanting, the ensuing citizen-to-citizen pan-EU discourse could potentially make them aware of the histories, contributions, anxieties, aspirations of others, deepening understandings that are so critical to developing a sense of self-direction. This alone might alter the political dynamics of interstate bargaining through new methods and that may in turn reconfigure the political, and more broadly, public debate across the Union 22 . As Hauke Brunkhorst argues in his critical theory of legal revolutions, once democratic procedures are set up, even if they come from the top, they can ‘strike back’ because citizens can invoke them to demand change 23 .

While much of the incipient academic discussion around the Conference focuses on the relationship between the institutions responsible for running it and the individual citizen, the initiatives that civil society organisations — from trade unions to women’s organisations, people with disabilities, religious or cultural communities, other minorities, grassroots movements or associations, think tanks and academia — might develop around the Conference could reveal to be equally, or even more important to the consolidation of a democratic eco-system on the European continent 24 . These might consist of journeying to the far corners of the continent to facilitate – possibly amplify – public debate, engage into ‘constitutional pedagogy’ by illustrating the intricacies and significance of the process, aggregate and mobilise public opinion, host meetings and conferences, do research, disseminate ideas, advocate and lobby for them, all of this in multiple languages. This civil society’s activation and ensuing parallel media attention are key to attaining the level of public attention necessary for the kind of broad deliberation needed to generate the kind of legitimacy sought by the Conference and make its results stick 25 . 

To illustrate this hope and our argument, we turn to three big ideas (Participation beyond voting; A Transnational, inclusive public space; A Democratic Panopticon for greater accountability) we believe to be at the heart of the renewed EU ecosystem that we are calling for. Promisingly enough, these ideas already find reflection in the first batch of the citizens ‘recommendations emerging from the Conference 26 .

I. Participation beyond voting: the case for a European Citizens’ Assembly

‘We recommend that the European Union holds Citizen’s Assemblies. We strongly recommend that they are developed through a legally binding and compulsory law or regulation. The citizens’ assemblies should be held every 12-18 months. Participation of the citizens should not be mandatory but incentivized, while organized on the basis of limited mandates. Participants should be selected randomly, with representativity criteria, also not representing any organization of any kind, not being called to participate because of their professional role when being assembly members. If needed there will be support if experts so that assembly members have enough information for deliberation. Decision making will be in the hands of citizens. The EU must ensure the commitment of politicians to citizens’ decisions taken in Citizens’ Assemblies. In case citizens’ proposals are ignored or explicitly rejected, EU institutions must be accountable for it, justifying the reasons why this decision was made.’ (Recommendation 42, ECP2, COFOE) 27

Is it by chance that the most important proposal among the total 42 initial recommendations which in our view emerged from the Citizens panel beared the number 42 (!), the ‘Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything,’ offered by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? We do like to think that there was some magic in the air on that day. And, as observers in loco, we both felt it 28 . It may be that in this very place, the lessons still echoed from the Republic of Florence’s travails, which, over three hundred years until the 1500s, conducted one of the greatest experiments in popular sovereignty in Europe’s history. Here, the governing councils reintroduced on and off the kind of random selection (by lot, la tratta) that had taken place in ancient Athens for nearly all government offices two thousand years earlier, heeding Aristotle’s judgement that ‘it is considered democratic that offices should be filled by lot, and oligarchic that they should be elective.’ 29 To be sure, if they had followed the advice on radical democracy offered by their city’s most illustrious diplomat, Niccolò Machiavelli, Florentines would have more thoroughly institutionalized their distrust for their leaders and extended the control of popular assemblies over all of their public affairs, thoroughly constraining the behavior of political and economic elites through a range of non-electoral means, in order to confront them with the injustices often caused by their decisions 30 . 

But of course, the citizens present in the room in 21st century Florence did not need to go back to the Renaissance when they could draw from an even more inspiring source: their own admittedly limited experience, from which they increasingly came to draw over the proceedings. In doing so, they became the authors of their deliberative story, entitling themselves to commission an on-going follow up, to eventually embed deliberative mini-public in the day-to-day EU decision-making. For what is democracy if not first and foremost a state of mind, where ordinary people assume away the authority of princes, popes, or experts, to imagine themselves as the authors of their own shared destiny? 31

Clearly, proposition 42 reflects the assembled citizens fundamental intuition that ‘representation’ is not only achieved through electoral ballots 32 . Assemblies selected through the drawing of lots can often mirror the larger society more accurately than most parliamentary assemblies these days. In effect, sortition inverses the parliamentary representation equation: individual parliamentarians indeed represent the constituency which elects them, but gather in very imperfectly representative parliaments, while individuals drawn by lot ‘only represent’ themselves but gather in overall more representative assemblies. We do not need to adjudicate as to which bundle of individual/collective representative logic is more democratically legitimate, but simply acknowledge the different representative legitimacies in presence. 

To be sure, the ancients did not have the concept of ‘statistically representative sample,’ not did they need it as theirs was an idea deployed on a much smaller scale where each citizen had a high chance of alternating between the status of ‘ruled’ and ‘ruler’ over their lifetime. But with the advent of national and, in Europe, transnational scale, it is this statistical notion of representation that we must contend with 33 .

In such a perspective, issues of inclusivity as discussed earlier are key and require not only a set of economic, gender or educational criteria – as this assembly itself was designed – but special attention paid to the kind of incentives or resources offered to potential participants to ensure that individuals from the most marginalized groups in society find themselves able to participate – a kindergarten for single mothers, paid leave for employees. This was an obvious requisite for the so called ‘ordinary’ citizens who authored proposition 42.

It is also noteworthy that they found it important to insist on limited mandates. After all, sortition today, as in other times, is about freeing citizens from the kind of arbitrary rule that too often accompanies professional office holders, or what Machiavelli feared as the intoxicating influence of power. Even while ‘Princes’ or ‘elites’ (political, economic, bureaucratic) are key for the functioning of the polity, thought Machiavelli, they risk becoming a different social class with different interests from those of the people and thus no longer capable of serving the public interest 34 . In short, if citizens’ assemblies are to remain in tune with the societies they are meant to reflect, their members better not become ‘politicians’.

In calling for politicians’ commitment to be accountable, citizens wisely invoke ‘the right to justification’ dear to democratic theorists. They are not foolish enough to believe that these propositions will or even should be taken wholesale by governments and the state apparatus. But at least they should be taken seriously, debated, and honoured with arguments for and against.

Proposition 42 may not arrive in a vacuum but nor is its ambition a standard fare. While deliberative processes are spreading in what has recently been defined a ‘deliberative wave’ 35 , they tend to be temporary in nature – being predominantly ad hoc exercises and typically ‘one-shot’ experiences – that do not stick 36 . When compared with other democratic innovations, such as participatory budgeting 37 , institutionalization of deliberative mini-publics is the exception, not the norm 38 . As a result, the question whether they should be institutionalized – and how that might be done – remains not only under-theorized but also practically unaddresseddespite the mounting number of calls towards this objective, all the more so in the EU context 39 . Yet, shifting from ad hoc projects to a legally-constituted and legally-available structure is a widely consequential move 40 . In particular, the incorporation of sortition, which is inherent to any model of deliberative mini-public, be it citizens’ assembly or a jury, is set to alter the architecture of the EU system of representative democracy, by forcing a reflection on the role and nature of representation and its relationship with deliberative processes, outcomes, and actors 41 . This appears all the more true and complex in the transnational, multilevel and multilingual EU governance context, where institutionalization raises a series of context-specific questions related to the EU’s underlying constitutional and institutional legal framework, as well as its overall model of democracy. Questions range from the impact of mini-public’s output on the EU legal principle of institutional balance (governing the relations among EU institutions) to its relationship with existing participatory channels, such as the right of petition or the European Citizen Initiative (ECI), a mechanism by which (1 million) citizens can petition the EU Commission to propose new laws 42 . We can worry in particular that European elites would turn to Citizens Assembly as a less unsettling alternative to direct democracy, entertaining the hope that concessions made to deliberative democracy might stave off calls for more direct democracy, ECIs or national referenda in the EU context. 

Much of the answer to these questions depends on the chosen model of mini-public, which is in turn defined by a great variety of variables, notably its scope (general purpose versus specific purpose), tasks (agenda-setting versus scrutiny), the point in the policy cycle where this is embedded (preparatory, co-decision, evaluation), its composition (citizen-only or hybrid) and ultimate authority (advisory vs decision-making). Inevitably, the recurrent question which arises when the prospect of institutionalization arises is whether deliberative processes would replace old institutions or merely add new institutions and procedures. Based on past experiences, the ‘add on’ method appears the most likely. Since no institutionalization experience at the local or national level has led to the suppression of existing institutions to leave room for deliberative formats, there is no reason why this should not be true for the EU 43 . Yet the add-on approach does not rule scenarios where mini-publics may replace the kind of ‘elite-publics’ which populate national second chambers, be it a Senate or a House of Lords. What would be the equivalent in the EU context remains to be seen, given its unique two-headed legislative (Council and EP) and executive (Council and Commission) structure. One could imagine for instance a European citizens’ assembly picking up some of the agenda-setting or even legislative functions of either chambers, while leaving intact an institutional structure that has served the EU well since its inception.

At a broader, conceptual level, the institutionalization of public involvement through deliberative formats is favoured by some and feared by others. Those who support institutionalisation argue that the permanent involvement of citizens in this way can enhance the qualitative standards of participatory processes and expand opportunities to exert some actual influence on decision-making, thus rendering the political system more responsive and effective 44 . In the EU context, proponents maintain that such a new EU democratic tool would reduce the distance from the ‘EU bubble’ felt by EU citizens, and help leverage the collective intelligence of formal and informal civil society in foreseeing emerging issues and addressing difficult trade-offs between winners and losers, the short and long term or rural and urban concerns 45 . Such dynamics, if they are visible and widely owned, might serve as ‘democratic pedagogy’ to push back against the idea that there exist easy answers ‘out there’, thus challenging the populist playbook. Opponents of such institutionalization instead are afraid that citizens’ panels might usurp what should be the proper function of elected representative governments and parliaments. This risk does not seem to be immediately relevant to the EU insofar as it does not have the kind of general accepted, legitimate, representative, and democratic system of government that democratic states do have, or at least approximate 46 . Opponents are also concerned about the risk they might suffocate societal spontaneity at best and silence dissent at worst, by offering opportunities to manipulate participants, processes and outcomes 47 . They fear those who hope to use citizens’ assemblies and participatory processes for more instrumental reasons, politicians who cherry pick their pet reform while ticking the ‘citizens box.’ Yet institutionalisation might be ‘a necessary condition for reducing the arbitrary of politicians’ manoeuvres to implement participatory devices only when it suits them’, and ultimately contribute to making deliberative values a ‘normal’ component of citizens’ ordinary political life, as elections are 48 . Ultimately, the question as to whether institutionalisation of deliberative formats leads to enhancement or sterilization of participation remains open and empirical in nature. 

II. A Transnational and inclusive public space

While praising the mainstreaming of the deliberative wave into the EU, it would be naïve political solutionism to expect that this ad-hoc initiative, even if institutionalised, could alone magically address the EU democratic malaise. There are no-silver bullets for the EU’s democratic deficit. No democratic innovation – and citizens’ assemblies are no exception – will bear fruit if not embedded in a broader eco-system upstream, which empowers citizens as the authors of their destiny. It may be no surprise but is nevertheless noteworthy that the citizens’ recommendations – as highlighted above – provide color and contour to what these conditions of possibility may be, falling in broadly three categories.

First, there are of course important conversations to be had which refer to what happens at the center, in the traditional arena situated at the supranational level. While this is where citizens are most easily prodded by experts and politicians, they did see the need for Europeanisation of electoral political competition for the European Parliament recommending to ‘harmonize electoral conditions (voting age, election date, requirements for electoral districts, candidates, political parties and their financing)’ and ‘the right to vote for different European Union level parties that each consist of candidates from multiple Member States…’ (18). In the same pan-European spirit, they can see the need for ‘an EU-wide referendum in exceptional cases on extremely important matters to all European citizens…’ (20). When it comes to the decision-making procedures between their states, they issue a vaguely worded recommendation that the voting system should be reassessed ‘focussing on the issue of unanimous voting’ …but with voting weight ‘calculated fairly, so that small countries’ interests be protected’ (22) Here, we find the eternal need to balance the one and the many in a federal union like the EU.

Second, we find that citizens seemed much more interested in what we may think of as the conditions for creating a deeper European democratic habitus across Europe, through greater intelligibility, access to and education about the Union’s democratic life. In effect, citizens naturally gravitate towards the old chestnut of a truly transnational, pan-European public sphere, while displaying a sense of tradeoffs and balancing concerns 49 . Thus, they want greater, plain-speaking, multilingual information to cover European affairs, while respecting ‘freedom and independence of the media’ (recommendation 33), data protection for minors and user-friendly privacy policies (9 and 10) and pursuing ‘media competence’ for citizens (5 and 33). They call on the ‘use a more accessible language’ while ‘avoid using bureaucratic terms in their communications,’ and while, at the same time, ‘maintaining the quality and expertise of the given information…’ (35). They want ‘education on democracy in the European Union … to achieve a minimum standard of knowledge across all Member States,’ … but ‘enriched by a set of differing concepts … which should be engaging and age appropriate’ (26). 

We also note the importance for these citizens of horizontal links between themselves across borders, even as they interact with the EU, recommending that the EU ‘creates a special fund for online and offline interactions (ie, exchanges programmes, panels, meetings … (29), ‘increase the frequency of online and offline interactions between the EU and its citizens’ (31), ‘creates and advertise multilingual online forums and offline meetings where citizens themselves ‘can launch discussions’ (34) or ‘a multifunctional digital platform where citizens can vote on online elections and polls’ while sharing ‘their reasoning behind their vote’ (21). And crucially, they say, ‘existing and emerging translation technologies such as artificial intelligence are further developed, improved and made more accessible so as to reduce language barriers and strengthen common identity and democracy in the European Union’ (27). It is indeed time for the EU to put more resources behind its essence as a ‘community of translation,’ just as the technological infrastructure powering the COFE, its citizens’ panels and its digital platform are starting to demonstrate. This is the horizontal ambition befit for a ‘democracy.’

Third, in keeping with the old Tocquevillian insight that the convergence of socio-economic conditions and economic justice is a fundamental ‘condition of possibility’ of democracy, citizens expressed an underlying concern for an inclusive social-economic system, recommending ‘that the EU provides criteria on anti-discrimination in the labor market (quotas for youth, elders, women, minorities). If companies fulfil the criteria, they get subsidies or tax breaks’ (1). Or they wish for the EU to provide ‘a set of economic indicators and indicators on quality of life, for all Member States, with the same opportunities and with everyone being at the same level to reach a common economic structure’ (24). This call for inclusivity extends to all-encompassing concerns for the long term, including intergenerational equity (41) biodiversity losses and the protection of animal rights (4,6 and 7). 

The common thread between these citizens’ recommendations seems to us to lie in the expectation that the EU move beyond a formal understanding of the principle of political equality 50 , by embracing instead a more substantive interpretation demanding for the design and practice of participatory policies capable of mitigating power disparities 51 . While formal equality focuses exclusively on the equality of individuals, being passive and static vis-à-vis the context in which they act 52 , substantive equality assesses that context to redress existing disadvantages, enhance voice or accommodate differences and ultimately achieve structural societal change 53 . The linkage between political, or even economic equality and democracy is well established in political theory, with participation developing out of the ‘logic of equality’ 54 . Indeed, economic and political inclusivity cannot be separated in the age of digital capitalism 55 . In order to be fully democratic, political decisions ought to be the result of a procedure in which every citizen enjoys an equal chance to have a say 56 , be it through the electoral process (through elected representatives), the policy process, other non-electoral input such as public consultations, but also corporate structures of power 57 . Sure, this line of recommendation may sound like so many voeux pieux, but if debated across borders these calls may come close to an imperative mandate for EU legislators. In fact, unlike their political leaders, citizens don’t seem afraid of the prospect to re-open ‘the discussion … a constitution informed by the citizens of the EU’ which ‘in order to avoid conflict with the member states should prioritize the inclusion of human rights and democracy values’ (38). But most of what can be accomplished to strengthen the EU democratic ecosystem can be accomplished without treaty change.

III. A democratic panopticon for greater accountability 

The third democratic building block in the tryptic that we propose can be thought of both as an input to and as an expression of citizens’ participatory power, namely the idea that democratic self-determination starts with holding power accountable. This third foundation of democratic renewal in the EU is in fact an old idea, repurposed for the digital age, namely, what democratic theorists Keane and Rosanvallon refer to respectively as ‘monitory’ or ‘counter-’ democracy reflecting the Republican concern with civic education and the public sphere as the space where such education can be deployed 58 . Simply put, this is the struggle for ‘the right to know’ and ‘the right to know how to know.’ Citizens’ assemblies clearly make more sense as both the outcome and the trigger for much wider instruments of popular vigilance, a panoply of ways of mobilising collective intelligence beyond traditional elites. 

To convey the force of this old idea, lets invoke and subvert Bentham’s panopticon, the 19th century philosopher’s imaginary building where a single guard standing in the middle of circular cells may not be able to observe all of them at once but nevertheless controls them all, for the inmates cannot know when they are being watched 59 . What if, let us ask, we were able to imagine the collective power of citizens in place of the single guard? After all, who can be better guardians of our democratic freedoms than ourselves? By turning the connotation of the panopticon on its head, we can better convey the subversive power of transparency and accountability that the citizens in Florence seemed so keen on.

‘We recommend that independent citizen observers should be present during all EU decision making processes. There should be a forum or permanent body of citizens representatives in order to carry out the function of broadcasting relevant and important information to all EU citizens as defined EU citizens. Those citizens would engage with all other European citizens in the spirit of top-down / bottom-up connection, which would further develop the dialogue between citizens and the institutions of the EU’ (34). 

These randomly selected citizens – and their recommendation – in effect embodythe tension between the two logics that make up the democratic panopticon. The logic of permanence insists that the consent of the governed is about more than periodic elections or referenda — it’s about ongoing monitoring and engagement. The logic of intermittence, on the other hand, simply reflects the common sense that neither civil society organizations nor individual citizens have the capacity to exercise such scrutiny on a permanent basis. Reconciling these two logics requires those in power to trust in a social épistémè, whereby knowledge is not only shared but is known to be shared, creating an ecosystem that feeds the capacity and desire to take part. At the same time, they must learn to live with the radical uncertainty of the democratic gaze. In short, the idea of democratic panopticon delivers on both sides of the participatory conundrum. Our new democratic era calls for permanent citizens’ participation, yes, but only by some people, some of the time, on some of the issues. Permanent in its effect, intermittent in its practice. Amending our democratic script calls for crafting ways to make participation a civic habitus: a culture of citizens engaging with the forms of political power that pervade our lives 60 . 

For Bentham, the beauty of his vision was the fear, not the fact, that you might be watched. For the democratic panopticon, decision-makers, like Bentham inmates, are effectively compelled to regulate their own behavior under the assumption that citizens might be watching, their power both visible and unverifiable. Those who govern never know whether they are being watched; that keeps them on their toes, motivated to act as if they were being watched all the time. Publicity takes the place of surveillance, a way to guard the guardians, and social control becomes control by society, not of society. Forget la revolution permanente, long live la participation permanente. This mindset was often conveyed throughout the call by the citizens panels to exploit the power of the internet and internet platforms to exercise such scrutiny, calling for platform for fact checking (19), voting on online polls (21), while at the same time calling on institutions to adapt its communication to the age of digital media (21). Most importantly, their discussion engaged with the question of the democratic power of budget control, as we move from ‘no taxation without representation’ to ‘no taxation without participation’. Hence, citizens supplemented their call for investment in Europeans’ quality of life with ideas of radical accountability for budget spending, noting ‘the need to ensure supervision, transparency and effective communication towards citizens in the implementation of public investment (on the part of the EU)’ and ‘to allow citizens to track the entire process of investment’ 61 . At a time when the NextGeneration fund channels billions of EU moneys to individual member states, setting up a more systematic accountability system not only for outcomes but for actual monetary disbursement would benefit the EU’s ambition foe a renewed democratic ecosystem.


The EU stands out in the landscape of democratic experiments not by being more advanced in its participatory methods, but because it is hoping to scale them up from the subnational or national to the transnational level and spread them within and across the Union. As the foremost laboratory for transnational governance, it has found its democratic credentials questioned, especially since the end of the Cold War, and, more recently the Euro-crisis 62 . In response, it has dipped its bureaucratic toes in various forms of engagement, from informal citizens’ dialogues to the European Citizens’ Initiative. But none have dented its reputation for bureaucratic opaqueness. The Brexit vote was but one expression of the popular dissatisfaction that ensues 63 .

If EU political classes and bureaucratic apparatus were to rise to the challenge, they could claim to offer a response to the message delivered by President Biden on the other side of the Atlantic, that the democratic model developed in the West for the last 200 years appears broken, that it urgently needs tender loving care, that citizens have been bewitched by democratic disenchantment, a sense that the electoral system is rigged, manipulated by money, elites, corporations lobbies or outsiders, and that in between elections, they have no access, no influence and no ownership of public decision making.

Yet, contrary to President Biden’s opening speech to the Summit, the story is not that of a beauty contest between democratic and autocratic systems, as crude geopolitics of democracy would have us believe. To the extent that citizens care not only about democratic outcomes but also about procedural fairness, especially when they do not get their way and risk channelling their frustrations outside the system if they are not addressed, we need to address these issues of democratic fairness with great urgency 64 . As vividly illustrated by the European Citizens’ Panel, the fact that citizens are dissatisfied with actual existing democracies does not mean that they have lost their appetite for democratic processes. As Aristotle warned a long time ago, democracies suffer from self-inflicted destructive tendencies 65 . This is true as much in Europe as elsewhere, and EU-level democracy magnifies these pathologies. At the same time Europe has the potential to overcome them precisely because it is not wedded to the traditional representative models. None of this implies that the EU should be considered as a model for democracy beyond the state. Indeed, it has much to learn by reversing the democratic gaze and engaging in mutual democratic learning with the rest of the world 66 .

Nor have we argued that the citizens’ panels that are being organised under the COFE provide a model in and of themselves. Much could be improved starting with the topic overload and the lack of time to address such an excessively broad range of issues. But we adhere to a reality principle: in essence, there is no doubt that this process would not have been possible without the go-ahead and over-engineering by the three EU institutions. Indeed, we may be bemoaning the paradoxical coexistence between the kind of ‘democratic risk’ which these institutions have taken in allowing for such a democratic leap forward, and the kind of tight control they have sought to exercise over the said process. We may be wary of the unavoidable instrumentalization of the whole thing by those who will cherry pick and interpret the recommendations. 

But these pitfalls, we believe, are part and parcel of the radical uncertainty that democratic progress may breathe into the European project, an uncertainty that is the very essence of democracy and which the EU bubble must learn to live with. If the EU is to recover its dented popularity among European publics, we need to build a European democratic ecosystem to nurture, scale and ultimate accommodate the daily competing claims of Europe’s citizens. The time has come for the EU Member States and European institutions to return to citizens some of the constituent power that has traditionally been exercised on their behalf 67 . The lesson from the incipient transnational Citizen Assemblies that will continue to gather this Spring under the EU umbrella, is that under the right conditions, citizens are ready to reclaim such a power and, in the process, ground a new Citizens Power Europe on the global scene.


  1.  A. Alemanno, J. Mackay, N. Milanese, and K. Nicolaïdis, ‘What’s in an Experiment? Opportunities and Risks for the Conference on the Future of Europe’, EUI, STG Policy Papers ISSUE 2021/16 September 2021. 
  2.  For a bold recent agenda setter, see A.M. Slaughter, Renewal: From Crisis to Transformation in Our Lives, Work, and Politics (Vol. 26) (Princeton University Press 2021).
  3.  See, eg, R. D. Kelemen and M. Blauberger, ‘Introducing the debate: European Union safeguards against member states’ democratic backsliding’ (2017) 24(3) Journal of European Public Policy, 317-320;
  4.  Recommendations of the Citizens’ Panel on the Democracy, Rule of law and security, available at
  5.  As argued by Niccolò Milanese, writing on behalf of dozens of civil society organisations, ‘including EU citizens and residents who are representative of its population’s diversity is the first and necessary step towards a public dialogue that not only resonates with the majority but also helps (re-)connect the population with its EU institutions.’ See, ‘Open letter to Executive Board: civil society organisations call for Conference to include marginalised communities’, 18 June 2021, led by Citizens Take Over Europe and co-signed by other 62 civil society organisations. See
  6.  For an example of possible difficult questions involving conflicted views and interests that the COFE ought to address, see ‘EUI Democracy Forum: some difficult questions for deliberation’, available at See also L. Galante and K. Nicolaïdis, ‘Whatever it takes? Ten principles to bring the Conference on the Future of Europe closer to its citizens’, EUI transnational democracy blog, November 11th, 2021, available at
  7.  Disclaimer: the authors have acted as experts on the occasion of the 2nd session of the European Citizens’ Panel and expert observers during the 3rd and last session. 
  8.  The literature on the spread of mini publics in contemporary policy and governance is abundant. See, eg, N. Curato, J.S. Dryzek, S.A. Ercan, C.M. Hendriks and S. Niemeyer ‘Twelve key findings in deliberative democracy research’ (2017) Daedalus, 146(3), 28–38; S. Elstub and O. Escobar, ‘A Typology of Democratic Innovations’ in S. Elstub and O. Escobar (eds.), Handbook of Democratic Innovation and Governance (Edward Elgar Publishing 2019).
  9.  Recommendations of the Citizens’ Panel on the Democracy, Rule of law and security, available at
  10.  There is a vast analysis of polarisation, including affective polarisation in Europe and beyond. See inter alia, M. Lindell, A. Bächtiger, K. Grönlund, K. Herne, M. Setälä and D. Wyss ‘What drives the polarisation and moderation of opinions? Evidence from a Finnish citizen deliberation experiment on immigration’, (2017) European Journal of Political Research, 56(1), 23-45.
  11.  For an extensive analysis of public opinion about the EU arguing that attitudes tend to be benchmarked on assessments of one’s country ‘go it alone’ option, see C. DeVries, Euroscepticism and the European Union (Oxford University Press 2018).
  12.  K. Nicolaïdis, Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit (Unbound 2019):
  13.  K. Nicolaïdis, ‘In praise of ambivalence-another Brexit story’ (2020) Journal of European integration, 42(4), 465-488.
  14. Ibid.
  15.  For the original claim on opinion convergence through deliberation see J.S. Fishkin, When the people speak: Deliberative democracy and public consultation (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009); M. Lindell, A. Bächtiger, K. Grönlund, K. Herne, M. Setälä, and D. Wyss ‘What drives the polarisation and moderation of opinions? Evidence from a Finnish citizen deliberation experiment on immigration’ (2017) European Journal of Political Research, 56(1), 23-45.
  16.  J. Habermas, ‘Democracy in Europe: Why the Development of the European Union into a Transnational Democracy is Necessary and How it is Possible’, ARENA Working Paper 13/2014, 3. 
  17.  J. Habermas, The Postnational Constellation (MIT Press 1998). 
  18.  For a recent critique of dialogue as a practice that reinforces the consensus that dictates the permissible and impermissible behaviours in a community, see J. Meneses, Resisting Dialogue (Minnesota University Press 2019).
  19.  P. Magnette and K. Nicolaïdis (2004) ‘The European Convention: bargaining in the shadow of rhetoric’, West European Politics, 27(3), 381-404; See A. Maurer (2003) ‘Less Bargaining-More Deliberation The Convention Method for Enhancing EU Democracy’, Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft, (1), 167-191; P.C. Schmitter (2003) ‘Making sense of the EU: Democracy in Europe and Europe’s democratization’, Journal of Democracy, 14(4), 71-85.
  20.  K. Nicolaïdis, ‘Our Democratic Atonement: Why we Need an Agora Europe’, in The People’s Project? New European Treaty and the Prospects for Future Negotiations (Brussels, European Policy Centre, December 2007). For an attempt at framing the Conference of the Future of Europe as an expression of ‘a delayed, yet incipient, form of democratic atonement’, A. Alemanno, ‘Unboxing the Conference on the Future of Europe and its Democratic Raison-d’être’, European Law Journal, forthcoming.
  21.  A. Alemanno, ‘Unboxing the Conference on the Future of Europe and its Democratic Raison-d’être’, op. cit.
  22.  M. Desomer and K. Lenaerts, ‘New Models of Constitution-Making in Europe: The Quest for Legitimacy’ (2002) 39(6) Common Market Law Review, 1217.
  23.  H. Brunkhorst, Critical Theory of Legal Revolutions: Evolutionary Perspectives (Bloomsbury 2014), 42.
  24.  See, eg, L. Cooper et al., ‘The Rise of Insurgent Europeanism. Mapping Civil Society Visions of Europe 2018-2020’, LSE Ideas, 2021.
  25.  J. Matsuaka, Let the People Rule: How Direct Democracy Can Meet the Populist Challenge (Princeton University Press 2020).
  26.  Recommendations of the Citizens’ Panel on the Democracy, Rule of law and security, available at
  27.  We use here the initial numbering that served as the basis of the vote at EUI, December 13, 2021.
  28.  For an ethnographic perspective of deliberative mini publics, see J. Boswell, ‘Seeing Like a Citizen: How Being a Participant in a Citizens’ Assembly Changed Everything I Thought I Knew about Deliberative Minipublics’ (2021) Journal of Deliberative Democracy 17(2). 
  29.  Aristotle, The Politics, IV: 9, 1294-b (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962) 168 (translation modified).
  30.  J. Bernard, ‘Why Machiavelli Matters: A Guide to Citizenship in a Democracy’ (2008) ABC-CLIO; J.P.McCormick, Machiavellian democracy (Cambridge University Press 2012); J.P. McCormick ‘Machiavellian democracy: controlling elites with ferocious populism’ (2001) American Political Science Review, 95(2), 297-313.
  31.  On democracy and imagination, see C. Castoriadis, The imaginary institution of society. (MIT Press 1997); Y. Ezrahi, Imagined democracies: Necessary political fictions (Cambridge University Press 2012).
  32.  For an initial reconstruction and assessment of the EU participatory toolbox and its democratic value, A. Alemanno, ‘Europe’s Democracy Challenge: Citizen Participation in and Beyond Elections’, (2020) 21(1) German Law Journal, 35.
  33.  For a historical overview and defence of sortition see inter alia, Y. Sintomer ‘From deliberative to radical democracy? Sortition and politics in the twenty-first century’ (2018) Politics & Society, 46(3), 337-357.
  34.  Discourses on Livy Machiavelli 1513; J.P. McCormick, ‘Machiavellian democracy: controlling elites with ferocious populism’ (2021) American Political Science Review, 95(2), 297-313.
  35.  See, OECD, Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions, Catching the Deliberative Wave, June 2021.
  36.  Only 14 out of the 289 examples mapped by the 2021 OECD report relate to cases of institutionalised practices. See, OECD, Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions, Catching the Deliberative Wave, June 2021.
  37.  For an analysis of the reasons for and ongoing effort at turning temporary democratic innovations into sustainable long-term institutions, see, OECD, ‘Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions, Catching the Deliberative Wave’ (OECD Publishing June 2020), and D. Courant, ‘Deliberative Democracy, Legitimacy, and Institutionalisation. The Irish Citizens’ Assemblies’ (ECPR General Conference 2018 and APSA Annual Meeting 2018), where he discusses the move towards institutionalising representative deliberative processes.
  38.  A. Alemanno, ‘The challenges of Institutionalizing Citizens Assemblies in the EU’, Expert report for Bertelsmann Foundation, Programme ‘Democracy and Participation in Europe’, forthcoming.
  39.  This is at least what the European Parliament seems to expect from the Conference on the Future of Europe when it stated that this ‘will bring an important contribution in the further development of citizens’ participation in the EU policy-making process and pave the way for the establishment of new permanent mechanisms for citizens’ participation’. See European Parliament resolution s.63.
  40.  For a recent set of proposals of an EU citizens’ assembly, see the website of European Alternatives (; See also G. Smith, ‘The European Citizens’ Assembly’, in A. Alemanno and J. Organ, Citizen Participation in Democratic Europe. What’s Next for the EU? (ECPR Press / Rowman & Littlefield 2021); and G. de Burca, ‘An EU citizens’ assembly on refugee law and policy’ (2020) 21 (1) German Law Journal 23. For a less detailed call for permanent citizen participation in EU process see eg, A. Kavrakova, ‘Participation of European citizens in the EU legislative procedure’ (2021) ERA Forum 22,295–310 and L. Cooper et al., ‘The Rise of Insurgent Europeanism. Mapping Civil Society Visions of Europe 2018-2020’, LSE Ideas 2021.
  41.  For some early reflections, M.E. Warren, ‘Institutionalizing deliberative democracy’ in S.W. Rosenberg, Deliberation, participation and democracy: can the people govern? (Palgrave Macmillan 2007). See also S. Niemeyer and J. Jennstal, ‘Scaling up Deliberative Effects – Applying lessons of Mini-Publics’ in A. Bächtiger, J. S. Dryzek, J. Mansbridge and M. Warren (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Deliberative Democracy (Oxford University Press 2018); and U. Liebert and A. Gattig, Democratising the EU from below?: citizenship, civil society and the public sphere (Routledge 2016).
  42.; C. Berg and P. Głogowski (2016). ‘Heavy Stones in the Road: The ECI in Practice’ in M. Conrad, A. Knaut and K. Böttger (eds), Bridging the Gap? Opportunities and Constraints of the European Citizens’ Initiative (Nomos 2016), 219-222.
  43.  It has been demonstrated that, even with the establishment of a citizens’ assembly, the decision-making institutions of states continue to operate exactly as they do now, including the legislature, the executive (cabinet), the courts, the civil service, the police, and the military.
  44.  See, eg, M. Warren, ‘Participatory Deliberative Democracy in Complex Mass Societies’ (2020) Journal of Deliberative Democracy 16(2), 81–88.  
  45.  See, eg, L. Cooper, R. Dunin-Wąsowicz, M. Kaldor, N. Milanese and I. Rangelov, ‘The Rise of the Insurgent Europeanism, Mapping Civil Society Visions of Europe 2018-2020’, LSE Ideas, 2021, 36. 
  46.  G. de Burca, ‘An EU citizens’ assembly on refugee law and policy’ (2020) 21 (1) German Law Journal 23.
  47.  For some critical perspectives, see eg, M. Hammond, ‘Democratic innovations after the postdemocratic turn: between activation and empowerment’ (2021) Crit. Pol. Stud. 15(2), 174-191; C. Lafont, Deliberation, participation, and democratic legitimacy: should deliberative minipublics shape public policy?’ (2015) J. Polit. Philos. 23 (1), 40–63. 
  48.  R. Lewanski, ‘The Challenges of Institutionalizing Deliberative Democracy: The ‘Tuscany Laboratory’’ (August 20, 2011). Available at, p. 8.
  49.  For a seminal discussion, see T. Risse (ed.), European public spheres (Cambridge University Press 2015).
  50.  According to Article 9(1) TEU, ‘In all its activities, the Union shall observe the principle of the equality of its citizens, who shall receive equal attention from its institutions, bodies, offices and agencies….’.
  51.  For a first attempt at theorising the normative value of the principle of political equality under EU law, see A. Alemanno, ‘Leveling the EU Participatory Playing Field: A Legal and Policy Analysis of the Commission’s Public Consultations in Light of the Principle of Political Equality’ (2020) 26 (1-2) European Law Journal, 114.
  52.  R. Dworkin, Sovereign Virtue (Harvard University Press 2000) at 191.
  53.  S. Fredman, ‘Substantive equality revisited’ (2016) International Journal of Constitutional Law, 14(3),712-738. 
  54.  R.A. Dahl, Democracy and its Critics (Yale University Press 2008), 10. 
  55.  N. Gardels and N. Berggruen, Renovating democracy: Governing in the age of globalization and digital capitalism (Vol. 1) (Univerisity of California Press 2019).
  56.  Ch. Beitz, supra note 10; P. Pansardi, ‘Democracy, Domination and the Distribution of Power’ (March 2016) Revue Internationale de Philosophie.
  57.  R. Post, ‘Democracy and Equality’ (2006) Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 603, 24-36.
  58.  J. Keane, The future of representative democracy (Cambridge University Press 2011); P. Rosanvallon and A. Goldhammer, Counter-democracy: Politics in an age of distrust (Cambridge University Press 2008).
  59.  K. Nicolaïdis, ‘The Democratic Panopticon’ (July 6, 2021) Noema.
  60.  A. Alemanno, Lobbying for Change : Find Your Voice to Create a Better Society (Iconbooks 2017), at 273-274 (‘At a time of growing disenchantment with the democratic system, we have no choice but to transform mounting distrust into active democratic virtue’).
  61.  Recommendation 23.
  62.  V.A. Schmidt, Europe’s crisis of legitimacy: Governing by rules and ruling by numbers in the eurozone (Oxford University Press 2020). 
  63.  K. Nicolaïdis, Exodus, Reckoning, Sacrifice: Three Meanings of Brexit (Unbound 2019).
  64.  E. Suhay, B. Grofman, and A.H. Trechsel, ‘How and Why the Populist Radical Right Persuades Citizens’ in E. Suhay, B. Grofman and A. H. Trechsel (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Electoral Persuasion (Oxford University Press 2019). 
  65.  Globally, the share of individuals who say they are ‘dissatisfied’ with democracy has jumped from 47.9% in the mid-1990s to 57.5%, see R.S. Foa, A. Klassen, M. Slade, A. Rand and R. Collins, ‘The Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report 2020’ (2020 Cambridge, United Kingdom: Centre for the Future of Democracy).
  66.  See K. Nicolaïdis and R. Youngs, ‘Reversing the Democratic Gaze’ (Carnegie Foundation Democracy HubNovember 2021).
  67.  For a normative and future-oriented understanding of constituent power in the EU, see M. Patberg, Constituent Power in the European Union (Oxford University Press 2020), where he argues that EU integration builds upon a usurpation of constituent power.