Democracy in Europe is in distress, as it is in the rest of the world. Threatened from within and without by electoral interference, mass surveillance, disinformation and partisan polarisation, a toxic cocktail of populism and authoritarianism is sweeping the globe from America to Russia, India to China. At a time when action is sorely needed, at planetary level, to tackle such issues as environmental collapse, resource scarcity and future pandemics, nation-states are struggling, fatally, to work together across borders.
The EU is feeling the squeeze on all sides. While some continue to see the continent as a safe haven – a last bastion of liberal democracy – this is no time for complacency. War is devastating Ukraine, and the risk of contagion is serious. Public trust in institutions is declining, electoral participation plummeting. And with the rise of far-right governments in Hungary, Italy and most recently Slovakia the rule of law is in a fragile state.
Democrats of all stripes now face the most urgent question of our time: How can Europe deliver faster, fairer, and more decisive action on issues of planetary importance, from climate, energy and migration policy to the regulation of weapons, chemicals, food, digital spaces and emerging technologies?
We believe that the answer lies in empowering publics of all stripes to resist authoritarianism – in striking a new bargain between traditional representative politics and genuine citizen engagement with the dilemmas of planetary politics in every sphere of life.
Transnational citizens’ assemblies are at the heart of such democratic renewal. Across the EU, peoples’ juries and panels of all kinds are already shaking-up inertia. Municipal and regional councils are coordinating participatory budgeting via trans-local networks. MEPs are integrating deliberative techniques and transnational problem-solving exercises into party-political consultations. The European Commission has gone even further by convening randomly selected, stratified, multi-lingual citizens’ panels to bring people directly into the policy-making process.
But what if there was scope for something more ambitious still? What if a broader European public could be mobilized to take ownership of these innovations, and move the needle even further? What if cross border participatory deliberation – networked, polycentric, multilingual – were to become an integral part of the EU political system as a whole, enabling citizens to connect across borders, and not only governments, parliamentary representatives, regulators and corporations? Could the EU pioneer a fourth branch of government in this way, while finding inspiration in other democratic experiments around the world?
We believe what is most needed today is a big, bold, broad and inclusive campaign for a permanent citizens’ assembly in the EU. A Democratic Odyssey, made up of ships all kinds, of all colours, big and small. Activists, artists, journalists, political scientists and NGOs will play vital roles. As will MPs, MEPs and other policymakers. There’s no doubt we will face storms and ambushes along the way. But we trust the collective intelligence of our flotilla to set the right coordinates. By working with schools, libraries, theatres and workplaces, by empowering under-represented groups and developing collaborations with citizen media we will author a narrative, together, that will convince the naysayers.
We are under no illusions. The path to such an assembly will take years, perhaps decades. But what better time to start this journey? With European elections next year, and a new Commission agenda to come, we have a unique chance to grow our fleet. As the institutions refine their experiments, social movements are in the streets and squares calling ever-louder for assemblies. The Odyssey will push for holistic renewal, integrating deliberative democracy with proposals for transnational electoral lists as well as citizens’ initiatives and referendums that are giving people a direct say on the issues that matter most. By bringing these strands together, through the synthesising energy of a permanent transnational assembly, we will offer an ambitious yet credible path to reinvigorating and revitalising EU politics.