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Democratic odyssey: From Athens to Europe

Following the blockage of the European Citizens' Initiative to ban the caging of farm animals, Sarah Händel, a member of the national board of the German NGO "Mehr Demokratie", is campaigning for a permanent European Citizens' Assembly.

21 November 2023


(cc Joe Mathews)

It could have been a transnational democratic success story. A story that shows us what can be achieved when European civil societies work together to take on responsibility for an important issue. We are talking about "End the Cage Age".

"End the Cage Age" is a European citizens' initiative that was launched in 2020. The aim is to end the caging of 300 million farm animals in the EU by 2027 in order to achieve greater animal welfare in food production. More than 130 organisations joined forces to overcome the high hurdle of collecting one million signatures from at least seven EU countries. The campaign was a great success: 1.4 million signatures from all 27 EU member states were collected and submitted to the EU Commission.

A surprising answer

Once the official hurdle has been cleared, the Commission is obliged to address the proposed issue and provide a response. And the answer was quite surprising, because it was: "Yes". For the first time ever since the establishment of the European Citizens' Initiative in 2012, the EU Commission had decided to take up a petition from the public in full.

In its written response, the Commission stated that it would draw up draft legislation and submit it by the end of 2023 to the parliament. It thus made a binding commitment to take action. A ground-breaking success, which the European Parliament also helped to push through with a large majority of 558 votes in favour of "End the Cage Age". And indeed, it was delivered.

Comprehensive draft legislation

A leak from the beginning of the year shows how comprehensive the draft laws for better animal welfare were. They went far beyond the end of cage farming and included additional regulations in other areas, such as mutilation, slaughter and long transport routes. According to the organisation "Compassionate Farming", the drafts represented the most far-reaching reforms for animal welfare worldwide.

But then things took a turn behind the scenes. What had already been foreshadowed in some alarming media reports became a certainty when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen failed to mention the project at all in her State of the EU speech in September 2023.

Rescue operation failed

A spontaneous coalition of over 70 European non-governmental organisations and organisers of other European Citizens' Initiatives (ECIs) tried to persuade the Commission to uphold its commitment to the 1.4 million signatories of the EU Citizens' Initiative "End the Cage Age" by means of an open letter. However, when the EU Commission's work programme was published on 17 October 2023, the grand plans were reduced to unambitious minor adjustments exclusively to animal transport.

Thanks to research by the British newspaper "The Guardian" and an alliance led by the Lighthouse Reports, it is possible to understand how extraordinarily aggressive the meat lobby was in opposing the planned changes. A newly founded lobby group had joined forces in Brussels and launched a negative campaign. It acted at key points at all levels within the Commission, targeting the relevant senior officials and staff. In addition, there were new, high-profile campaigns in the style of an activist network.

Methods similar to those of the oil lobby

The report by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which also recommends an end to cage farming, was also attacked in a delegitimising manner and presented as grossly misleading. According to a professor from Miami, the meat lobby is increasingly using the same methods as the oil lobby to fend off necessary changes.

In the end, the lobby groups were successful with their tactics. For the promise of participation in European democracy, the whole case is a tragedy and a lesson in its own inadequacy. 1.4 million citizens' signatures, a public pledge from the EU Commission, comprehensive support from the EU Parliament, a large number of opinion polls with stable support of over 80 per cent of the European population for higher animal welfare standards - none of this was enough for the European institutions to prevail against a strong lobby.

Greater importance for citizen participation

After such a defeat, what are the chances when it comes to the countless adjustments that the Green Deal is trying to achieve in order to provide us with an urgently needed framework for making our societies more climate-friendly? For our democracies, the European one but also all others, to have a better chance of really tackling the necessary changes, citizen participation must play a much greater role. Because if the importance of citizen participation and the positions it generates increases, the power of democratic institutions to defend themselves against pressure from strong lobby groups will also increase.

What is needed is an ecosystem of diverse citizen participation that is well connected to existing institutions and can create new democratic legitimity and pressure for transparency and justification. This can give those who have creative power the strength to push through important issues, even when a lobbying storm is raging.

The Democratic Odyssey

Despite its promises, currently the Commission can simply drop a project again. It does not even feel compelled to explain this action to the citizens or to justify itself. Because there is a poorly developed common European public sphere, such behaviour is not followed by a collective public outcry - most people in Europe are completely unaware of it. We need to start working on that.

But what could such an ecosystem of participation at EU level look like? Mehr Demokratie is currently working on this together with many other European democracy organisations, democracy researchers and democracy promoters under the unusual title "The Democratic Odyssey".

It takes courage to set off

It is indeed an odyssey that we are embarking on, because it will be a journey of which no one knows the end. A journey that will encounter many obstacles and will cause much discussion and turmoil. And yet we have decided that we need the courage to set off in order to try out new ideas, structures and formats. The Odyssey wants to make the idea of an ecosystem of democratic participation in the EU more tangible, together with all those who care about the development of democracy.

The Democratic Odyssey began in Athens on 26 September 2023. At the birthplace of democracy itself, on the hill next to the Acropolis, citizens gathered again after more than 2,400 years. And just like in ancient Athens, they spoke to each other as equals. In our case, about what democracy in the EU needs today in order to serve the people. The aim is to develop a vision of how we can establish a permanent Citizens' Assembly in the EU and endow it with true legitimacy and effectiveness.

A tried and tested instrument

Citizens' assemblies are a tried and tested instrument that brings together randomly selected citizens for several days. After being informed by various experts, they discuss in small groups as equals and at the end draw up a joint citizens' report on the topic under discussion. In this way, political solutions for polarising challenges can be developed in a collaborative mode.

The proposals integrate diverse perspectives and are not characterised by individual interests or power politics. The permanent citizens' assembly is a starting point for the much larger democratic ecosystem mentioned above. The permanent citizens' assembly stands for the permanent enrichment of representative democracy with a more direct voice of European citizens. A voice that absolutely must move from the periphery to the centre of European democracy.

Many unanswered questions

The principle of a permanent citizens' assembly is therefore the starting point for a larger vision, but there are hundreds of unanswered questions. Who is authorised to select the topics for the citizens' assembly, the composition of which is randomly selected new for each topic? How can the European Citizens' Initiative be cleverly linked to the citizens' assembly? How can we ensure that the results of the citizens' assembly are given appropriate political weight?

Will there eventually be digitally organised referendums on the results of the citizens' assembly or on other citizens' proposed issues? Who will then decide on the exact questions or proposals to be put to the vote? How do we create an inclusive digital space in which we can build a European space for debate and participation across all language barriers? What new forms of digital citizen participation are accessible at a low threshold and what infrastructure is needed for this?

The journey is the destination

The democratic odyssey should not get bogged down in theory. It is intended to bring together academics, civil society and practitioners to make concrete visions of the future of European democracy tangible and lively. We want to develop the future and the path to it together with citizens. That is why we are organising our own transnational European Citizens' Assembly in 2024. This will serve as a concrete learning template and its concept will take into account the various democratic levels in the EU, right down to the local level.

A concept for exactly how this European Citizens' Assembly will be organised is currently being developed in a process that is kept as open as possible. A so-called "Constituency Network" has been set up. It is open to all organisations that would like to get involved. In addition, there will be opportunities to find out more about the Odyssey project via the "Power to the People" seminar series, which Mehr Demokratie is helping to organise. The events are currently being planned.

The power of the many

Renewing European democracy, deepening it, making it resilient against its appropriation by individual group interests is truly an Odyssey. We want to set the power, the needs and the dreams of the many against the power of individual groups. To create the appropriate framework conditions and creative formats for this will require our collective power of ideas and plenty of room for experimentation. Today more than ever, the success of democracy is a question of its concrete design.


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Last update: 01 December 2023

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