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Summary – Democracy and the Responsibility of Civil Society

Workshop: Democracy and the Responsibility of Civil Society

Number of participants: 16

Speakers and Moderators:
Carsten Berg and Gerald Häfner

The workshop began with two short input speeches. In the first, Gerald Häfner identified the “democracy question” as the most important one for our future in Europe as it determines the quality of life and freedom of choice in Europe in all the various policy fields such as health, education and agriculture. The issue of democracy implies fundamental and deep systemic supplementary questions: Who decides in Europe on political questions? For what reasons? Are decisions taken only for specific interests or are they taken in the interest of all of us? Can we influence decisions as citizens? If we cannot influence the European project and if we are reduced to being mere spectators the question arises: whose world is this, whose Europe is this? The problem is that the EU originally began as an exclusive elite and economic project based on cooperation between states without any participation by citizens. As EU affairs are within the prerogative of the executive powers (national governments), national parliaments have no say in negotiations on fundamental questions. The European Parliament has been fighting to compensate for this democratic deficit, but it still remains too weak. In contrast to other parliaments it does not have its own legislative right of initiative, nor does it have the final decision on EU laws. Gerald Häfner demonstrated this by quoting the example of the negotiations for the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) implementing regulation for which he was co-rapporteur when he was a member of the European Parliament from 2009-2014. 

The second speaker, Carsten Berg, connected the workshop topic with Brexit. In his view it is very striking that EU leaders are carefully avoiding any reference to “democracy” or to modern forms of citizen participation as a way to address the European crisis. However Europe’s biggest crisis makes it necessary to devote sufficient time to reflecting on fundamental questions: How do we ensure that the European project reclaims its promise of peace, democracy and solidarity? How can Europe work with, by and for its people? While everyone agrees that change within the EU must happen, the crucial question now is how? It has been proposed that these questions should be addressed in a European constitutional assembly process that would seek to change the fundamental legal base of the EU: the EU Treaties. EU leaders are reluctant to take the first step in this direction, however, as they know that they ultimately have to win the consent of European citizens in a referendum in at least some member states (where a public vote is required for treaty ratification). But this is what leaders fear the most and want to avoid by all means - especially as European citizens are increasingly critical about the EU. This is the dangerous trap in which the European project is caught and which has so far blocked any fundamental democratic renewal. It seems that EU leaders distrust and fear citizens and the less they provide channels for participation the more skepticism and anger increases. Carsten Berg concluded that the ideal case would be if we -citizens and civil society - were to unite for the democratization of the European Union and call for a European convention (Art. 48 TEU) themselves. The best instrument at hand to do so remains the European Citizens’ Initiative – which could be used to launch an ECI for a constitutional assembly in which we, the citizens, can explicitly elaborate the kind of future for Europe which we want and need. For this it must be clear from the start of any constitutional assembly process that its outcome will be put back to the EU’s citizens for a direct vote.

During the discussion comments were largely focused on fundamental questions regarding citizen participation, citizenship education and the quest for direct democracy. Following the given example of Brexit, most participants agreed that without proper preparation and well-designed processes, direct democracy could result in misinformation and chaos.

Brexit and Democracy
In this context the fear of increased populism was also raised. In response, it was explained that the Brexit referendum was not a form of direct democracy but was a top-down-triggered plebiscite instead of a bottom-up-triggered vote, i.e. a citizen-initiated referendum, as pro-democracy movements in Europe demand. The British government did not allow for any alternative options nor did it clarify in advance what “Brexit” (leaving the EU) would mean in practice; it is this which has led to so much chaos. It was also stressed that the Brexit vote was only announced as a result of internal power struggles within the British Conservative party and in order to silence Cameron’s internal opponents. This was not direct democracy as is desired - and also known, for example from Switzerland or the German Bundes-länder, where citizens can trigger a public vote in order to correct policies and raise the issues that are important to them. It was made clear that direct democracy must be embedded in a framework that allows for sufficient time, unbiased information and debate. Only then can citizens become law-makers.

Citizens as law-makers – what is needed
A participant asked if we would not first need more civic education before ‘injecting’ more direct democracy. In response, the point was made that human beings are not born as social and democratic citizens into this world, but that our ability to learn enables us to develop and to become so. Every generation experiences this challenge under new circumstances and today the biggest challenge would be to ensure the survival of democracy in the context of a globalized and transnational economy. In the best case the European Union (EU) can be a response to this challenge through its potential as a transnational democracy. It was also said that citizens can only learn to become law-makers if they can experience the process and apply a “learning by doing” method - just as one also cannot learn to swim in a pool without water. Finally it was stressed that citizen-initiated referendums have highly educational effects on a society. Once citizens are given responsibility for taking a decision they deem important, people inform themselves and identify much more with the given political system.

Participants also asked for a definition of democracy beyond participation rights. On this aspect it was said that democracy also needs to ensure equal life chances to citizens. Otherwise we would run the risk that citizens feel lost, forgotten and excluded - which makes citizens turn to radical voices. Participants emphasized that this has happened in the UK and that the EU systems, as they are constructed today, largely serve those who are already rich: large multinational companies and banks.

The key role of civil society
To conclude, most participants stressed the key role of civil society and its  responsibility to bridge the gap between the EU institutions and its citizens. Participants agreed on the importance of citizens becoming law-makers in the political system of the European Union. They also highlighted the need to address the importance of first discussing the fundamental questions mentioned above, but also criticized the lack of workshop time to focus on projects and actions aimed at overcoming the European crisis. A key argument identified at this workshop is that denying participation now out of the fear of populism is only making the situation worse, increasing people’s anger at being ignored - and driving them into the arms of the populists.  In particular it was stressed that we can only overcome the anxiety about the future that we fear if we develop images and ideas of what we really want. It is the responsibility of all of us, citizens and civil society, to do so by making use of democracy.

Summary by Carsten Berg
November 2016