25 May 2022 | by Athena Tsalikidou (LLM in EU Law, UCL) and Evangelia Lida Katsanouli (Legal and Political Theory MA, UCL)

The mechanisms of deliberative democracy can save European democracy by establishing forums where citizens can voice their concerns and priorities. Such processes have already taken place in Austria, Poland, France, Canada, Switzerland, and the USA. More recently, the EU launched the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), which provides European citizens with the opportunity to get involved in the deliberation of ideas on the future of Europe. In this article, we explain the theory of deliberative democracy and link it to the features and processes of the CoFoE.

Deliberative democracy can be described as “talk-centric” with a focus on the communicative procedures of opinions that come well before voting, or even defy the value of the voting process. It is the idea that reasonable deliberation plays a central role in the political life of a democratic society; it perceives the democratic process as a collective discussion. Advocates of democratic deliberation point towards its potential to empower the marginalized, arbitrate differences, moderate self-interest, generate reasonable policy and even possibly reach consensus. The primary requirement that most deliberative democracy theorists underscore is a form of collective identity. For a deliberative process to be a valuable process, it ought to reflect a degree of “social intelligibility of interaction”. In other words, the individuals and communities deliberating ought to express opinions that are mutually intelligible to one another. According to Jürgen Habermas, this is made possible when these individuals function under certain intersubjectively shared principles, such as reciprocity and the substantiveness of justice. 

Habermas presents his concept of democracy in deliberative terms, supporting that democratic legitimacy postulates that the decision-making process should take place within the broader context of public discussion, in which all contributors can debate different matters in a careful and reasonable way. In this sense, decisions can be reached only when this form of deliberation, which is a form of collective reflection, has occurred. This discourse theory of democracy explains how these “communicative conditions” legitimize “political opinion” and “will formation”. Similarly, it goes further to link the legitimization of political opinion to the legitimization of political enterprise, using deliberation as a means of overcoming the democratic deficit. In other words, democratic deliberation is able to reduce the democratic deficit and legitimize political action. The success of this deliberative process rests on the institutionalization of the communication process and its conditions, where law plays an important role in their crystallization, rather than the collective action of the citizens, as well as on its interaction with informed public opinions. This is how deliberative politics is legitimized within the constitutional framework. 

The CoFoE is a one-year project that aims at opening up a space for debate among European citizens on Europe’s challenges and priorities. From its very definition, it is evident that the CoFoE is an institutionalized application of deliberative democratic principles. To assess this claim, we shall focus on the CoFoE’s three basic pillars: the Multilingual Digital Platform, the European Citizens Panels and the Conference Plenary

The Multilingual Digital Platform is an online forum where any European citizen can share an idea, organize an event, or publish a report on the event’s findings. These feed into the discussions of the European Citizens’ Panels and Conference Plenary. However, for this to be considered a form of deliberative democracy, the ideas posted ought to be intelligible to one another. Linguistically, this problem has been solved through machine translation. Nevertheless, some of the content can be too country-specific, reducing the degree of intelligibility between the different members of the Platform. In such cases, individuals who may find certain topics unintelligible may not have an opinion or interest in the matter, fragmenting the discussion into country-specific clusters.  Moreover, the number of European citizens that are active on the platform is too small to be considered a pan-European activity. The issues of intelligibility and active participation, however, have the potential to be solved over time. If, across this one-year period, citizen activity continues to grow and country-specific issues are reinterpreted on a macro-European scale in the reporting process, the Multilingual Digital Platform has the potential of being established as an innovative deliberation process taking advantage of the innovations of our time. 

The European Citizens’ Panels and the Conference Plenary are two processes in which European citizens play a crucial role, facilitated and moderated, however, by experts and EU institutions. In the former, citizens discuss the findings from the Multilingual Digital Platform, while in the latter they discuss European Citizens’ Panels’ conclusions. The unprecedented reality of a collective of citizens from all over Europe, from any socio-economic and ethnographic background, allows citizens to see themselves and deliberate as Europeans on European issues, thus creating a sense of “collective identity.” 

However, it is questionable whether European citizens can produce political opinions that are “reasonable” in order for the discussion to be fruitful and resemble a true experiment of deliberative democracy. Firstly, most citizens lack the necessary expertise in relation to the nine topics discussed in the course of the Conference, ranging from environmental matters to economic policy, which are technically complicated. Secondly, deliberative assemblies function better in local settings, where participants can better understand each other and have a better grasp of the issues under consideration. It is doubtful whether such processes can be successful at a continental level, or for such a wide range of policy issues. All these render it more difficult for European citizens to come up with political opinions that are informed and reasonable, which is a prerequisite for the proper functioning of deliberative democracy experiments and their legitimization. 

One controversy that has been discussed among commentators concerns whether the CoFoE should have the end goal of policy reform. As it is designed currently, the CoFoE will not necessarily lead to any tangible policy reform; it is a process that champions process, not result. It has already been made clear that the process is unlikely to result in Treaty changes, because many Member States still consider this a “taboo.” In light of the definition of deliberative democracy, it suffices for the CoFoE to be a deliberative process without direct policy reform to be successful. Nevertheless, if citizens’ voices are heard but not considered by those in power, the democratic deficit is not truly reduced. In other words, it is not necessary for the CoFoE to reach tangible policy reform, but it is necessary for EU officials to be evidently influenced in their policy by the opinions and worries expressed at the Conference. 

In conclusion, deliberative democracy is established on the idea that public deliberation of citizens is a crucial feature of democracy, which legitimizes the decision-making process through its institutionalization. The CoFoE may not be the ideal model of a deliberative experiment, but it has some features which have the potential to render the decision-making process legitimate without necessarily resulting in changes in the Treaties or the existing legal framework. The creation of the Multilingual Digital Platform, the European Citizens’ Panels, and the Conference Plenary may increase intelligibility and create a sense of European identity. The CoFoE constitutes a good start for the incorporation of such initiatives in the workings of the Union.

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