16 November 2023

‘Democracy without politics’? Contesting the EU’s conception of institutionalised citizen participation

By Alvaro Oleart
Visitors in the European Parliament
To legitimise itself, the EU is increasingly relying on disintermediated citizen participation. But a vibrant democracy is impossible without political contestation.

The EU has recently organised a series of ‘citizen-centred’ processes that may be indicative of a new pattern in terms of democracy and participation. The main ‘democratic innovation’ has taken place in the context of the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), where a set of  European citizens’ panels (and also the national citizens’ panels, which were organised by member states and had to follow a particular criteria set by the CoFoE in order to be officially considered as such) were organised, and where the CoFoE plenary combined different types of representation (randomly selected citizens, EU institutions’ representatives, national MPs, civil society or trade unions). Similarly, the European Commission organised its own set of European citizens’ panels post-CoFoE.

The EU’s ‘citizen turn’

Conceived as the ‘citizen turn’ (Oleart, 2023), the logic with which the EU has organised these exercises is that by reaching out ‘directly’ to citizens, it is reducing the distance between ‘Brussels’ and ‘everyday citizens’. While this type of political exercises has been endorsed by some political theorists as a ‘new paradigm of democracy’ (Landemore, 2020), the way in which it has been implemented has led to the reproduction of the traditionally depoliticised and consensus-oriented understanding of democracy that is hegemonic in the EU context (Crespy, 2014).

It is fitting in this sense that it is the European Commission that has come out as the dominant EU institution in promoting institutionalised ‘citizen participation’ through the post-CoFoE set of European citizens’ panels. The emphasis on ‘embedding’ citizen participation within the consensus-oriented policy-making process of the Commission complicates the possibility of putting forward a more confrontational approach that would link up to existing political conflicts and involve relevant mediators. In turn, such processes fail to connect ‘citizen participation’ with the broader public sphere, and depoliticise ‘politics’. The underlying conception of ‘democracy’ is one that has no ‘politics’: ‘democracy without politics’ (see also Oleart and Theuns, 2022).

Hollowing out democracy through depoliticisation

This depoliticised approach to democracy has a demobilising effect, since political parties, trade unions and civil society actors are discouraged to participate. The idea of democracy without politics reflects well how EU institutions may actually deepen the hollowing out (Mair, 2013) of EU democracy through processes such as the citizens’ panels.

Pluralist democracy politics requires collective actors (political parties, trade unions, civil society, social movements) able to put forward their ideas in the public sphere and confront them with alternative ideas and opposing collective actors. Disintermediated citizen participation sidelines these actors, and constructs its political legitimacy on the basis of a randomly-selected group of citizens that are supposed to be ‘descriptively representative’ of the broaden citizenry. In doing so, it cuts the feedback loop with the public sphere and embeds a strong technocratic component in the political design.

Furthermore, often the Eurocentric justification of citizen assemblies stems from conceiving democracy as a system of equality that was ‘born’ in ‘Europe’. This is particularly problematic, considering that ancient Athens ‘democracy’ was primarily based on male “labouring citizens” (see Wood, 2015), as women were sidelined from political life and much of the system relied on slavery.

Private consultancies replace traditional intermediate actors

Furthermore, rather than actually ‘disintermediating’ the political debate by articulating a ‘direct’ relation between EU institutions and EU citizens, what is taking place is a redefinition of what mediation looks like. The European citizen panels illustrated this process, as they were operationally organised by a consortium of private consultancies subcontracted by the EU.

However, this redefinition of mediation at the EU level is done on the (discursive) grounds of disintermediation, and is a type of mediation that is disconnected from the public sphere and mass politics. Thus, the emergence of deliberative democracy entrepreneurs that are ‘selling’ a new form of mediation to EU institutions raises normative questions about European democracy.

Citizen Assemblies should shape discourse, not draft policy

There are alternatives to the EU’s depoliticised approach to citizen participation, as there are ways to include democratic innovations in a way that are coherent with an agonistic democracy logic (Mouffe, 2005). While there is a tension between making such exercises oriented towards political institutions or to the public sphere, there are some positive experiences. For instance, the Irish citizen assemblies meaningfully influenced the discourse on abortion and same sex marriage in the public sphere (and the assembly itself was influenced by the broader public debate). Similarly, the ‘Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat’ has heavily contributed to shaping public discourse on climate change in France. Thus, they provide a good example of how the micro-macro link (Olsen and Trenz, 2014) may be established.

As argued by Lafont (2015: 60), “Deliberative democrats should endorse the use of mini-publics for shaping public opinion, not public policies.” Accordingly, mini-publics should be oriented towards feeding the public sphere, rather than delegating on mini-publics the task of drafting concrete policy proposals.

A vibrant democracy requires politicised contestation

Overall, this emphasises that constructing reforms uniquely ‘from above’, such as the European citizen panels, will not meaningfully contribute to make EU politics a question of mass politics. Such processes fail to connect the citizens’ panels with the broader public sphere. In consequence, they depoliticise political participation. Instead, participatory democracy in the EU needs to be  politicised and closely integrated into mainstream democratic politics (see Youngs, 2022 ).

Thus, reclaiming an agonistic public sphere nourished by strong collective actors offers a promising way forward to develop democratic innovations that meaningfully contribute to democratise the EU. If instead of attempting to sample a ‘descriptively representative’ group of EU citizens via mini-publics, the focus of the EU would turn towards a public sphere perspective with an emphasis on democratic pluralism and (agonistic) politicisation, the potential for EU democratisation would emerge.

For democracy to be vibrant, processes of contestation should include the confrontation of real alternative visions of society, and open transnational deliberation on these alternatives in healthy and politicised public spheres. Democracy can only emerge by questioning current power structures in the EU context and fostering political debates around them.

Strengthening collective actors

It is thus crucial to move towards a more politicised understanding of democracy. Building a more democratic EU requires developing social and political collective structures that facilitate spaces for collective action and dissensus. The autonomy with which EU politics operates vis-à-vis national political debates is a major stumbling block for EU democratisation.

Against the background of the disintermediated and depoliticised ‘citizen participation’ mechanisms that the EU (and the European Commission in particular) is increasingly envisaging, a strengthening of collective actors at the national and transnational level is central to any attempt to democratise the EU. This entails a broader reconfiguration of the way in which democracy is conceived and facilitating activist and agonistic conflict-oriented ways of engaging in EU politics.

Transnational activism

The ‘democracy without politics’ approach contrasts with that of ongoing transnational activist processes. Movements that focus on organising solidarity and collective action bring together actors from different fields into a common but diverse political project, and eventually lead to contestation in the public sphere and mass politics.

This is not without challenges, as can be seen from the internal tensions within social movements trying to materialise transnational political coalitions. The primary challenges relate to transversal and intersectional solidarity, remaining coloniality, the agonistic channelling of tensions, and the construction of permanent political structures. Still, these experiences offer a window of hope in terms of the way in which they contrast with the EU’s mechanisms of ‘citizen participation’.

The EU needs democratic innovations – but no citizen-washing

All this is not to say that democratic innovations do not have a place in a hypothetical EU’s democratised political architecture. Rather, the point is that they should be embedded in such a way that they connect with ongoing collective actors and foster a transnational agonistic public sphere.

If unable to undertake such task, the launch of deliberative mechanisms via mini-publics is unlikely to contribute to the democratisation of the EU. If participation mechanisms operate as a citizen-washing exercise only, they will undermine, rather than improve, the EU’s democratic legitimacy.

Alvaro Oleart is a FRS-FNRS postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science and Institute for European Studies of the Université Libre de Bruxelles

This article is based on the author’s book ‘Democracy Without Politics in EU Citizen Participation: From European Demoi to Decolonial Multitude’, which has been published by Palgrave Macmillan in October 2023.

Pictures: Visitors in the European Parliament: European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0], via Flickr [cropped]; portrait Alvaro Oleart: private [all rights reserved].

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