CoFoE should become permanent exercise into EU legislative process
In an interview with EURACTIV, Professor Kalypso Nicolaïdis said that Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), stakeholders have done the best they can do, but to make it a permanent exercise within the EU, there needs to be room for constructive criticism.
What is your interest in the CoFoE, and how are you participating in it?
Unsurprisingly, I am fascinated by what I consider a crucial democratic experiment as an academic working on transnational democracy in the EU for three decades. So I was thrilled to be involved in various capacities from the beginning. I was asked to contribute as an expert in the citizens’ panel on democracy/values and rights, the rule of law and security.
In addition to this, I have been chairing the European University Institute (EUI) Democracy Forum in the last year and a half, along with Alberto Alemanno and Niccolò Milanese. Under this umbrella, we have brought together members from civil society, EU institutions and academia to follow the conference and provide input as ‘critical friends.’
Democracy seems to be experiencing a moment of crisis. How do you assess the European political momentum in which CoFoE is taking place?
In a way, democracy is defined as a state of permanent crisis as an impossible equilibrium between the need to aggregate the views of the many, who need to translate their togetherness into single policies and actions, and at the same time, the stress of differences and stubborn pluralism.
This tension is even more pronounced at the continental level, so it is not surprising that, in some ways, the EU has been in some version of democratic crisis throughout its history. Democracy needs to reinvent itself to adapt to people’s expectations and cultures and the changing global environment.
But different crises have different flavours. Today’s crisis finds its roots in the EU’s democratic birth defect – the fact that European integration has unfolded not as a process mainly informed by democratic decisions but as a process informed by politicians, democratically elected politicians, granted but operating either under bureaucratic or highly political agendas, in both cases with little EU-level accountability to the peoples of Europe.
This model has been progressively contested as the EU has dealt with increasingly sensitive issues that people care about because they have a distributive impact, like money, external policy, external borders, refugees, migrations and the like. And because people’s expectations have changed in the post-cold-war period.
As a result, a transcontinental democracy is needed now more than ever to anchor the EU level management of our polycrisis (refugee, financial, environmental, and of course, sanitary) in democratic accountability at all levels. In short, the more we bring competencies up, the more we need to ensure democracy all the way down.
In short, people must have more spaces to participate in decision-making in this transnational context. When for instance, the European Commission takes the lead in critical decisions on allocating resources for the Next Generation Fund, it needs to do it in total transparency to allow for a genuine “democratic panopticon”, as I have called it in Noema Magazine. In the Internet age, this is not only more crucial but beautifully possible. And EU level democratic institutions like the European Parliament and even the European Council must contribute to this process by serving as spaces where this polycentric democratic anchoring occurs.
Thus, the CoFoE has been convened in part to respond to these crises and see what we can do differently as we consolidate EU level cooperation and coordination in an ever-greater range of domains.
Do you think the CoFoE is creating a new public sphere? With which characteristics?
There is little doubt that a European public sphere is a prerequisite for a more democratic Europe. Many have spoken about a European public sphere consisting of at least two important pillars. First, and this may appear as tautological, it needs to exist materially. People need to speak to each other, debate, deliberate and publicly disagree across national and social contexts.
Second, it must exist in our collective imagination. Modern democracy is this magical moment when people (defined or not by national boundaries) imagine themselves as the author of their destiny, having finally stolen this mantle of supreme authority from gods and princes. So for a European public sphere to take shape, the transnational public needs to recognise itself as such, imagine itself as an existing democratic public, the guardian of something we can call publicness. This is the essence of what I call European “democracy.”
It is a tremendous challenge to encourage the organic growth of a cross border public sphere given our different languages, not only in the linguistical sense but also in a political and cultural sense.
At the beginning of January, panel 3 on environment, climate change and health did not come up with a recommendation on nuclear. They seem too polarised on such a topic and asked experts for help.
It is too polarised for sure in some cases. But I would argue that, more profoundly, a majority might have been too ambivalent and not able in such a short period to express such ambivalence in a way that could do justice to the complexity of the topic.
In a piece entitled “In praise of ambivalence”, I argued that while we tend these days to frame everything as the result of polarisation, the worse pathology of our political era, we need to recognise that such polarisation is more a characteristic of the political class than of ordinary citizens, who get co-opted in warring political tribes which turn a one-time vote into a social identity, what social scientists refer to as affective polarisation. I call this “Machiavelli trap”, whereby the balanced instincts of citizens in their everyday life get subverted by political and factional politics.
So, it is fair to say on the issue you raise that, as transition energy, nuclear is good or bad depending on the underlying conditions. It is not a black or white topic.
What is the solution for this from your point of view?
On this and other similar issues, we need to find ways to tap back into people’s more nuanced beliefs and underlying ambivalent intuitions and present these attitudes as valued and wise rather than the product of indifference or indecisiveness.
This, in turn, requires more thoughtful and evidence-based deliberation and, therefore, more self-reflectivity in our politics. All the evidence shows that citizens assemblies can significantly contribute to such a democratic culture of productive ambivalence, provided that citizens have the time and setting to debate in a spirit of empathy and mutual recognition. Polarised opinions often are diluted in the conversation.
You recently moderated a debate organised by the School of Transnational Governance of the European University Institute (EUI) in Florence, with the title: “For a Permanent EU Citizens’ Assembly: Why, When, How?” on whether deliberative democracy can be a permanent exercise in the EU.
Thank you for highlighting this fantastic debate hosted at EUI, the only one in a series of contributions we are making on this prospect. As many scholars, activists, and professionals involved in re-invigorating the practice of deliberative democracy have documented, we have been witnessing a deliberative wave enhanced by digital technologies. Citizens panels or assemblies have increased across the world, mainly at the local but also national level.
But transnational assemblies are in their infancy. While they have been discussed in relation to the COP26 Climate Summit in Glasgow or a global citizens’ assembly on Genome Editing, there is no doubt that the EU is at the forefront and that in the coming months, we will be debating how to transform the CoFoE’s four permanent panels into permanent features of the EU, with many variables to be decided, from selection, to process, to the status of decisions, etc.
A crucial question is how to ensure synergies between such deliberative democracy and formal institutions worldwide. The CoFoE opened a temporary space for deliberation, but we still need to forcefully demonstrate the legitimacy of this new transnational democratic pillar along with two complementary logics of legitimacy.
The first one has to do with the meaning of ‘representation’ that is explaining how a few hundred citizens chosen randomly ‘by an algorithm” (as some MPs say dismissively) can appear as legitimate actors to “represent” you and me. The core idea here combines the ancient concept of sortition as rotation (you govern and are governed in turn) with the modern concept of sortition as ‘statistical representative sample.’ Individually you are just you, but together you mirror society – this is the inverse of parliamentary logic, for instance.
The second logic involves the process itself and how citizens assemblies can be integrated with the current formal system to supplement elections and existing institutions.
These two logics are present, all-be-it very imperfectly in the current CoFoE process. But citizens need to appropriate them.
Do you have any recommendations for CoFoE organisers?
I have been doing so off-the-record and support many of the recommendations from civil society organisations such as CTOE. But to be honest, I prefer to watch, support and comment at this stage.
The time will come to assess the outcome, including whether the process should lead to a bona fide convention on Treaty change. But much can also be achieved short of it to bring about a real EU democratic ecosystem. This cautious attitude might reflect my ambivalence. As our conversation reflects, I personally both strongly support this initiative and doubt it can fulfil my expectations and that of all the ‘democracy activists’ involved. Hopefully, if we remain vigilant and continue to build on the efforts and resources that have been put in this process by EU institutions and citizens alike, it will eventually permanently transform the democratic make-up of the European Union.