Democracy is more than elections

By Laura Sullivan, Executive Director of WeMove Europe, November 13th 2020

The image of Donald Trump on a golf course refusing to concede election defeat got me thinking. It served as a blunt reminder of just how much power certain leaders hold on to. Admittedly the US is not the only place where abuse of power has gotten out of control in recent times. When I think of Europe in the last weeks, a far less publicised image comes to mind.

It is that of David Sassoli, the President of the European Parliament. We were so shocked by his decision last month to bring forward a key vote on the future of agricultural subsidies by one day. It sounds like no big deal - who cares, right? But it was about how €60 billion of agricultural subsidies would be spent each year. The date change confused the whole vote, leading to allegations that the powerful agribusiness lobby played a role. [1] The result was a vote that totally undermined the EU’s commitment to climate action and has led to calls from Fridays for Future to #withdrawthecap. [2] If such last-minute tricks can be allowed, where is people power? What say do we have over Europe’s most expensive cash distribution system, within which the most money goes to those with the most hectares of land?

Another image is of our partner Emma from the Debt Observatory in Globalisation in Spain. She is shaking her head and explaining to me that up to now, there is no way to find out how literally billions of euros of post-COVID EU recovery funds will be spent in Spain. This is not a Spanish story. Right now, activists and movements in Spain and all over Europe are fighting to influence how that money is spent to make sure the transition after COVID is truly green and truly just.

So where is people power in Europe right now? My view is this: we still need a heck of a lot more of it. People turning up to vote every 4-5 years is not enough for democracy to work. In his short and brilliant book called 'Against Elections' David Van Reybrouck points out that we need other ways to get involved in what happens between elections.

This is precisely why WeMove Europe exists - to ensure people in Europe know what is happening, and to ensure we can find ways together to drive Europe towards a positive future. We do this via all kinds of actions, starting with the petition, which signals what people care about and followed up with demonstrations (when we can), twitter storms, poster actions, direct emails, direct calls to or meetings with decision makers.

But we still need way more ways to be drivers of change beyond what organisations like WeMove Europe can do. Right now, there is one I’m really curious about: Citizens' Assemblies have been a bit of a nerdy topic so far but they are starting to kick ass where it matters and may be about to hit the mainstream.

Where I come from, in Ireland, Citizens' Assemblies have been held on some of the most controversial topics of our time: gay marriage, abortion and climate change. The one on abortion hit me pretty hard because it's the issue that has polarised my country for as long as I can remember. In 2016, the Irish parliament set up a Citizens' Assembly on abortion before the referendum on the same issue. They randomly-selected 99 people, through using criteria to make the group more demographically representative. Those people spent five weekends listening to presentations from both sides of the debate and then ... drumroll... they got to talk about it. Imagine. They listened, shared, disagreed, changed their opinion or stuck to them. They deliberated. 64% of the participants ultimately voted for no restrictions in early pregnancy. [3] It led to the Prime Minister publicly changing his view on abortion. Some felt the Citizens' Assembly was out of touch. But the subsequent referendum saw 66% voting in favour of removing the restrictions. This experience and the others on gay marriage and climate have been massive for Ireland, for our democracy and our identity.

Meanwhile in France, a recent Citizens' Assembly on climate change led to 149 creative and exceptional recommendations, 146 of which Macron has pledged to fight for. One of those is about making ‘ecocide’, or the destruction of nature, a punishable crime - which is about time. Another is about putting climate goals in the Constitution. [4] Imagine how this could lock in positive change and thumb its nose at electoral cycles and changing political priorities?

We are interested in this because right now activists all over Europe are excited about the potential of Citizens' Assemblies. A climate assembly is one of Extinction Rebellion’s three main demands - they understand the need to improve democracy in order to combat climate change. Citizens' Assemblies are already planned in Spain, Denmark, Germany and Scotland (though lockdowns have slowed things down). Cities across Poland are doing the same thing. And the German-speaking Community in Belgium has gone further than anyone else to make them an official part of the state decision making system.

So, what if we brought this to the European level? What could that mean for discussions of climate change, where that particularly large challenge knows no borders? What could it bring to debate over CAP subsidies, that has been raging for decades almost entirely without citizen voices? Or maybe, just maybe, on the future of the European Union? The US election saw millions of Europeans glued to their screens for updates. Could a Citizens' Assembly help make things a bit more real and draw Europeans closer to Europe?

One thing is for sure: at a time of fake news, conspiracy and rising polarisation, it would be pretty handy to have a place to bring people together to hear each other out, to discuss and deliberate. The conversation can’t just happen on Twitter.

What we want to know is this: are you as excited about the potential of Citizens' Assemblies as we are? Should we be campaigning for a Citizens' Assembly on climate on the European level?