Europe Turns Toward Citizen Engagement

In America, the political imagination is stuck in post-Trump trauma.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Worried about global authoritarian creep, U.S. President Joe Biden is seeking to gather like-minded nations into a geopolitical club defined not by what democracy is, can be or must become, but by what it is not. Yet, while all authoritarian states are undemocratic, all democracies are troubled in their own ways. Each needs to urgently attend to its resilience, fixing flaws within rather than, in Reinhold Niebuhr’s words, posing as “tutors of mankind in its pilgrimage to perfection.” 

Biden’s idea appears aimed at not just defending the West, but pressing Russia and China to change their ways. If history has taught us anything, it is that outsiders can never foment enduring change in another society. Such a transformation can only take hold if owned by those who make it. The most the West can, and should, do is demonstrate to the world that democracies can once again manage to reach a governing consensus and effectively deliver the goods by non-authoritarian means.

Even within the so-called democratic camp, not all societies are at the same historical juncture. Though acting boldly on the economic stimulus front, the U.S. is still suffering post-Trump trauma, licking its wounds and laboring unimaginatively to salvage the withered rudiments of civil political culture in a deeply divided nation. To ward off an existential crisis of legitimacy after a decade of upheaval, the European Union, by contrast, is embarking on a path of democratic innovation. To mend the gaping breach of distrust between the public and institutions of self-government, it is reaching out by necessity to engage citizens directly to chart a path forward.

Last week, the long-awaited Conference on the Future of Europe, an idea championed by French President Emmanuel Macron, was formally initiated. The conference, which commences in May and lasts until next spring, will consist of a concerted, continent-wide series of citizens’ assemblies and panels, including on multilingual digital platforms, aimed at enlisting robust public participation to shape the priorities, ways and means of European governance for decades ahead.

In a conversation many years ago now, Jacques Delors, the European Commission president from 1985 to 1995, argued that the “back door” strategy of integration into a single market with a common currency, which he spearheaded, would one day structurally impel opening the “front door” of political unity and legitimate pan-European governing institutions.

As is often the case with technocratic designs unaerated by public deliberation, it hasn’t turned out that way. Battered by the financial crash, the immigration crisis, Brexit, populism, the allure of authoritarian rule on it eastern flanks in Hungary and Poland and the COVID pandemic, the EU is further than ever from garnering the collective allegiance of its own citizens. By now it is manifestly clear that the only hope of sustaining the grand European project all these decades later cannot issue from the distant precincts of Brussels, but, alas, through the front door of citizen participation.

True to form, the EU endeavor is not without its problems. Originally, the conference was intended to be run by an independent president who would organize forums around Europe beyond the influence of government institutions. But, symptomatic of the weighty pull of bureaucratic inertia, distrust of the public and bickering among national powers that are a big part of the problem to begin with, a troika comprised of the heads of the EU’s three branches — the Commission, Council and Parliament — will lead the effort. Nonetheless, as Carsten Berg of the activist group European Citizens’ Initiative Campaign told me, the exercise unleashes unprecedented “democratic capacity” if the public feedback mechanisms are properly structured. Moreover, a direct link to the three branches will make the citizens engaged in the process take it more seriously because they know their voices will be heard, and hopefully heeded, by the powers that be.

Above all, the message from Europe for other large-scale governing arrangements, whether global institutions or federations like the U.S., is that deeper integration can only be legitimated through performance affirmed by the deliberated consent of the governed.

Jonathan Blake and Nils Gilman take this lesson into account, pointing out in Noema this week that meeting challenges from climate change to pandemics in the arriving “planetary age” must mean embracing “subsidiarity” — the allocation of decisions and functional operations to the appropriate level of governance where they can most effectively be executed.

In some cases, this would entail devolving power downward and involving citizens directly in governance. In other cases, it would warrant delegating authority to higher levels required to manage those complexities of interdependence beyond the competence of the grassroots or even the capacity of individual nation-states. 

As we have seen through the Five Star Movement’s online Rousseau platform in Italy and Taiwan’s presidential hackathons, digital connectivity is enabling more inclusive participation by citizens than ever before. Combined with public deliberative bodies such as citizens’ assemblies that complement representative government and compensate for its waning legitimacy in an age of distributed power, these practices are bound to become as integral to the conduct of liberal democracy as elections have long been.

In modern times, the U.S. has been considered the model of democracy for the world, especially by its own citizens. The Trump disruption, which resonates still in the large constituencies that remain loyal to his brand of politics, has shaken that perception by exposing its fragility. Perhaps it is time for America to look around to other democracies that have leaped to the vanguard of change as a guide to its own need for renovation.