European Union

Why Europe needs a Citizens’ Assembly

There is a transnational option for ‘taking back control.’

We need to make one thing clear: national democracies are no longer working, but European democracy is not yet working either. We are living through a paradoxical stagnation: on the one hand, there is broad agreement on the need to reform our political institutions. On the other hand, it seems that the established political actors have neither fresh ideas nor the courage to implement them. Germany’s new government coalition agreement is proof of this. While Emmanuel Macron is addressing the problem, his primary concern is to make the state leaner and empower businesses.

We cannot awake enthusiasm for the European project this way, and the European Parliament’s decision to reject transnational election lists does not make the situation any better. On the contrary, this example shows that the political institutions have not kept pace with globalisation. Decision-making power is urgently needed at the supranational level, yet we are still largely confined to choosing national representatives. This can be seen everywhere, not least in a widespread feeling of a loss of control, which populist parties in particular have used for their own purposes, as the Brexiteer slogan “Take back control” demonstrated.

So what should we do? Should we adopt a wait-and-see attitude, hoping that someday a politician will arrive with an inspiring idea for the future of European democracy? I don’t think so. We can and must do more than just sit and complain. The urgent and necessary ideas for the renewal of European democracy will not be offered by Heads of State and Government. Rather than just wait for next year’s European elections, then, why don’t we dare to take our own steps towards a transnational civil society? Why not think big?

One proposal, to genuinely “take back control”, is a European Constituent Assembly of citizens. The assembly would be set up alongside the European Parliament, not as a competing body but explicitly as a properly defined gathering point for the citizens of Europe. Let’s make real use of the growing pan-European network of civil society organizations. Beforehand they would have to agree on just one issue: that our future can only be shaped transnationally and in solidarity. Surely, there will be enough discussions later on.

How would this European Constituent Assembly be composed? Transnational lists would be used to elect people from various sectors of society, including politicians. Then there would be a second group, determined by sortition, a method that has been used already in Ancient Greece. With this system we would not just vote for a European Parliament, but for a body that would have the task of composing itself, so as to think about the constitutional structure for 21st century democratic institutions.

Most importantly, this European Constituent Assembly would not be the sum of its national parts, but for the first time a genuinely transnational initiative. It would be a risk, certainly, but those who are afraid of taking such jumps have already lost. I for one am firmly convinced that we must create places of exchange across borders, real places where we can learn how democracy can be organized transnationally and to discuss how we live, create and experience solidarity together.

This article was first published in German at Deutschlandfunk Kultur. It was translated into English by Alessandra Checcarelli