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The European Strategy and Policy Analysis System (ESPAS) Conference – The future of democracy in an age of fear and anger

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Thank you for your kind words and let me also thank the organisers for the invitation.

As you know, the European Economic and Social Committee is the house of European Civil Society. We are an EU advisory body comprising representatives of employers’ and workers’ organisations as well as other civil society organisations Our main task is to bridge the views and every day experience of some 90 million citizens with the EU decision makers.

As the description of this panel puts it perfectly, we are living difficult times for democracy. Democratisation suffered in 2021 – the worldwide percentage of people living in a democracy fell to well below 50% and authoritarian regimes gained ground. We are facing high disaffection with democracy by citizens. This fatigue is global, and it is also acute in Europe, where both our “old” democracies and the ones resulting from more recent democratic transitions are contested. While civil society is a vital component of democratic life and an open civic space is a precondition to maintaining healthy democracies, today we are – unfortunately – witnessing a worldwide trend of containment of civil society, referred to as Shrinking Civic Space.

Before envisaging how to improve our democratic systems, we should start by questioning ourselves on the sources of such fear and anger. These are complex phenomena, but anger certainly results from a feeling that democracy does not deliver on its promises, that people are “not heard” and that democracy does not bring efficient public policies that “help people”. Fear is certainly linked with the anxiety of not being protected. What about “the future of democracy” in this context then?

As important they are, democracy cannot be reduced to elections. We know how autocrats might gain power through legitimate elections setting then illiberal democracies. To address such a drift, we should reinvent democracy beyond elections, increasing the resilience of European democracy.

How can we succeed in shaping the future of our democracy? To our eyes, the promotion of European democracy should involve the fostering of democratic participation at all levels: EU, national, regional and local. The EESC also believes that greater emphasis should be placed on civil and social dialogue, which are a key prerequisite for the highest quality decision-making and ownership in any democracy and are equally needed to defend the core European values. An important element of the answer can also be in direct democracy, whereby citizen either make direct political choices or bring up issues to the attention of decision-makers.

Our Committee plays an active role in promoting the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) which is in fact the most powerful tool of this kind available at European level. When the ECI was launched, in 2012, it had been already long awaited and it had marked a new era in the history of citizen’ participation. Since then, the ECI has developed into a unique cross-border instrument, which today serves as an inspiring example of participatory (direct) democracy all over the world. As an advocate for citizens’ rights to participation and as the voice of organized civil society, we supported the idea of a citizens’ initiative from the start and we will continue these efforts on developing the ECI tool and raising awareness about it.

But we must be realistic: direct democracy alone cannot be the solution, especially on a continent of 450 million citizens, and it also risks playing into the hands of populists and further increasing trends for polarisation. There are other ways to respond to the demands by individuals and civil society to be better integrated into decision-making: Participative democracy aims to integrate the beneficiaries of public policies in the design and implementation of these policies and the EU should lead the way on this.

On 9 May (Schuman Day) 2022, the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) – a year-long process of discussions, deliberations and collaboration with citizens – officially ended. As a unique pan-European democratic exercise, with citizen-led debates enabling people from across Europe to share their ideas and help shape our common future, the Conference has been the biggest exercise of participative democracy on our continent. It has been a challenge and started with difficulties. Overall, it showed to be a success. Citizens involved in it found an environment open to discussion, which surely increased their trust in the EU.

Now it is time to follow up and deliver, implementing the citizens’ recommendations and establishing a more permanent mechanism of involvement. The experience from the Conference shows that smartly linking citizens’ consultations to well established structures is a promising way forward. In this context, two of the final CoFoE proposals explicitly refer to the EESC and its role in the future democratic architecture of the EU.

Indeed, from an institutional point of view, the EESC is perfectly placed to play a role in enhancing participatory democracy as citizens involvement needs a strong presence of organized civil society. We stand ready to get fully involved, even acting as a central hub for future citizens’ panels and becoming a centre of excellence in all matters relating to citizens’ consultations and participatory democracy.  Democracy is certainly not only made by institutions, and it requires therefore us to foster education on democracy and fundamental rights. This is instrumental for safeguarding democratic values and active citizenship, especially for young people.

At the EESC, we have been active on this topic. Our Fundamental Rights and Rule of Law Group has heard civil society actors in all EU Member States: there is a clear demand for more integration of citizens and CSOs in decision-making processes in a more meaningful way, to compensate for the shrinking space for civil society. In May 2023, we will organise a participatory conference with the European Commission about Europe’s civic space. More generally, our Committee has proposed the creation of a civil society forum on European values – democracy, human rights, the rule of law. Given the rising dangers for democracy within our Union, it is high time we create such a forum – which already exists for EU external action – to the benefit of European citizens. Based on our experience of participatory events we look forward to teaming up with interested actors.

To conclude, you might know the saying “those who sleep in democracy wake up in dictatorship.” Yes, our democracies are challenged. It is up to all of us to defend and improve their functioning each and every day. And while not neglecting shortcomings, I am deeply convinced that especially the EU model of democracy and all the benefits it brought for our continent provides us with many good reasons to do so.

Source: EESC

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