The challenge of democratic societies and citizen participation in Europe


Picture of Alek Tarkowski
Alek Tarkowski

Sociologist, copyright reform advocate and president of the Centrum Cyfrowe Foundation

Alek Tarkowski is a sociologist, copyright reform advocate and president of the Centrum Cyfrowe Foundation, a think-and-do tank focused on building an open and inclusive digital society in Poland

Democratic societies in Europe are in crisis: there is a growing mistrust towards politicians and political parties, a decrease in citizen engagement and a visibly shrinking civic space.

On the one hand, Europe faces the rise of nationalist and populist movements which erode European identity and undermine the legitimacy of European democracy, replacing them instead with cults of traditionalism, anti-intellectualism and anti-modernism. These forces, as they gather momentum across Europe, begin by dismantling democratic institutions and passing laws that shrink the democratic civic space. On the other hand, it has become clear that investments in global trade and industry are not conducive to providing citizens with a sense of confidence in the European project.

As we strove to build a more unified Europe, we lost the faith of many citizens in the process. A vacuum emerged in Europe as a result, translating into low trust and low civic engagement in European politics, thus weakening the very foundations of European identity.

Due to the inherent diversity of European states and the eclectic nature of contemporary social life, there is an element of complexity that accompanies the technological changes and global processes which take place. Complexity puts a strain on policymaking and the legislative process, which can consequently prove too slow and ineffective in reacting to challenges and risks.

Furthermore, digital tools offer new means of scaling engagement by making political institutions more transparent and by developing networks and ties beyond one’s locality. At the same time, these very technologies are seen as disruptions to democratic and civic life. Harnessing them for social good will be a fundamental challenge.

Small scale, local solutions have the advantage of being able to experiment with different strategies, tactics and tools. These grassroots projects, which are generally easier to develop, can test alternative tools that rely on cultural or even artistic intervention. When these experiments are successful, the question becomes: how can they be scaled?

Small scale, local solutions have the advantage of being able to experiment with different strategies, tactics and tools

The Spanish 15-M movement is a case in point. As 15-M representatives won local elections in several towns, they initiated participatory projects in municipal institutions which fell in line with the movement’s vision and values. However, if local activists don’t have the capacity to support diffusion of their projects, this responsibility should fall to civil society organisations. A scenario that avoids the apparent risks of scaling up civic engagement is based on trans-locality and distributes beneficial projects horizontally to other local communities and institutions. The municipalist movement embraces this vision and designs its institutions and tools in ways that allow for growth through reuse. Underlying this movement is the belief that sovereignty can be achieved today at municipal level, particularly in relation to digital flows of data, surveillance and control.

Politics and institutions cannot only be regained through greater participation – it is also necessary to rethink their functions and goals. The idea of the commons has been explored as a vision that can help usher in a democratic renewal. It offers an alternative vision for Europe as not just a market, but as a society based on the real participation of its citizens. Participation is not something that needs to be created in Europe – it is already out there. What is necessary is thus a transformation of European institutions so that they will be open to real engagement in the legislative process, support the co-creation of policies, and explore forms of decision-making other than representative democracy. It is also important to note that digital technologies have the capacity to support commons-based management, especially of non-material resources – such as knowledge and innovation.

A strong vision of the commons would encourage a “society first” approach. It would support hybrid models for the management of resources, combining elements of market, commons and public institutions. Furthermore, this vision sets the blueprint for building an empowering narrative for European citizens based on respect for all members of the society with a peer-to-peer ethos.

Several principles must be adhered to if European civic space and democratic society is to be expanded. This goal may be achieved by connecting localities and regions; building the commons and trust; shaping new narratives; breaking closed, expert bubbles of practice and knowledge and by going into politics.

To further foster these principles, there are a number of possible tools with which they may be tested. During the European Cultural Challenge, specific ideas for shared projects have been defined.

Firstly, a commons-based narrative for Europe needs to be developed and endorsed by a broad coalition of civic and political actors.

A strong vision of the commons would encourage a “society first” approach

Secondly, there must be a campaign in support of the commons for the European Parliament Elections 2019. Politicians taking part in the elections should endorse the vision outlined in the above principles relating to the expansion of the European civic space and democratic society by combining them with specific policies and goals. Work on this project should begin with developing a campaign strategy for engaging politicians around the vision of the European commons.

Thirdly, alternative participatory models for European politics may be adopted. A range of participatory projects (e.g. civic panels, citizens’ conventions and deliberate surveys) have already been developed by EU institutions but have not yet been employed. Mapping the relevant participatory practices of EU Member States may be a good place to start.

Fourthly, the European Capital of Culture initiative may be used as a tool for hybrid projects between art and participation. The Leeuwarden2018 programme has been developed as a grassroots effort in the interest of conducting a cultural intervention that can transform the local community and help it solve social, economic and ecological challenges. As an important recurring initiative, the European Capital of Culture could be a prototype for other European programmes, providing opportunities to conduct artistic interventions and develop the vision of the commons through a major cultural programme in Europe.

Finally, there should be an implementation of European electoral experiments. Sortition is an electoral method based on the random selection of officials believed to provide greater engagement. Sortition also possesses the capacity to solve issues by bursting the political bubble kept in place by traditional electoral methods. Another electoral innovation proposes that a pan-European voting list be created. Work on this project should begin with conducting sortition experiments at a local level and by supporting the pan-European voting list concept in the 2019 European Parliament elections.

At this point, strategies for strengthening and rebuilding democratic European societies should include a reshaping of European-level civic space and politics by scaling up local solutions and projects to re-energise a new civic imaginary and alternative politics around the idea of the commons. As the 2019 European Parliament elections approach, these principles will be defining factors in Europe’s democratic renewal.

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