Yesterday, as part of the #demsoc10 series celebrating ten years of Demsoc projects, we discussed a huge project that didn’t end up changing the world. Today, Anthony talks about a small project that might be a hint of things to come.

In 2018, 99 European citizens from 27 countries, speaking 23 languages, gathered for a weekend in Brussels. They were part of a European Citizen Panel, brought together at short notice to deliberate on the questions that would frame the forthcoming European Citizen Consultations.

The group had been brought together by Kantar, who run the Eurobarometer surveys, working with the European Commission, and Missions Publiques from France led the creation of the event and deliberation process. The full details of the event, and the subsequent European Citizen Consultations can be found in a full report (with our friends at the European Policy Centre). The Panel is covered in a chapter by us near the start.

The most impressive thing about the whole event was how our hosts at the European Economic and Social Committee, and their interpretation team, made the discussions between such a diverse group a real pleasure. The interpretation team divided up the participants into groups in such a way that everyone could listen to a language they understood and speak in their native language. The microphones and fixed seating of European venues look like barriers to good communication on television, but watch a Hungarian debating a Dane, each in their own language, and you realize how many barriers they actually remove.

The whole event, although only of small scale and for one weekend, convinced me that multilingual deliberation, while not simple, was certainly very possible with the right facilities and team (including the interpreters from EESC, who gave their weekend to the process for free). The response of participants was also extremely positive, with many saying that they had particularly valued the chance to exchange views with those from other cultures.

What is most interesting about the whole process, though, is that it might have been a harbinger of much wider change. The proposed Conference on the Future of Europe has a significant role for citizens, and the Parliament has proposed a series of citizen agoras as a core part of the process. It’s a long way from a fully participative European system, but it’s also a long way from the blank looks and scepticism that deliberative democracy met only a few years ago.

None of this was directly the consequence of that small Panel in May 2018 – but that event is starting to look less like a strange standalone experiment, and more like a daffodil in February – unusual, but the sign of springtime to come.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.