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Rosemary Bechler is openDemocracy’s Editor.

Constitutional conventions: best practice

discovering Tomorrow's Europe

The People Come Together as European Citizens?

by Oli Henman

Back in the European Commission for the Concluding Conference of the Plan D projects on 7-9 December - it seems that the Commission is keen to keep the follow-up process going even after the main headlines have happened.All the groups were present, including the continent-wide European Citizens' Consultations, the Notre Europe Deliberative Poll and the European Movement's Speak Up Europe. The idea this time was to draw together some conclusions from all the Plan D projects and offer an overview to be presented to the European leaders at the Council of Ministers in Lisbon.

Strasbourg Alegre

Following on from the recent Notre Europe Deliberative Poll and the European Citizens' Consultations, both under the aegis of the European Commission's Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate; on 8 and 9 November the other major institution, the European Parliament opened its main chamber for citizens to debate and share in the political space, with the first Citizens' Agora. The name evokes images of the Athenian city state deciding on its political priorities in the market-place, where every citizen had an equal voice but how did the modern reality measure up?

Who participated?

“I, a moderator in the Parliament of Babel”

(With thanks to Caffe' Europa for the translation)

My job was to act as the moderator. Tomorrow’s Europe gathered together four hundred people in the halls of the European Parliament in Brussels; they spoke more than twenty different languages and my task was to guide one group throughout the entire process; I was to ensure that ordinary European citizens would exchange opinions on difficult subjects such as the Union’s foreign policy and the global labour market, and to make sure they would agree on one or two questions to be posed within a plenary assembly to a group of experts in this field. In other words, I found myself moderating a working group formed by about twenty people coming from Italy, France, Belgium and Luxemburg. The participants’ professional experiences and political outlooks were so different that I expected the worst in terms of a productive debate. But then, having learnt to use the simultaneous translation, the participants instantly started to dialogue in a disciplined and constructive manner, emphasising the fact that languages are not such an insurmountable problem when one wishes to communicate. Explaining the rules under which the debate would take place and clarifying my role as a moderator turned out to play an important role in ensuring the success of the debate. This kind of experience in fact is based in the mediator’s independent attitude with his task to facilitate the debate without expressing his own opinion or in any manner orientating the discussion. My job in fact was to broaden the debate to all participants and to avoid the discussion being monopolised by any particularly active speaker.

Do you speak European?

(With thanks to Caffe Europa for the translation)


A cliché has been shattered. European citizens are extremely interested in Europe and have clear ideas regards to how it should be and are able to speak as Europeans, not only as citizens of different countries. Tomorrow's Europe is proof of this; their consultative exercise involved a sample of representatives from the EU's 27 member states and swept away the stereotypes: there is a European public sphere that exists and wishes to make its own voice heard. "It is impossible to put together people speaking so many languages and who are so different; European policies are too difficult and complex to arouse the interest of common citizens; Europeans in reality do not exist, they do not share EU policies, hence the EU is a matter for politicians and bureaucrats". These are the clichés on Europe totally neutralised by the event.

"This experiment revealed Europe's Public Sphere", A conversation with James Fishkin

(With thanks to Caffe Europa for this translation)

Who has ever stared into the eyes of European public opinion? Who has ever listened to its voice?
"Thousands and thousands of words have been written about Europe's public sphere, and there have been speculations and academic debates - says James Fishkin - but no one has ever actually observed or listened to European public opinion. At least until just a few days ago: all you need to do nowadays is type in the address of web site (http://www.tomorrowseurope.eu), or read the openDemocracy coverage, click play on a video player and there it is in front of our eyes; there we hear its voice, the voice of European public opinion."

An attempt at a conclusion

Today dLiberation is coming to an end - for the time being at least. I've spent the last 24 hours trying to come up with some kind of neat final post, wrapping up all the various issues we've been covering here over the last few weeks, and laying down a final judgement on the successes and failures of the Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll.

But, of course, it's just not that simple. I've jotted down (literally) thousands of words today - re-writing, cutting and pasting, editing and starting again from scratch countless times - only to realise that there is no short, simple conclusion here. Because almost all points that could be considered failures with the Tomorrow's Europe poll could equally apply to all other forms of representative democracy.

European opinion

For the last couple of days, winning over those sceptical of such democratic innovations as deliberative polling (assuming such innovations are valid, of course) has been my chief concern. But, with EU-centred innovations, we also still have the Eurosceptics.

I've already mentioned the dominance of eurosceptics in the online English language debate, largely due to the influence (and traffic-boosting transatlantic links to the closely-knit network of right-wing American blogs) of EU Referendum, independently run by two associates of the highly eurosceptic Bruges Group thinktank, one of whom also used to work for the UK Independence Party, before turning his back on them for being too amateurish (or so I believe).

However, due to the fleeting and superficial coverage of Tomorrow's Europe in the mainstream media - some TV coverage, the occasional short article, but nothing overly in-depth - it will be to the web that most people will look in the weeks and months to come. Amongst the online coverage now will be found EU Referendum's assertion that "what is delivered is a number of findings that are both pointless and irrelevant, except that they will be treated with undue reverence by the EU commission and its lackeys, who will cite them as evidence of what the 'citizens of Europe' think and want."

Representing the whole EU - and its parts

James Clive Mathews asks why we have the small countries represented. He points out, correctly, that a simple random sample of the EU as a whole might easily leave out the small countries. And he asks, if we are really presenting this as a scientific sample of Europe how can we adjust the sample to ensure representation of the small countries?

The answer turns on how we represent the small countries. By employing stratified random sampling (rather than simple random sampling) we can ensure representation of the small countries and, in theory, actually reduce sampling error. If we have separate strata that are mutually exclusive (in this case separate countries) and we randomly sample from each, we can actually produce a more representative sample of the overall population.

Better the devil you know?

Here we come to the fundamental problem with the EU's drive for democracy - getting true representativeness is seemingly impossible in a body as vast and diverse as the European Union. Even ensuring fair representation for the member states is well nigh impossible - let alone ensuring that smaller than national-level groups are also represented. There will always be complaints: where are the German Turks? Where are the French Basques? Where are the Russian Estonians? Where are the Afro-Carribbean British?

On scientific representation and democracy

The claim for the Tomorrow's Europe poll was always that it was going to be a "scientific sample" of the whole of the EU. Yet - as with the European Parliament - the forced inclusion of member states with smaller populations in such a sample instantly makes it look odd. Based on population size, a truly scientific random sample of 3,500 people from the whole of the EU should expect (on average) to contain just 2.5 Maltese - yet the Tomorrow's Europe sample, thanks to the member state weighting, contained 80.

From a PR point of view, this is understandable - ensure every member state is represented, the chance for media coverage is greatly increased. But, at the same time, it makes selling the poll as "scientific" rather harder.

A genuinely random poll of 3,500 people from the whole of the EU? Fine. One weighted to ensure the inclusion of someone from every member state? This sounds less random, more likely to contain some selection bias, and therefore less convincing.

Getting the people on board

My concerns about the statistical representativeness of the Tomorrow's Europe poll remain, despite Professor Fishkin's response - though I accept that my complete lack of knowledge of statistical theory may well be the reason why the sample, to me, doesn't seem quite right (be it for a possible under-representation of eurosceptics or the definite over-representation of people with higher educational qualifications or from smaller EU member states).

Fishkin laid out three criteria for success: was it representative, was it deliberative, and will decision-makers listen? But these criteria leave off the single most important - will the people accept the method? Because the end result of deliberative polling must be to get the people to acknowledge that such polls genuinely do reflect what the situation would be if the people themselves were better informed and more politically engaged. Otherwise the responses will always be similar to those I highlighted from Margot Wallstrom's blog.

So, be it statistically representative or not, the key problem remains - with my apparent confusion merely highlighting the issue. Tomorrow's Europe was designed as an exercise in encouraging participation and engagement. To get people involved, simplicity and transparency is key - both of process and of results. If - after nearly seven weeks spent covering the poll in-depth and questioning key organisers - I still don't quite understand how it all works or whether it should be listened to, what chance have the public as a whole?

Representativeness: a response

James Clive Mathews has taken issue with the representativeness of the sample. In response to his query, we released the time 1 opinions of the 3,500. Our policy is never to do so prior to a Deliberative Poll because publishing poll results may influence the deliberation. But afterwards there is no harm. The time 1 results are just another poll.

The only way to compare statistically the answers to questions is to compare the means. But means put on a 0 to 1 scale are incomprehensible to journalists and the public so we released percentage breakdowns instead.

Mathews has conducted his comparison by picking out parts of questions (in fact, parts of one selected question only). When we compared the means for all the questions between the 3,500 and the 362, we found that the substantive differences were only 4% of what they could possibly have been. Even a cursory comparison of the answers will show that the differences are mostly small between the 3,500 and the 362.

Democracy for the sake of it? Conclusion

The European Parliament

As we continue to ponder the issue of representativeness, Paul Davies - formerly of the Electoral Reform Society - continues his series looking at the EU's only democratic institution (Part 1, 2, 3, 4):

Last time out we had a quick think about what it is that the European Parliament is, or rather should be, actually there for. In this, the final instalment of this particular group of posts, we look at how this purpose can possibly be achieved, or even brought within range of a very powerful purpose-spotting telescope.

That every member nation should be properly represented within the Parliament is without question. However, what the word 'properly' means in such a context is a mammothly moot point.

Were MEPs to be distributed in exact proportion to the relative populations of the countries they represent, Malta may as well not bother, for their share of the European Union's population wouldn't even be enough to claim a spot crammed in by the toilets behind the cheap seats.

As it is, seats in the European Parliament aren't organised like this.

No one cares about the EU

With polls showing around 75% supporting a referendum on the EU reform treaty, the Conservative party repeatedly using the referendum as a fresh stick with which to beat Gordon Brown, and newspapers like the Sun and the Telegraph campaigning for the people to be allowed to have their say, in recent weeks British eurosceptics have been getting really rather excited. It has long been assumed that the UK tends towards euroscepticism, and the growing support for a referendum seemed to confirm that anti-EU types are in the majority.

So with the battle not yet won and referendum calls still reverberating around the country to apparent popular accalim, it's entirely understandable that the organiser's of Saturday's Referendum Rally in Westminster were expecting attendance in the region of several thousand. After all, if pro-foxhunting rallies in Cardiff could draw 6-10,000 a few years back, when a majority of the population were against foxhunting, surely something where the majority are in favour taking place in more easily-accessible London would do even better?

Nope. The final turnout has been estimated at somewhere in the region of just 3-500. Yep - that's three to five hundred. I'm not missing a zero, and that hyphen is not meant to be a comma.

The full results - a representativeness comparison

Two weeks after the deliberative poll, and around a month after the initial poll, we now appear to have all the results we need to assess the representativeness of the Tomorrow's Europe poll, with the release of the results of the initialal poll of 3,500 (PDF). This was the group from which the sample of 362 was taken - and so their representativeness should be compared to this initial poll. I've already noted my suspicions about the demographic representativeness - but, of course, what's needed as much as anything in an exercise like this is representativeness of opinion.

So as one of my suspicions was that pro-EU types would be more likely to take part, let's take that as a first point of comparison - especially as this is surely the most easy to measure political opinion when it comes to any aspect of EU politics. As a bonus, support for the EU is one of the things tested in the regular Eurobarometer opinion polls (most recent PDF), and so this makes for an easy point of comparison to a larger sample.

A visit to the Europe-wide public sphere

The European Public Sphere?

According to some scholars, the European Wide Public Sphere is a phantasm - impossible, misconceived and misguided. It is hard to imagine and only for utopian speculation. Now, however, we have seen and heard it. And for those who were not in the room Oct 12-14, you can go to the website and play the video and see and hear what it would look like.

The difficulties of selling to the people

Vice-President of the European Commission Margot Wallstrom, instigator of the Plan D programme under which Tomorrow's Europe was launched, has had a gander at the results of the poll and put up some thoughts on her blog. She picks out a few interesting results, but what is more interesting is perhaps not the areas that were intended.

First, there's the mention of other past "Plan D" projects (some of which I'd never even heard of, and I generally try to keep up with these things), and the plan to get a sample of 250 participants from all of them to go to Brussels in December and discuss how these events were run and affected them.

Second, however, is the comments the blog post has so far received.

More lack of interest

So, you're a multinational political party made up of 33 national parties from every member state of the EU. To gear up for the 2009 European Parliamentary elections, which will for the first time be fought by (some) parties EU-wide, rather than merely nationally, you reckon "why not get the people involved and ask them what we should campaign about?"

And so the Party of European Socialists launches a major new online consultation, designed to get up a proper debate about their policies and the future of the EU, following the reform treaty's expansion of the European Parliament's powers. "Hurrah! That's just the sort of initiative we need to give the public ways to get involved in EU decision-making!", we all cry.

A distinct lack of interest

Tomorrow's Europe was part of the European Commission's "Plan D" ("for democracy, dialogue and debate"), launched in October 2005 with the aim of getting the people of Europe discussing the EU.

So, two years on, if you did a Google search for "EU debate" you'd expect this to come pretty high up, wouldn't you? People hunting for somewhere to discuss the EU would be likely, after all, to enter those terms to look for a forum for discussion.

But what actually comes top when you search for "EU debate" - with or without inverted commas? Erm... A three-year-old post by me at my personal blog's old home...

The impossibility of EU debate

Shouldn't be this heated

As the Tomorrow's Europe deliberation was designed to encourage debate as much as anything, it was intriguing to see this analysis of the current state of the EU debate in the UK over at A Fistful of Euros:

"More than ever before, the entire tone of the debate about Europe in the UK seems deranged. But this time out, it also seems to be increasingly recognised that this is so.

"In a sense, the whole row has become conventionalised to a degree where it is a mere set of gestures. I recall the debates about the Euro in the late 90s and early 00s, and on the various treaties of the same period, to say nothing of the Maastricht ratification, the daddy of them all. This has had none of the same fire, despite the Sun reaching new heights of linguistic escalation and new depths of journalistic debasement."

Too big for democracy?

In the latest part of his ongoing series about the role of democracy in the EU, Paul Davies gave the following quote from Aristotle:

"a great state is not the same thing as a state with a large population. But certainly experience also shows that it is difficult and perhaps impossible for a state with too large a population to have good legal government." - Aristotle, Politics, 1326a

It's an assertion that bears much consideration - especially when combined with the language difficulties of the EU.

Democracy for the sake of it? - part 4

The European Parliament

As we continue to ponder the issue of representativeness, Paul Davies - formerly of the Electoral Reform Society - continues his series looking at the EU's only democratic institution (Part 1, Part 2, part 3):

Having already established that the European Parliament is one of the world's true bastions of barmy democracy, it's time to consider how to make it a little less ridiculous.

Before we start on that, however, there's an important extra step to be considered - one often glossed over by the current architects of the Union. Simply drawing up plans for making the European Parliament saner or more fit for purpose begs the question of what that purpose actually is (or maybe should be) in the first place.

Preconceptions

My initial thinking about the Tomorrow's Europe poll was that the aim was to see what would happen if a representative selection of EU citizens were given access to better knowledge. "What's the point in that?", I thought, "as soon as you make them more knowledgable than the average, they cease to be representative, and so the final findings of the poll will be useless. All you'll prove is that people who know what they're talking about will make different choices to people who don't - which is both obvious and hardly of any use to policy-makers."

Then, on first looking at the Tomorrow's Europe briefing materials, my initial reaction was that they were packed full of differing opinions, but contained little in the way of actual facts. "How," I thought, "can you come to a considered opinion on any given issue without looking at the background information and trying to weigh up the facts? How are these people meant to increase their knowledge and make informed decisions when all they are being exposed to is subjective opinion rather than objective evidence?"

But I think I may well have been missing the point.

On knowledge and democracy

Wisdom and knowledge

One of the key arguments supporting any kind of deliberative democracy is that the process of deliberation leads to an increase in knowledge and understanding - with the natural assumption that the more they improve, the more considered the opinions.

However, as already noted, one of the questions selected by one of the groups for the final Q&A with the experts, after three days of deliberation, was "what is the role of the European Parliament within the EU institutions". With such a fundamental aspect of the way the EU runs still not understood by at least some of the participants on the final day, just how much was their knowledge actually increased?

Well, this was one of the things the poll tested (PDF).

The EU in microcosm

Such was the claim of the organisers of the Tomorrow's Europe poll, and the more I think about it, the more right I think they were.

Because, you see, the more I've been pondering whether or not the 362 people who attended the deliberation can truly be representative of the 500 million people who make up the EU, the more I've started to wonder just what the chances are of any "representative" body from such a large group looking anything like the group as a whole.

Points for comparison

While we wait for the results of the initial survey of 3,500 Europeans to be released, to enable comparison with the results of the surveys of the 362 participants in the Tomorrow's Europe deliberation itself, perhaps comparisons with other surveys may be of help. The most obvious, of course, is the regular Eurobarometer surveys, polling the people of Europe on a country-by-country basis - and conducted by the same polling company, TNS Sofres, as conducted the initial survey for Tomorrow's Europe.

However, while comparisons to past opinion polls of EU citizens can help us check the representativeness of the participants this time around, part of the argument for Tomorrow's Europe is that the deliberative process enables the participants to come to more informed decisions. As such, perhaps the real point of comparison should be between the participants and those who take the decisions within the EU? Here, our best option appears to be the Compagnia di San Paolo's European Elites Survey - a poll of MEPs and senior workers at the European Commission and EU Council.

Fact versus opinion

Discussion of facts or discussion of opinions?

Having been spotted by a friend in the background of Friday night's Newsnight coverage of the Tomorrow's Europe poll, I naturally enough scampered off to make sure that I wasn't to be spotted picking my nose just over the presenter's shoulder (as happened a few years ago when I got rather tipsy on free champagne at the Channel Four Political Awards...). To watch the report, go here, click "watch latest programme", and scroll forward to the 22 minute mark - assuming you're doing it on Monday 22nd.

Picking one's nose is, of course, a disgusting habit. If you spot someone picking their nose, you'll doubtless think rather less of them. But what if it's only that someone tells you that they've seen someone pick their nose - something the accused denies vehemently? When you haven't witnessed it yourself, and have no hard evidence to rely on, who do you believe?

Newsnight asks, at the start of its report on Tomorrow's Europe, "will putting facts before prejudice change what they think?" But throughout the weekend, factual information on the EU was sparse, to say the least.

Representative, or did you mean representative, or maybe representative?

Representative, or did you mean representative, or maybe representative?

The question of representation has been discussed a great deal in openDemocracy's coverage of Tomorrow's Europe poll. There is confusion of terminology - statistical representativeness does not mean political representativeness, does not mean experimental representativeness. There is also a surprising amount of theoretical contention in both the statistical and political senses to make the opportunity for confusing conflation truly vast.

Clive has asked whether the stratified sampling used on Tomorrow's Europe can be representative when the selection was biased in order to include more of certain nationalities than would have normally come out of a random sample of this relative size. The DP designers handled this problem in the way discussed by Fishkin (here).

Tomorrow's Europe and the language problem

Nice overview article from one of Britain's leading pro-EU writers, Timothy Garton Ash, on the events of last weekend over at the Guardian. I can't say I spotted him amongst the attendees, but there were quite a few.

Garton Ash seems to have come to similar conclusions about the poll as I am heading towards, however: "More interesting than any result is the experiment itself." The reason? Simply because this was indeed the first time that people from all 27 member states were brought together in one room and allowed to chat amongst themselves in their own languages, all simultaneously interpreted.

The difficulties of analysis

The European Parliament, Brussels

To make sense of the results of the Tomorrow's Europe poll, we need:

1) The results for the 3,500 sample

2) The results for the 362 participants before deliberation

3) The results for the 362 participants after deliberation

The results

They're now available. Analysis to follow - but any input much appreciated...

How can the Tomorrow's Europe poll claim to be representative?

The argument for the Tomorrow's Europe poll's representativeness (the first of the three criteria for success) hinges on the claim that it was a "scientifically representative sample" of the population of the European Union. To ensure this scientific representativeness, random sampling was chosen. (Random sampling's benefits lie in simple probability - given a large enough sample, a random selection should produce a representative cross-section of the thing being sampled.)

As such, a random sample of 3,500 people from an EU population of nearly 500 million should end up being fairly representative of the whole*, and a random sample of 400 of those 3,500 should in turn produce a representative sample of that initial sample. Hence the repeated claims by the poll's organisers of creating "the EU in microcosm", and deliberative polling's mastermind, Professor James Fishkin, arguing that "The microcosm chosen by lot embodies political equality because every citizen has an equal random chance to take part". It all sounds fine in theory.

However, the Tomorrow's Europe poll did not take a random sample of 3,500 people from the whole of the EU. Instead, the desire to ensure that all member states were represented meant that what was actually conducted were 27 separate random samples of much smaller numbers, based on the proportion of seats each member state holds in the European Parliament (EP).

Yet more on representativeness

No, that isn't Sir Menzies Campbell looking at a piece of paper in the middle there... I think...

I'm still pondering this whole representativeness issue (see posts here and here), and still in need of help with the figures. A few more things have occured to me, however - largely based on my own response to any requests to take part in opinion polls.

On the occasions I've been asked, my tendency is only to take part in polls and surveys if I have respect for the organisation for which the poll is being conducted. This seems to be acknowledged as standard wisdom in some quarters.

For example, at a publishing company at which I used to work, the opinions of readers about the content of the magazines (as revealed in the occasional reader surveys, or via letters sent in) were almost always ignored - because those who went to the effort to fill out the survey or to actually write in were so unrepresentative of the readership as a whole as not to be worth listening to. Instead, it was the information about their incomes and lifestyles to which attention was paid, to provide handy statistics to potential advertisers.

When it comes to an institution as controversial as the European Union, can we really take as representative those who were willing to take part in an event which even the most idealistic pro-European must surely be aware is as much a PR exercise as an attempt at a genuine consultation? Does their willingness to participate not make them unrepresentative of itself?

Public Deliberation and Legitimate Governance, part 2

The Academic debate

Pepper D Culpepper, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Malcolm Weiner Center for Social Policy at Harvard University, Archon Fung, Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Taubman Center for State and Local Government at Harvard, and Taeku Lee, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Berkley compare the Tomorrow's Europe deliberative poll to the Citizens Consultations undertaken by the EU earlier this year, and analyse some of the underlying aims. (Part 1)

Nearly every method of ascertaining the citizens' perspective relies upon a small number of actual citizens who, in some fashion, represent everyone else. Whereas the choices of designing electoral representation are well known - presidentialism or parliamentarianism? plurality rule or proportional representation? - the methods of direct citizen deliberation are novel and largely uncharted. It is therefore appropriate to experiment with a wide range of designs for public deliberation to identify the methods generate credible and useful citizens perspectives. Consider just a few of the important design choices.

Democracy for the sake of it? - part 3

The European Parliament

As it would appear that even after three days of deliberation on the EU some participants in the Tomorrow's Europe poll still didn't know the role of the European Parliament, Paul Davies - formerly of the Electoral Reform Society - continues his series looking at the EU's only democratic institution (Part 1, Part 2):

Last week we looked at the technicalities of how MEPs are voted in to their positions, but what lies behind the systems - how and why do people choose their MEPs in the first place?

Once in, MEPs supposedly divide their time between Brussels, Strasbourg and their constituencies, attending various meetings and hunting around for people that know what it is they do. They also split themselves up into groups.

Nothing strange about that, of course, politicians - like voters - define themselves by the groups they choose to represent. However, regardless of the systems used in the voting, the votes themselves are more often than not cast along national party lines and often influenced by national issues; yet MEPs are grouped not by nationality but by interest. And if few people can name their MEP or their MEP's party, even fewer can name what group within the European Parliament their MEP operates in.

Which would appear to make the whole process something of a mockery of democracy: vote for a vague unknown on the basis of something only tenuously related to the role that the elected party will undertake and have absolutely no idea what the elected party does after the election.

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