Can Europe Make It?

Bringing government to the people: a citizens' assembly to democratise policy-making

People’s demand for greater popular sovereignty must be taken seriously – talking to the Belgian MP for Agora.

Gabriel Popham
9 October 2019
Pepijn Kennis , Belgian MP for Agora.
Pepijn Kennis , Belgian MP for Agora.
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Kevin Van den Panhuysen. All rights reserved.

Agora Brussels started less than two years ago as a grassroots citizens’ movement to reboot democracy in the Belgian capital. Earlier this year, after months of relentless campaigning and grassroots organising, Agora ran for the regional elections and managed to get a foothold in local politics by gaining one seat at the Brussels Regional Parliament.

Pepijn Kennis was nominated as one of the candidates on Agora’s electoral list at the local elections in May 2019, and he now sits as an MP for Agora. Agora is a unique political party, in that it doesn’t have any political programme to speak of: its only agenda is to organise a permanent citizens' assembly, promote its institutionalisation for the region of Brussels, and defend its decisions in Parliament.

During our conversation over Skype, Kennis admits that Agora’s strategy of running in elections might seem counterintuitive at first. “As a movement, we’re very much inspired by the book Against Elections by David Van Reybrouck,” he tells me from his office in the Regional Parliament. Agora shares Van Reybrouck’s view that elections nowadays tend to prioritise short-term thinking at the expense of genuine democracy. But for activists in the movement, getting elected was a crucial strategy that would allow them to affect real change in Brussels’ political system:

“It gives political weight to the citizens' assembly that we are in the process of constituting, but it also gives political weight to proper participation and to the idea of citizens' assemblies as such. We noticed that since I got into parliament and since Agora became present in the political debate, many more people are talking about participation, about bringing citizens into parliament and bringing politics to citizens.”

“We noticed that since I got into parliament and since Agora became present in the political debate, many more people are talking about participation, about bringing citizens into parliament and bringing politics to citizens.”

Talking about representation and accountability

Agora was initiated out of a deeply felt sense of frustration with Belgian politics today: “Agora started as many good things do, during a discussion in a bar with a beer, and people being fed up with the kind of decision-making in Belgium and the lack of citizens' impact on that.”

“Citizens feel that their governments don't represent them anymore. We want to change that by having a citizens' assembly that doesn't need to be represented because they are citizens and they can be in direct contact with policymakers, with the executive level, and with the legislative body of government.” One of Agora’s core arguments, Kennis emphasises, is that this way of rethinking democracy has a radical implication for policy-making: it politicizes citizens and brings greater accountability into politics, in a way that would be difficult to imagine under a system of elections held every few years.

Alongside campaigning for the regional elections, a large part of Agora’s work involved developing the methodology for their citizens' assembly, the nuts and bolts of how it will be run. Given the lack of diversity and representation in the Brussels Regional Parliament, where older men with a university diploma are over-represented, Agora’s first task was to develop a quota system to put together a more representative group of people.

This is work that is routinely done by any polling organisation to try and capture a significant cross-section of a given population, and there are many different ways of choosing which criteria are most important. Agora decided to focus on age, gender and level of education in order to select 89 participants for the assembly, the same as the number of MPs in the Regional Parliament.

Over the course of one five-year term of office, the Agora assembly will go through several different cycles, and every six months, half of the participants in the assembly will rotate, and a new group of people will join the assembly. In this way, many more people will be directly involved in policy decisions, and this will have a knock-on effect, as these people would then talk about their experience with friends and family. But beyond this, coming up with a rotation is one of many ways for Agora to try and avoid party-political or otherwise sectarian mindsets, as well as the tendency commonly seen in politics to privilege short-term thinking.

Mock participation

In part, Agora’s decision to form an independent electoral list was motivated by the same concern with electoral calculation. Agora had initially contacted all the different political parties that were going to stand for elections, asking them whether they would be favourable to an institutionalised citizens' assembly with legislative power. But the response given by the parties convinced the activists in Agora to go it alone.

“In these conversations,” Kennis tells me, “we realised there were different degrees to which parties were open to this, but no party ever wanted to give over the power straight out of their hands. They always wanted the final control, either by agenda-setting or by determining what kind of decision-making power the assembly had and limiting it to consultative power.”

“No party ever wanted to give over the power straight out of their hands. They always wanted the final control.”

The response of the established parties was predictable enough, but it still amounted to a clear red line for Agora. As Kennis explains, “if we had pushed for the idea of a citizens' assembly in the programme of other parties, there was a real risk that it wouldn’t go far enough and would only be mock participation. It wouldn't be real citizen power.”

This question of power is a fundamental issue for citizens’ assemblies: one of the main concerns with these projects is how to make sure that there is some in-built mechanism to stop it from becoming just another form of consultation, a ‘talking shop’ with bells and whistles and a fancy name. For Agora, having an elected representative guarantees at the very least that the Parliament has to pay attention to what is decided during the assembly. And further down the line, Agora wants to see it become a permanent feature of local politics in the Brussels region.

An inclusive process in exclusionary times

The idea underlying Agora’s citizens' assembly is that participants are chosen by sortition. Sortition is as old as politics itself, and it’s how the ancient Athenians used to choose public officials from among the citizenry. Its appeal for Agora is that it makes it possible, in principle, for anyone to be chosen to take part in the decision-making process, and it is one of the main recurring elements behind every proposal for a citizens' assembly.

By relying on sortition, everyone in society has equal chances of governing and being governed. However, even in a system of sortition, certain sectors are more likely than others to respond to an invitation to participate in a citizens' assembly. The quota system put in place by Agora, also makes up for the unequal chances of replying to this opportunity, so that the group of people that is ultimately selected can be representative of Brussels as a whole.

Deliberative democracy is an inclusive political process, and it is one that necessarily takes time, and that works best when it involves a relatively small number of people. For instance, in the case of Agora, each cycle involves 89 people meeting once a month over the course of six months. During this time, members of the assembly can consult expert witnesses on the issues that are being discussed, and work together to come up with a series of recommendations that will later be presented to the Regional Parliament and government.

Would such a process work to resolve something like the Brexit deadlock? This is a question of scale and complexity: the Brussels Regional Parliament deals with local issues such as housing, mobility, and so on. Clearly, the constitutional crisis that is currently unfolding in the UK is of a completely different magnitude. Furthermore, citizens' assemblies work best when they are used for very clearly defined issues, and the Pandora’s box of Brexit is anything but.

And yet, these assemblies make it possible to imagine an alternative to the relentless polarisation in politics today, and Kennis has no doubts about their role for how we rethink our democracies: “In many recent elections in Europe, votes have been more extreme, to the right or to the left, and I interpret that as a frustration, people fed up with their governments not being able to deliver what they need, and so I think it's key to bring people into that debate, and not just protesting against the establishment because they don’t like what is being done.”

“In many recent elections in Europe, votes have been more extreme, to the right or to the left, and I interpret that as a frustration, people fed up with their governments not being able to deliver what they need.”

In the UK, there has been an ongoing conversation for years about how – if at all – deliberative projects like these assemblies could offer a way to move beyond Brexit. In 2017, a citizens' assembly on Brexit [PDF] was actually held in Manchester, albeit without any concrete role in Brexit policy. More recently, groups such as Compass and DiEM25 UK have backed the idea, and have explored different ways of making it happen. But perhaps the most comprehensive proposal to date on this issue comes from the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy, which proposes to use many different forms of deliberative democracy to give citizens the power to decide on the UK’s unwritten constitution.

Each proposal has a different focus, and there are significant debates about what each model would actually achieve, but they all share a common understanding with Agora: the foundations of our political institutions are no longer fit for purpose. People’s demand for greater popular sovereignty must be taken seriously, and if we want to stem the rising tide of proto-fascist populism then we need more democracy, not less.

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