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Introduction to dLiberation

J Clive Matthews
17 September 2007
Welcome to dLiberation, the new openDemocracy blog on deliberation which opens with coverage of Tomorrow’s Europe.

The European Union is the most complex political system in the history of the world. A body made of various parts of varying degrees of unity, it has the power to affect the lives of 492 million people.

These EU citizens are represented in a parliament of 785 MEPs, representing hundreds of political parties from 27 member states, speaking 23 official languages. The MEPs are elected not as individuals, as in the Westminster model of first past the post voting, but on a range of proportional representation systems that vary from country to country.

Yet the European Parliament, despite being the only directly elected body within the EU, does not have the power to initiate legislation, a power held by the fully appointed European Commission. Additionally, the European Parliament’s proposed amendments can be overruled by the Council of the European Union – a body made up by senior politicians from the various member states, all of whom have gained office by a variety of different means, ranging from direct election to appointment by individual heads of government.

But this is Europe, the birthplace of democracy - a continent now (bar the aberration of Belarus) made up entirely of democratic states, where universal suffrage is the rule, where democracy is considered not just as the best form of government, but as a fundamental right.

How then can this apply to the EU whose legislation is replacing many of the laws that used to be passed by national governments?  Is it write to talk about “the will of the people”, the central idea underlying democratic systems since the days of Solon of Athens two and a half millennia ago, when there are many peoples? Today we understand democracy as a constitutional law-based system with fair voting, a system that prevents the tyranny of the majority and protects the fundamental rights of individuals and minorities. But at an international level doesn’t this simply hollow out democracy itself?

Its lack of democratic participation and accountability has dogged the European Union since its initial foundation 50 years ago this year. The inability to create a true demos amongst such a vast populace, speaking so many different languages and with so many different concerns, has in turn made ensuring that the EU works to advance both the will and the welfare of the people increasingly difficult.

Over the next few weeks, an unprecedented experiment is taking place to try and provide a solution to this fundamental problem. After two years of stagnation following the rejection by French and Dutch voters of the European Constitution, and with the same threat of rejection still hanging over the successor Reform Treaty, in mid-October, 400 EU citizens, carefully selected to statistically represent the peoples of the EU as a whole, will be brought together at the European Parliament in Brussels to debate the future of the European Union.

Will this experiment in deliberative democracy, the first to sample from such a vast pool and the first to try and break so many language barriers, achieve anything? Will Europe’s leaders listen? Can it even be considered as democratic? Over the next seven weeks, dLiberation, the new openDemocracy blog, will be following the process, analysing the methodology, looking at the discussions, and talking to the organisers and participants.

Could this be the way to bring the people to the heart of the EU, or will it end up just another PR exercise to try and drum up support for an institution deep in the throes of a mid-life crisis?

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