The European Union (EU) has embarked on a citizen-centric approach to democracy through initiatives like the Conference on the Future of Europe and subsequent citizens’ panels. While aiming to bridge the gap between EU institutions and citizens, these efforts fall short by fostering a depoliticised democracy. The top-down approach, led predominantly by the European Commission, neglects the role of political parties and civil society, hindering genuine pluralistic debate. Furthermore, the emphasis on consensus stifles political conflict necessary for democratic vitality. To revitalise EU democracy, initiatives must prioritise politicisation, engaging collective actors, and fostering transnational dialogue to address systemic inequalities and promote meaningful citizen participation.

The European Union (EU) has recently organised a series of citizen-centred processes that suggest a new pattern of democracy and participation. The Conference on the Future of Europe in 2021–2022 included a set of European citizens’ panels, national citizens’ panels organised by member states, and a plenary that combined different types of representation. Since the conference ended, the European Commission has organised a series of further European citizens’ panels. The aim of this EU “citizen turn” is to reduce the distance between EU institutions and citizens by reaching out directly to them. However, while some see this as a “new paradigm of democracy”, the EU has been implementing it in a way that reproduces a very depoliticised understanding of democracy.

It is telling that it is the commission that has emerged as the dominant EU body when it comes to institutionalising citizen participation, as shown by the new generation of European citizens’ panels. When implementing such processes, the commission has tended to reproduce its self-understanding as a nonpolitical or technical institution that operates mostly through consensus. The emphasis on embedding citizen participation within its consensus-oriented policymaking process hinders a pluralist debate that channels political conflict.

Furthermore, such processes fail to connect citizen participation with the broader public sphere and involve a heavily mediated form of politics – yet are framed as a purer representation of EU citizens. The European citizens’ panels were organised by private consultancies subcontracted by the EU, whose expertise lies in organising sortition-based exercises of deliberative democracy. This type of mediation is disconnected from the public sphere and mass politics. The influence of these deliberative democracy entrepreneurs selling a new form of mediation to the EU institutions raises questions about European democracy. Thus, the trend towards citizen assemblies and panels in the EU entails a blind spot of increasingly depoliticised democracy.

Black and white photograph of Alvaro Oleart smiling.
Alvaro Oleart

Disentangling democracy from mass politics

The depoliticised understanding of democracy that remains dominant in the EU can be a good match to some approaches to deliberative democracy – particularly those focused on mini-publics, set up to have a group of citizens deliberate in a bubble-like setting with tightly controlled external inputs. This aims to replace the public sphere with carefully managed deliberation among randomly selected citizens, who are meant to be broadly representative of the population. By design, the European citizens’ panels were meant to be insulated from wider societal and political debate and to individualise political participation.

This depoliticised approach to democracy has a demobilising effect, since political parties, trade unions, and civil society actors are discouraged from participating. The resulting “democracy without politics” risks deepening the trend towards hollowed-out democracy. Pluralist democratic politics requires collective actors to be able to put forward and confront their contrasting ideas in the public sphere. The emerging EU participatory initiatives sideline these actors and base their political legitimacy entirely on randomly selected groups of citizens. This cuts the feedback loop with the public sphere and embeds a strongly technocratic component in the political process.

Creating an artificial depoliticised space where individualised citizens are brought together as equals sidelines the ways in which systemic discrimination based on race, class, gender, or sexual orientation takes place in society. Under a label of being politically neutral, such participation reinforces the imbalances and injustices of the status quo and stifles any serious challenge to existing policy templates.

This means that the current wave of citizen initiatives risks being reduced to something of a public relations exercise aimed at communicating a supposed desire to close the gap between EU institutions and citizens, rather than offering a genuine opportunity to reshape the EU in any far-reaching way. The EU’s citizen turn lacks a systemic view of deliberative democracy. It fails to link up with or foster any wider “deliberative system” and militates against agonistic contestation in the European public sphere. It is precisely this micro-macro disconnect that is one of the blind spots that most needs addressing in EU democracy. In this regard, processes such as the Conference on the Future of Europe and its European citizens’ panels do not enhance the overarching quality of EU democracy in a meaningful way.

Politicising participation

None of this is to argue against participatory initiatives, but rather to suggest that such democratic innovations need to fit with a more agonistic form of democracy. This can be done. In Ireland, citizen assemblies on abortion and same-sex marriage absorbed and in turn influenced broader public debate. In France, the Citizen Convention for Climate reshaped public discourse on climate change. EU citizen initiatives need to focus more on their embeddedness in the broader public sphere and less on selective input into particular policies.

This could be helped by having parliaments or other non-executive actors organise such exercises. This would establish a clearer connection between individual citizen exercises and the macro public sphere. The main indicator of success for democratic innovations should not be how far they alter individual policies but rather how firmly they are embedded in the EU’s overall political system and the public sphere.

Overall, initiatives controlled from the top down – such as the European citizen panels – will not help create a mass politics of EU democracy. Only through a priority emphasis on wider democratic pluralism and agonistic politicisation can citizen participation initiatives fulfil their potential to improve EU democratisation. For EU democracy to be vibrant, processes of contestation need to include the confrontation of alternative visions of society and open transnational deliberation on these visions in politicised public spheres. Democracy can only emerge by questioning current EU structures and by fostering political debates on them.

In moving towards a more politicised understanding of participatory democracy, the EU should look at how citizen participation can be taken out of its consensus-oriented and technocratic policymaking process. It needs to introduce ways of connecting its many citizen initiatives with the broader public sphere and other channels of democratic politics. Reclaiming an agonistic public sphere nourished by strong collective actors such as political parties, trade unions, civil society, and social movements would help develop innovations that contribute more meaningfully to democratising the EU.

Mass politics and collective actors

A blind spot in EU democracy is that current reforms and participatory exercises do little to cultivate spaces for collective action and dissensus. The distance of the EU’s politics from national political debates is a major challenge, as a stronger EU democracy requires the joint development of stronger collective actors at the national and transnational level. This entails a broader reconfiguration of how democracy is conceived and more effort to reimagine ways for citizens to engage in EU politics.

Mediating actors, which stand between individual citizen participation and the state, such as civil society, trade unions, political parties, and social movements, can mobilise people not previously socialised in EU politics. They help people to realise that their political problems are intertwined with those of others across the EU and beyond. Such intermediary bodies need to focus on better interaction between the national and the EU level. EU democracy needs stronger horizontal connections (for example, between trade unions in different member states) and vertical ones (for example, between national and EU-level civil society). This is crucial, since at the moment, most people tend to be socialised through national politics.

These bodies are needed especially for citizens who are structurally marginalised in politics in general and in EU politics in particular. Powerful individuals and multinational corporations, actors that already have many lobbyists regularly involved in policymaking processes, in practice have more weight in participatory processes than, say, factory workers or refugees. Collective organisations that allow citizens to come together in a particular ideological direction can help correct this imbalance and enable wider political engagement that connects EU politics “in the corridors and in the streets”. The political empowerment of vulnerable social groups requires mediation through collective organisations. Only by enabling the participation of these organisations will the voices of undocumented migrants, delivery riders, and other precarious communities be prioritised and heard in a meaningful way.

To reverse such inequalities, EU institutions need to offer more support to such intermediary bodies. This requires more funding and more political protection for civil society and other actors. Given the highly professionalised nature of EU policymaking, Brussels-based civil society often operates through technocratic codes that enable the role of business lobbyists. Furthermore, civil society organisations often compete with each other for EU funding. Therefore, the EU could nurture collective organisations at the national and the EU level through flexible funding schemes, rather than funding for specific projects, as well as through wider political recognition and engagement, not only in Brussels but also across the member states. This is particularly relevant in countries such as Hungary and Poland that have undergone democratic backsliding.

Similarly, EU democracy requires ways to increase the political weight of national parties and parliaments in democratic innovation. A stronger intertwining of EU-level and national politics is needed. The role of social partners, particularly trade unions, could also be strengthened to match the prominent role that business lobbyists play in the EU. At the moment, trade unions channel their EU affairs mostly via EU-level umbrellas, such as the European Trade Union Confederation or the European Federation of Public Service Unions; involving national trade unions in EU politics would bring in a wider range of actors. All of these collective actors should be at the forefront of any innovative democratic processes of citizen participation.

In sum, current approaches to EU democratic reform suffer from a serious blind spot in the way they give primacy to individualised citizen participation and neglect the need for more engagement with the activists and collective organisations most excluded from EU politics. A more systemic conception of deliberation in the EU requires strong transnational coalitions of collective actors that nourish politicised debates in the European public sphere. Transnational linkages and horizons have long existed, and it is only by connecting them that a meaningful democratic transformation can take place. This is not the task of one organisation alone. The challenge for the EU is to support local and national bodies as mass organisations to counter the decades-long trend that has seen trade unions and political parties hollowed out, while at the same time constructing a space of permanent dialogue between mediators across borders.

Alvaro Oleart is an FNRS postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Political Science and Institute for European Studies of the Université Libre de Bruxelles. Previously, he was a postdoctoral researcher at Studio Europa and the Department of Political Science of Maastricht University, and a postdoctoral researcher and lecturer at the department of Political Science and Public Administration of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. He is the author of the book “Framing TTIP in the European Public Spheres: Towards an Empowering Dissensus for EU Integration” (Palgrave, 2021) and “Democracy Without Politics in EU Citizen Participation: From European Demoi to Decolonial Multitude” (Palgrave, 2023). His research focuses on the interaction between parliamentary actors, the media, civil society and social movements with the European Union from both an empirical and normative perspective.