»Participation as the Vital Energy of Democracy» – A Call for a Reform of Democratic Tools in the EU

8 Minutes
Democratic Utopias, Institutional Revolutions, Facilitation & Deliberation
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There is something fascinating in writing this article at the end of 2020. Our reference points, our existential compass and our flows of emotions and ideas are extremely interconnected by the technological infrastructure that allows us to operate together, by the contextual information of our daily lives uniformised by the pandemic around us, and by the new forms of human distancing within us. And the climate crisis is lurking more and more ominously in our lives. Whether we realise it or not. But to be honest, it is harder and harder to ignore it. Even if - like me - you are not an environmentalist by training.

In this article I will look at three 'aha moments' of transnational activism and its connections with democratic processes in the European Union, starting from the experience that was gained by a nascent European citizens movement, EUMANS, while coordinating a European Citizens Initiative, StopGlobalWarming.eu, for a carbon pricing in the European Union in the middle of a global pandemic. These three 'aha moments' are: the sudden awareness triggered by the pandemic, the role of citizens in decision making processes, and the instruments available for citizens.

These three can and should be transformed into the vital energy of a much needed confidence of transnational movements in their ability to have a political and democratic impact.

To be more specific:

  1. 2020 as the year of 'sudden awareness' or 'realising what water is': Pandemics and climate as moments of awareness for humanity;
  2. The role of citizens in decision making processes: demanding a crucial role at the 'democracy table' for those who use the instruments provided by the European Treaties (or for what that matters National Constitutions and even Local Statutes in Municipalities and Regions);
  3. The participatory instruments available for citizens: improving the toolbox of participatory democracy in itself and the need of reforms for the democratization of democracy in the European Union.


1. Realising What Water Is

The story of the 'Two Fishes in the The Water' was made famous by one of the most excellent and genius and bitter-sweet North American writers, David Foster Wallace. In the Commencement Speech delivered to the students of Keynon College, Wallace tells the story of the two fishes swimming in the water, that are not aware of what water is until someone else asks them 'how the water is today?'. Between February and March 2020 the whole of humanity realised what water is. With the explosion of the Covid-19 emergency we realised on our skins what a virus is, how it knows no borders, and what it takes to protect our lives. We discovered the very 'water' we are all swimming in.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit us like a sniper. And the only way to defend ourselves from the sniper’s bullets and their consequences (whether they are sanitary, economic, or social), is through the research for solutions that can be implemented beyond borders. Data collection and analysis, vaccines’ research and deployment for all, investments in research and sharing of knowledge, crisis management and civil protection needs to be elaborated and implemented through transnational collaboration. Covid-19 pushed us to rethink the productive system, the way how cities, public and private spaces are conceived, how access to health measures is guaranteed to all as well as social security. Because if this rethinking of the system is not well guided and it is not based on a foundation of justice and human rights, societies can unravel in an uncontrollable turmoil.

The space of action and interaction necessary for the expansion of a transnational network of 'goal-minded' people became completely 'digital'. The result of this 'forced digitalization' is powerful. If we pay attention to those structural elements that need to be reformed. The fact that we all now move in a full digital space, brings an incredible acceleration to transnational activism. But - if we do not pay attention - it also increases the risks of making transnational activism an urban middle-class debating club. Holding society together needs education, information, collaboration and decision-making processes that are based on proficuous dialogue in these newborn public spheres. It is with this awareness that the StopGlobalWarming.eu European Citizens Initiative was carried on during 2020.


2. Demanding a Crucial Role at the 'Democracy Table'

Greta Thunberg will get into history books. Whether you like her or not, this little teen with her tresses managed to wake up individuals across all the dimensions in which societies are divided: across age, across race, across gender, across class, and across borders. Combining scientific evidence with a simple message: we cannot wait. And each and everyone of us is responsible to find a way to play our part to change things. She was the one asking loudly 'How is the water?'.

Fair enough. Thanks to Greta! However a focus on new forms of transnational activism cannot ignore a foundational rationale: what is activism, and most importantly, what is the purpose of activism? And why an analysis on transnational activism that aims to offer a toolbox for all of us must include an honest account of existing 'participatory democracy instruments'. Without criticizing the God Mother - or rather the God Daughter - of the environmental cause, the purpose of any form of activism is 'victory'. Not the victory of an election, not necessarily the conquer of power, but the victory of a good idea over a bad idea, of good politics over bad politics, of justice over inequality.

If activism is only seen as an awareness-raising campaign, then our voices risk to be buried in the algorithmic noise of social media channels and the heavily advertising-dependent media industry. So now more than ever we need a real hook. A measurable, accountable hook. This is the reason why with Marco Cappato and Monica Frassoni, both former MEPs, and professor Alberto Majocchi back in 2019 we launched a European Citizens Initiative titled 'StopGlobalWarming.eu: a price on carbon to fight climate change'.

StopGlobalWarming.eu doesn’t have the ambition to take over the heritage of NGOs, organisations, academics, grassroots movements, and political parties that spent the last decades reporting, alerting, advocating, and campaigning for specific policy changes or raising awareness on climate issues.

The injection of a European Citizens Initiative such as StopGlobalWarming.eu becomes an instrument to transform this heritage into a possible democratic victory. Carbon pricing is a economical-ecological measure, based on putting a price on CO2 emissions, generating revenues for the ecological transition, and lowering taxes for workers. It is evidence-based, scientifically solid (backed by over 27 Nobel Prizes and over 15,000 scientists), and efficient in speeding up the process of cutting CO2 emissions. StopGlobalWarming.eu started to collect signatures in September 2019, however, it was in the middle of the pandemic, in April 2020, that the campaign started to gain a cross-cutting consensus. Three former EU Commissioners, MPs from different EU member states belonging to different political parties, Mayors and Presidents of Regions decided to endorse publicly the proposal of Carbon Pricing and to inform their communities about the possibility to sign the European Citizens Initiative.

But what is more valuable is to see how a transnational committee of citizens was able to trigger this dynamic. Here are just a few examples:

  • We saw citizens sending the template of the local resolution for the European Citizens Initiative not only to their local mayor, but to all the mayors across Europe;
  • We saw the famous Italian rapper Fedez sharing an Instagram story with his community on the formal value of the signature on the ECI, and the website crashing, collecting 10,000 signatures in one day. On an official petition to the European Commission;
  • We saw party leaders on opposite fronts agreeing on the need of rethinking the fiscal and ecological policy of the European Union;
  • We saw a UK citizen studying in Germany and a Romanian-Italian student living in Belgium trying to find the best way to get in contact with the Mayor of Budapest, who recently took a stand against its authoritarian government particularly in the name of climate.

This is something with a revolutionary potential. Because carbon pricing can be a change in the productive system. And because this change can happen through a change in the legislation. And this change can unfold thanks to a post-national connection of people who now feel the 'water' and cannot ignore it anymore. People who respect the representative democracy, but understand it can only be boosted and improved if the urgency is funnelled into other democratic tools.

If the purpose is 'to make politics great again', then you need to focus on 'politics' rather than policy. And how do you measure the success of a political action? You measure it by the fact that one day - potentially in the time span of your own life - you can see that the thing that you fighted for happens for real. Through a change in regulations and law.

A topic like Carbon Pricing would hardly end up in the electoral program of a political party (even if the electoral program would have any value). But still needs to happen. Hooking this demand to the official instruments of participation transforms this challenge into something that increases transparency and accountability, both for the activists and for those interlocutors sitting at the decision-making table.


3. Improving the Toolbox of Participatory Democracy in Itself

Integrating official participatory democracy instruments into any form of activism can transform activism not in an act of faith, but in a transformative collective act of trust in the European Institutions. And a snowball effect to accelerate the democratization process of the European Union.

This trust is extremely important if we consider the centrality of the so-called “European values” as they are stated in the Treaty of Lisbon: “respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities”. These values and Art. 2.1 “The Union's aim is to promote peace, its values and the well-being of its peoples” are what should hold together the European Union and foster the integration processes, progressively linking it to the democratization process. Because these are the values that are the most put in danger by the authoritarian and securitarian political leaderships that gained force in some member states in the recent past (in Italy, Poland, Hungary, the UK if we look at the Brexit Referendum to name a few).

The European Institutions (in particular the European Parliament and the European Commission) should have in the utmost consideration the proposals of grassroots movements and civil society organisations and appropriately follow up - particularly when these actors are held together by a pan-European civic engagement, because these are the most important allies for strengthening the enforcement of the European values.

There are two levels of leash that hold the important reform hostage of the current democratic process of the European Union: an excessive weight put onto the ballot moment and the veto system within the European Council. The Visegrad Block uses everything - literally everything - to protect its total disrespect of the rule of law. Decisions around budget, climate, civil rights, are dependent on the votes of the Visegrad Block within the Council.

Strengthening the role of participatory democracy instruments can become a powerful disruptive element in this stagnant scheme. Having citizens relying on these official instruments, would create a constant loop of proposal and motivation for those sitting in the institutions, progressively freeing them from the manacles of the electoral consensus. For this virtuous cycle to work though, it is necessary to engage more and more activists to cooperate to work in two directions:

  1. Join efforts across borders to activate and use existing instruments of participatory democracy (i.e. European Citizens Initiatives, Petitions to the European Parliament, Strategic litigation, etc.) 
  2. Collectively elaborate and advocate to reimagine how the aforementioned instruments should be improved and reformed (following up to European Citizens Initiatives, institutionalising new instruments, such as sortition-based citizens assemblies, increasing the amount of information shared with European citizens about their rights of participation, favouring the creation of European Public Service of Information that addresses the European public sphere combining reporting on representative and participatory democracy, etc.)

This renewed cooperation between citizens and civil society organisations and accountable institutions, could help to bring back “politics” to its purest meaning: the art of government in the space of the multitudes of individuals who ultimately want only to have a good decent life.

It may be worth highlighting the most important: knowledge! The best way how a democratically rooted approach to transnational activism can function is through knowledge. Citizens should be aware that they can activate participatory democracy instruments, they should be informed by the EU institutions themselves about the instruments available, about who else in Europe is working on the same matter, how a signature can make change happen, how MEPs and the Commission are acting. Currently the Representative component of the EU institutions (Commission and Parliament) and the participatory democracy instruments (starting from ECIs) are 'siloed'. Reporting and information on participatory democracy initiatives, such as European Citizens Initiatives, is not 'coupled' with reporting and information on the outputs of the work of the institutions. ECIs committees are the closeted actors of European politics (by others), and their instruments disempowered by the lack of feedback and deliberative impact.

If the demands of citizens are not turned into an act of law or at least taken into serious consideration, citizens will be fatigued. And progressively the feeling of disenfranchisement could detach them from the whole European Union democratic space which ultimately will become less 'democratic'. As transnational paneuropean activists, we need to demand equal dignity for participatory democracy. Equal dignity in terms of funding as well as access to spaces and instruments, so that this form of political engagement can integrate within the mechanism of participatory democracy in a healthy pan-European public sphere. 

With this ongoing pandemic we ain’t have nothing to lose. So it is better if we keep working together to better understand how we can all win.

About the contributor

Virginia Fiume
Movement & Campaign Coordinator of the pan-European Citizens Movement EUMANS & European Citizens Initiative StopGlobalWarming.eu

Virginia Fiume left London in 2019 to launch EUMANS, the pan-European citizens movement for democracy and sustainability. Now based in Brussels, she coordinates European-level participatory democracy initiatives for sustainability and democracy, combining advocacy, networking, citizens empowerment and community engagement activities. Virginia is also the representative of EUMANS within the coalition Citizens Take Over Europe.

She holds a degree at Universitá degli Studi di Milano in Critic and Theory of Contemporary Literature, and an MA in Anthropology of Media at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. Virginia Fiume has over 15 years of experience in the field of journalism, communication and Tech startups in North America, the Middle East and different European countries.