From fragmented publics to common politics 2020 – 2021

Deliberation on the Future of Europe

In a context of perception of crisis of (representative) democracy, grounded on the decrease of trust in politics, political involvement, and vote, the improvement and extension of processes for political deliberation appears as a strategy to improve its legitimacy. From a systemic view, in democracies legitimacy is related to the quality of public discourse, and it should be focused on the debate of society’s  basic norms and principles (Habermas, 1996; Parkinson & Mansbridge, 2013). The main function of deliberation is to solve problems of legitimacy in pluralistic societies and not, as it is often expected, to provide a standard to judge every political interaction or decision. Representative democracies already incorporate the conditions for deliberation as

“the normative infrastructure of the constitutional state is mirrored in terms of channels, filters and transformers of various communication flows. These flows circulate between the informal networks of the political public sphere on one side, legislatures, courts, and administrative bodies on the other side. And each of these state powers operates again according to patterns of deliberation of its own” (Habermas 2005: 388).

From this systemic point of view, the quality of our democracies depends on the way power circulates between the institutionalized forms of decision making and the informal flows of communication (Bohman, 1998: 415). A crisis of legitimacy would take place if citizens perceive either that there is a closure between the informal claims and institutional decisions, or that the political system is colonized by any of the subsystems (administrative power, economy).

To counteract that, Habermas envisioned a strong civil society, composed by a network of associations and movements capable of being sensitive to social problems arising from private life spheres and making them audible at the public sphere, as well as independent mass media receptive to the citizen needs and claims.

This conception of deliberation has evolved, and in the context of generalized mistrust of what we can call the mediators of politics – very often referred to as “the elite” (politicians, experts, activists) – we can find a renewal of the appeal to directly involve citizens on the reflection about the basic institutions and policies. Fuelled by the extension of populist movements, institutions are prone to facilitate this involvement, traditionally claimed by critics of representative democracy. This has had an impact on the proliferation of what have been called “democratic innovations (Smith, 2009), but also on policy design multiplying consultations.

But the different mechanisms and processes developed to generate citizen deliberation respond to different political strategies. Some are focused on involving ordinary citizens on the decisions, other on facilitating the participation of organized groups; some are mainly searching legitimacy for elected representatives, other try to “empower” individual citizens. Under a general label of “closing the gap” with citizens, then, we can find many different strategies and goals.


Linda De Volder

The purpose of the deliberative process we are initiating within the Jean Monnet Network OpenEUdebate is to apply the academic reflection on these experiences to the analysis of the narratives of citizen participation promoted in the discourse at the EU level. Through the different activities we want to be able to make proposals about procedures and outcomes to be involved in the debate on the future of Europe. The main goal, then, will be to design more accurate strategies – especially those designed to involve youngsters – to contribute to deliberation on the European public spheres at all levels. That’s why we believe that an analysis of previous activities can be a good starting point to continue the debates.

If the objective is to generate public deliberation – understood as an open, inclusive and reflective debate aiming to achieve the best decisions, taking in account the force of the arguments- we have to conclude that there is no concrete mechanisms to produce it, but it will be the result of the various different debates taking place within institutions and outside them.

As an innovative teaching activity within the formative activities compromised in our Jean Monnet Network, it is aimed to develop a process of deliberation involving students from different levels, Universities, and countries to reflect on the future of Europe. It will do so through the realization of different activities allowing students participation and, at the same time, giving them the tools to reflect on the impact of this type of involvement. With different methodologies and strategies, we are going to construct a continuous process for participation during present academic course. The outcomes of each activity will be used as input for the others, contributing to the general discussion, connecting it with other civil and institutional fora.

The activities to be developed are:
a) Translating pan-European Debates into National Public Spheres: a Discussion of the National Citizens’ Consultations.

b) Deliberative forum November

c) Result presentation at the Networking Workshop “Consulting, representing and deliberating with European publics”– ULB / VUB May 2021

d) The participation on external fora (institutional, civil society organized, at different levels)

We aim to involve students with different profiles and interests on some the activities or all along the process, providing them with an academic background to be able to make some assessments on the specific initiatives and to define the goals to be pursued.