Building democracy by using it

Towards the Council on participatory democracy

A European Union foundation story goes approximately like this: "the more global the nature of political urgencies becomes, the more evident the need for comprehensive solutions will be". Think about climate change, Coronavirus, the migrant crisis, Libya, the emerging digital oligopolies, and so on. This narrative should galvanise and empower those willing to strengthen the European Union and its effectiveness in tackling such problems.

Unfortunately, this comprehensive perspective has proved to be lacking substance. A positive solution never becomes reality, simply for it being appropriate. While Greece is dealing with a massive migrant crisis, and the Coronavirus is spreading across Europe -shortly after issuing the European Commission Digital Strategy paper, and few days before welcoming Greta Thunberg and unveiling common policies on climate change- governments are at odds with each other about the multiannual budget, as several nation-states -plenty enough to block any decision- are refusing to allocate more than 1% of the combined public expenditure to fund EU activities. The common needs are clear, yet the common will is missing.

Why is this happening, and what is the underlying problem? In one word: democracy. The absence of a democratic Pan-European debate motivates all leaders to find their legitimisation mostly from their national voters, and not from the European public as a whole.

Unfortunately there is no quick fix to this problem. To invoke the democratization of the EU apparently is as righteous as ineffective. To reform the EU treaties -in order to attribute more power to the European Parliament for instance- a unanimous consent of the national governments is required: a simple fact that inevitably brings every effort for a constitutional makeover back to square one. Even the "Conference on the Future of Europe", a two-years-long exercise in civil society consultation starting on May 9th 2020 in Dubrovnik (Croatia), presents the same limitations. The European Parliament is calling for a far-fetched effort to re-discuss more or less everything about the functioning of the EU. The two co-organizers -the European Commission and the European Council (which is to say the national governments, again)- are treating this conference as a listening drill, without displaying any substantial political commitment. As it stands, the obstacle of the unanimity rule is not expected to be removed any time soon.

Here is where the issue of citizens participation could make a difference. True power is not just about institutions, but also about the capability to make a real change happen. For the best and for the worst, chasing after either violent demagogues or visionary leaders, the will of the people remains critical. Gone are the days in which the EU was seen as the ground for building post-war peace in Western Europe, or post-communist transition in Eastern Europe. Those eras of public enthusiasm for Europe never seemed more distant. Citizens need proof that the EU is capable of solving new problems, their own problems.

To produce this proof, it is vital to encourage a direct participation of the European citizens in bringing about the necessary change, without having to wait for a formal reshaping of the institutional powers. While demanding for a more democratic governmental architecture in Europe, there probably is something even more urgent to pursue: namely using the existing democratic tools to their maximum extent.

On March 19th-20th, the first meeting of the "Council on Participatory Democracy" will be held online, convened by some of the most dynamic European campaigners for transnational democracy. On the meeting’s agenda, there will be the Conference on the Future of Europe, the reform of the political participation tools, and the democratization of the EU.

A simple idea, across these three topics, could inspire future actions: the employment of the existing tools of participatory democracy as a way to reform them. "The use develops the organ”, here’s a common perspective that may work for politics as well. While in human anatomy the muscle tissue is enhanced by physical activity, in politics exercising democracy helps to disseminate knowledge. Even the weakest democratic tools can become powerful weapons, as knowledge and awareness gain momentum. If you skip your Friday school class, while holding a billboard invoking climate change action, it’s likely that you will be considered just a bizarre school-girl. If you act the same way while the whole world is watching, suddenly you are the youngest political leader on earth. Transformative power is not just about institutional power, at least at the beginning of the process.

The European treaties include the right for a single citizen to address the European Parliament through a petition, as well as the right of (at least) one million citizens to address the European Commission. However, how much power do these tools really appoint to the European citizens? Virtually none. The European Parliament could (rightly so) disagree with the opinion of one citizen, while the European Commission could (rightly, again) disagree with what a tiny minority (one five-hundredth) of its citizens is proposing. But if the single citizen, or the million citizens, propose something highly popular while the rest of Europe is watching, to dismiss it could prove less easy for institutional decision-makers.

Without having to wait for the institutional democratization of the EU however, a first proposal can already be formulated.

In order to inform the people about the existing tools of participatory democracy, let's demand that the EU commits to spend at least the same amount of money that is currently spending to inform voters at the time of the European elections.

A second urgent proposal would be to embrace science in the efforts to innovate democracy, even more so as the European Commission already funds a lot of useful research of the JRC (Joint Research Center) on how to improve the quality of citizens’ participation. Let's demand that the European Parliament reviews the outcomes of those studies then, and endorses some of their suggestions.

Listening to citizens is not enough, of course. Sooner or later any civic movement, even any revolution, needs to transform the institutional architecture to be lasting and relevant. All largest demonstrations and popular mobilizations become sterile in the long run, without the ambition of governing. Thus there will be no lasting improvement in our quality of life, as well as with the planet’s ecosystem, without a federal and democratic European Union. In order to trigger these processes and stir them in the right direction however, citizens should be encouraged to activate and employ the existing tools of participation, they should be invited to use Europe for their common goals, unleashing and benefitting from the power of knowledge.

It is not easy to determine who could trigger this mechanism. Political parties still remain a national business, while elections are mainly a national game (even European and local elections are heavily influenced by national politics). Thus Pan-European movements, as well as those networks of citizens who have no stake in national elections, could lead this process of reform, together with those politicians who care about a Federal Europe, and who are trying to preserve the European Parliament from the tyranny of the national interests.

The first meeting of the Council on Participatory Democracy will, therefore, be an outstanding opportunity to take a step in the right direction.

***Marco Cappato is the Coordinator of the “World Congress for freedom of scientific Research”, Treasurer of “Luca Coscioni Association” and founder of the Pan-European political movement Eumans.  He is the co-promoter of two European Citizens Initiatives: “A price for carbon to fight climate change” ( and “For the respect of the rule of law in the European Union” ( As a nonviolent political leader in Italy, Marco Cappato led a number of political initiatives for civil rights and human rights through referendum, civil disobedience, strategic litigation and other democratic tools of political participation. Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2009.