The Conference on the Future of Europe as a technopopulist experiment

By Carlo Invernizzi Accetti (City University of New York – City College) and Federico Ottavio Reho (Oxford University – St Anthony’s College)

Despite calls to permanently integrate citizens’ assemblies in EU decision making to improve the quality of our transnational democracy, the Conference on the Future of Europe is arguably exacerbating the two main trends that challenge EU legitimacy in the first place: technocracy and populism. Carlo Invernizzi Accetti and Federico Ottavio Reho in their op-ed for RevDem claim that political parties and other intermediary bodies are central for the democratization of the European Union.

The Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) was meant to directly engage citizens and bolster the Union’s notoriously weak democratic legitimacy. It is now nearing its end and preparing to wrap up its proposals amidst general indifference. In part, this is surely due to the tragic breakout of the biggest and most consequential European war since 1945. However, there are deeper reasons having to do with the technopopulist character of the exercise why the first ever transnational experiment in deliberative democracy failed from start to finish to excite citizens and the media in the transformational ways that many of its political proponents and intellectual advocates claimed it would.

Engagement numbers on the Multilingual Digital Platform – the CoFoE’s online hub for citizens to share ideas – were by no means negligeable, but clearly underwhelming and well below expectations. The four Citizens’ Panels – each composed of 200 randomly selected EU citizens tasked with deliberating and putting forward their proposals in broad thematic areas – hardly constituted a quantum leap in EU democratic representativeness. Finally, the Executive Board of the CoFoE, made up of senior representatives of the EU institutions, might end up acting as the ventriloquist of the mammoth 450-member Plenary, which is expected to debate citizens’ proposals and formulate a set of recommendations to the EU political leadership.

Despite calls to permanently integrate citizens’ assemblies in EU decision making to improve the quality of our transnational democracy, the CoFoE is arguably exacerbating the two main trends that challenge EU legitimacy in the first place: technocracy and populism.

This is not due to a failure in the initiative’s execution. The problem lies in the conceptual premises on which the CoFoE is based.

The problem can be traced back to a conception of ‘deliberative democracy’ which bypasses the traditional mechanisms of political representation, and in particular the central role of political parties and parliaments within them. Effectively, the Conference consists in a series of randomly selected citizens’ assemblies (‘panels’), which were invited by European officials to formulate proposals for reform in highly artificial and controlled deliberative settings designed by a private company. This involves a curious mixture of technocratic and populist elements.

The technocratic element lies in the ‘top-down’ nature of the whole exercise and the fact that professional experts were called upon to devise the procedures for deliberation, introduce the topics for discussion, and fact-check the content of debates in a presumptively ‘neutral’ and apolitical way. The populist element lies in the fact that the outcome of these deliberations is supposed to offer a ‘truer’ representation of the popular will than the established mechanisms of political representation, not unlike the way in which referendums have been used in various EU member states over the past few years.

The desire to ‘depoliticise’ and ‘neutralise’ the CoFoE’s proceedings is too evident to be missed. The Conference’s plenaries take place in the European Parliament’s Strasburg hemicycle, but following alphabetical order, not political affiliation. Participants in Citizens’ Panels are randomly selected to be representative of the EU’s sociological diversity. The selection is based on five criteria presented as neutral and scientific, but in fact inevitably and inherently political in their implications: nationality, the urban/rural divide, socio-economic background, gender, and age, with the youth overrepresented by design.

What is not given any relevance are political orientations or attitudes towards the EU. In fact, elected tenures or political responsibilities are a possible ground for exclusion from Citizens’ Panels, a sign that the organisers sought ‘the people’ in their imaginary pristine state, unadulterated by contaminations from political parties.

EU institutions asked to hear citizens’ thoughts on a predetermined list of broad thematic clusters that, though seemingly all-encompassing, largely reflect their current agenda and priorities, and around which all the Conference’s bodies are structured. Somewhat symbolically of the technocratic mindset that inspired the design of the whole Conference, Citizens’ Panels were hosted by some of the main educational institutions of the EU: the European University Institute in Florence, the College of Europe in Natolin (Warsaw), the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin, and the European Institute for Public Administration in Maastricht.

By purposely abstracting politics from interests and values aggregated by intermediary bodies, deliberative processes are in reality an exercise in political ventriloquism in which experts and elites summon an unorganised group of people to their ‘temples of knowledge’ to make them speak, in practice often to ‘enlighten’ them and make them confirm their assumptions and agendas.

The CoFoE’s results, therefore, are disappointing because the model of democracy that inspired the Conference is fundamentally flawed.

Even if numerically impressive, its results would not represent a genuine democracy but only a travesty of it. Real democracy requires the aggregation and representation of different competing constellations of interests and values.

Far from strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU institutions, the CoFoE’s synthesis of technocracy and populism further undermines it because it conveys the message that parties and parliaments are an obstacle to effective democratic representation, rather than its necessary instruments.

This is in turn based on the fiction that political deliberation can somehow abstract from the inherently partisan interests and values of which European citizens are bearers and political parties the expression.

In fact, the EU’s technopopulist approach to democracy goes beyond the specific episode of the CoFoE. Since the deepening of integration in the 1990s and, especially, the reaction to the polycrises of the 2010s and early 2020s, the EU has been forced to overcome its traditional technocracy in search for popular legitimation. This has not taken the form of an authentic politicisation based on genuine party competition and the organised representation of value differences.

Instead, a populist conception of democracy – which implies ‘listening’ to the people and, more recently, summoning them to ‘deliberate’ – has prevailed.

Think only of the referendums of the past, in which ‘yes’ was clearly the expected right answer and ‘no’ was interpreted as an embarrassing act of irrationality to be corrected in a new vote or simply brushed off. Think also of the European Commission’s ‘Citizens Dialogues’, or even of the permanent grand coalitions that have been a fixture of EU governance for decades and consciously prevent a real polarisation of political debates, which would better represent the variegated opinions existing in our societies about the EU and its future.  

What is the alternative?

Once the fiction of deliberative democracy is exposed for what it is, it becomes clear that any attempt at democratising the European Union must seek to strengthen, not weaken, European political parties.

An overall positive attempt in this direction certainly was the Spitzenkandidaten system, which was adopted in a legal vacuum with good results in 2014 but failed to deliver in 2019. It is high time for an adequate legal framework institutionalising this practice to be agreed upon.

Most importantly, what the EU needs are not more ‘direct’ ways of linking a disorganised and depoliticised citizenry with technocratic institutions, but rather more mechanisms of interest and value intermediation within political parties and parliaments. Deliberation is indeed indispensable to democracy, but it cannot work in a technocratic void of values and interests. It must happen through the internal democratisation of European political parties and their firm embeddedness within national and regional political systems.

None of this means denying the contemporary crisis of traditional party structures and representative democracy, which is genuine and profound. However, it warns against investing too much time and energy in the illusionary solutions promised by deliberative democracy, especially at the EU level. It is political parties and other intermediate representative bodies that we need to re-invent and rejuvenate.

For democracy to work, citizens cannot speak to political parties and parliaments through deliberative processes. They must speak through political parties and other intermediary bodies, giving representation to structured and differentiated societies in which different legitimate constellations of values and interests compete and compromise with each other in search for the European common good.

This also implies abandoning the ‘cartel mindset’ of mainstream political parties, which currently limits real political competition and representation in the European Parliament. This is the most promising way to help the EU break its technopopulist curse and rediscover the vibrant conception of political party democracy advanced by such figures as Adenauer, De Gasperi, and Schuman on the centre-right and Spinelli on the left.

In collaboration with Ferenc Laczo and Vilius Kubekas

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