My experience of a citizens’ deliberation day in Brussels

In this article Jessica den Outer, UN expert on the Rights of Nature, recounts her experience as moderator of the RealDeal’s citizens’ deliberation on the European Green Deal. The article was originally published in Dutch in Vanaf Hier.

I was recently in Brussels. At the centre of the beating heart of European politics, I was able to help guide a citizens’ deliberation. A discussion about the European Green Deal, to be precise. I noticed up close that a truly democratic process can be confusing, chaotic and difficult. But also that that is precisely why it is so beautiful and important.

No fewer than 100 European citizens gave up their precious Saturday and came to Brussels for a democratic experiment. They were given the opportunity to express their thoughts and wishes for European future plans.

Trend: citizen deliberations that help politicians

This type of citizen consultation is taking place in more and more countries. Citizens of different ages and backgrounds consider political plans and help politicians to tackle difficult issues. It is an extension of democracy as we know it, and it often ensures a supported proposal from committed and resourceful citizens.

The European Environmental Bureau organized this Citizens’ Deliberation on the future of the European Green Deal. The goal? To learn what citizens from all over Europe think of the European plan to become carbon neutral by 2050.

Although I have been following the concept of citizens’ deliberations for a while, this was my first active participation in such a council. And that too as a moderator. I had arrived in Brussels by train the day before. On Saturday morning, more than 100 people, from 28 different countries, trickled into the hall. Some had spent more than 16 hours on the train to be here.

All those people from all those countries

I found myself nervous as I opened the day from the stage. All those people from all those countries; Of course I had to make sure they had a great day, right? I started by thanking everyone. Then I asked a member of the audience why she had come. She said that she did not work on environmental issues in her work and that as a secretary she was far removed from the political plans that we were going to discuss. “I am here today because as a citizen I have a responsibility to think along,” she replied. “The environment is important to everyone, even if it doesn’t concern me as much.”

The focus group that was thinking about a circular economy didn’t even want to go to lunch.”

Jessica den Outer, Nature’s lawyer

That’s what I liked most about this day. People participated in a personal capacity. Their work, origins, or knowledge of the themes did not matter. In focus groups we worked on various themes from the European Green Deal. Such as the transformation of the food and energy system, infrastructure, changing our economy and protecting nature.

Not always on the same page

It was also difficult sometimes. I noticed this when the various focus groups returned to the large room after a period of consultation in smaller rooms. Some participants stated that they did not always agree with each other due to differences in cultural background and other experiences with democracy. This made it difficult to provide specific recommendations for politicians. But when it came to sketching scenarios for future visions, they still seemed to be able to find common ground. Because everyone wants a social, healthy and green living environment.

And what they included in their visions of the future also surprised me. For example, in the focus group for the circular economy they knew that major gains can be made if we focus more on education and money for research instead of just focusing on sustainable production and other technical solutions. I was more than happy when people shared that they believed that nature should also be given rights.

Tight schedule

We had made a tight plan for the day with the organising team. We gave the focus groups an hour and a half to arrive at a vision of the future. But 90 minutes turned out not to be enough. “We don’t want to stop!” I heard from several groups. We adjusted the timetable no fewer than three times.

The focus group thinking about a circular economy didn’t even want to go to lunch – they were engaged in such heated discussion. As a moderator, I had my hands full. But the satisfaction at the end of the day was even greater for it. Many – including me – felt that everyone had been able to let their voice be heard in this democratic experiment.

Drinks in Brussels

At the end of the day I was exhausted, but couldn’t pass up on the drinks reception. “This day is so cool,” sighed a young student who came to stand next to me. “I would like to oblige all politicians to meet with citizen councils every day to come up with solutions and visions for the future. Look what we have achieved in one day!”

Are citizens’ deliberations a way to bring people closer together? To promote solidarity, strengthen democracy and connect politics and citizens? Yes, I put a check mark next to each question. Now over to our politicians.

Want to get involved in the RealDeal project’s next deliberative event? You can! More details and registration here.