Taking place during the EFC’s AGA and Conference in Warsaw in May, this meeting aimed to share creative thoughts and use out-of-the-box thinking on how to reinvigorate democracy in Europe. Various actors are facing many complexities and new challenges in their efforts to move Europe out of its current dysfunction. Panellists and participants explored practical solutions that have the potential to succeed but are sometimes politically neglected. Lessons learned from the recent “shocks” that Europe has experienced (e.g. Brexit), were also discussed in this dynamic and engaged debate.

Summary of contributions

There were a number of questions posed to the three contributors surrounding issues of visions for the future, challenges that stand in the way and how to get to that future with democracy and participation in Europe. In terms of what visions people have for the future, Élisa Lewis called for a more open, transparent, inclusive democracy where people know how their democracies are financed, and what research and data has legislation been based on. Marcin Gerwin called for the use of more citizens’ assemblies as this is a method where people can discuss in depth and make informed choices in a deliberative way. The tool has been so successful the Mayor of Gdansk decided that if 80% of participants agree on something the decision is binding. Anthony Zacharzewski argued that the language used currently is problematic as citizens and politicians are speaking different languages, which creates different levels of expectations. We need to find common language that recognises the richness and complexity of participation and democracy.

A number of challenges were outlined by the three speakers. Marcin Gerwin pointed out that democracies must work between elections also and there must be mechanisms for participation in the 4 or so years in between. Mechanisms such as citizens’ assemblies can provide participation in democracies at all times. The biggest challenge facing democracy according to Élisa Lewis is that they are not fit for our 21st century societies. Time and resources are necessary to participate in political parties, or use other power or financial means to be heard which has produced a clientele system of democracy which produces illegitimate decisions and outcomes. These traditional structures have led to a power vacuum filled by populism but we need creativity to find solutions. Anthony Zacharzewski outlined three challenges at different levels: on the government and institution level, we should get the governments to listen to public voices through a participative process. On the citizen’s level, trust and confidence have to be built so it is worth investing in democracy. Finally, we need new institutions in the middle between government and citizens as traditional organisations such as trade unions are no longer doing the job.

The three contributors shared their thoughts on how we achieve their visions. According to Anthony Zacharzewski, we need to find the “solar panel effect of democracy”. The decision of the German government to subsidise solar panels took them from “craziness” to a virtuous circle. We have to make governments actively involve citizen’s voices from the early stages of decision making processes. Élisa Lewis believes there is not one answer due to the complexity of democracies but technology could play a part. Marcin Gerwin believes that citizens’ assemblies – if they produce binding outcomes – are the best mechanism to increase participation in democracies. When asked what role philanthropy can play in achieving these visions, Marcin proposed that philanthropy could create and support citizens’ assemblies, Élisa proposed creating links and using evidence, while Anthony proposed philanthropy supporting cross-border initiatives and building a financial model for civil society.

When put to the audience, only 10 participants had participated in a process such as citizens’ assemblies or public budgeting, while only 5 had participated in a process which was binding. Discussion was rife within the audience with plenty of ideas and feedback. A point was raised on education and that citizenship and participation should be embedded in schools from an early age. Another idea that emerged was the use of an accountability mechanism. Transparency at the service of accountability is a solution as well as counter-powers as civic duty.

Another participant stated that “we should not abandon the dinosaur because they might become birds”. Institutions and their settings are not static; they change and evolve as well in an attempt to improve. The elephant in the room here is that politicians do not have an idea about what the future will look like. We might not have the words for how the world will be but we know parts and there is space for amendments. This can also go through failures – a point of failure is needed to get things right. Finally and simply, democracy and the solutions for participation we have are the least bad compromise we have.

It was also raised that our democracies are only as good as its contributors. We need to defend our democracies but also be afraid of it and aware of its pitfalls. We need to educate our parliamentarians and include them in participatory experiments that empower citizens. Finally, optimism is needed. We have examples of democracy festivals in Sweden and Latvia that we could look to for examples.