Democracy is having a historic moment in eastern Belgium.
This month, the German-speaking community of Belgium has launched its new Bürgerrat – a Citizens’ Council. Twenty-four residents of the small region were chosen by lot to be members. They serve for 18 months and can decline if they so choose.
What does the Citizens’ Council do?
Members of the Council have three main tasks:
- Attending sessions of the regional Parliament
- Setting the citizens’ agenda
- Organizing citizens’ assemblies
The Council creates assemblies, which act as forums to discuss questions posed by the Council’s agenda. Fifty people comprise the citizens’ assemblies.
In addition, the regional Parliament of the German-speaking community (the elected officials) must schedule two hearings with the people who attended the assemblies. At these hearings, Parliament will listen to their findings.
In this part of Belgium – a recognized federal entity where the official language is German – direct participation in government isn’t new. As a community of 77,000 residents, referenda and civil dialogue are the norms.
So why introduce a new Citizens’ Council?
The reasons behind the Citizens’ Council
The Prime Minister of the German-speaking community, Oliver Paasch, said that he wants to encourage as much democracy as possible. A young politician from the region, Alexander Miesen, says that dialogue with non-politicians is already robust. It’s mostly lobbyists, trade unionists, and association presidents, though. Miesen thinks the Citizens’ Council will encourage people to join in politics who would not normally be so inclined.
The German-speaking Community of Belgium is an autonomous federal region. It has devolved powers, like Scotland in the UK. It’s also the smallest federal entity in Europe. As of 2004, it had its own Parliament. The community also has certain regional responsibilities.
Why is this significant for democracy?
The German-speaking community’s attempt to involve citizens directly comes at an apt time. Most constituents around Europe and the rest of the world are feeling a sense of political malaise. Nobody feels heard. And politicians seem to move further and further away. If this experiment succeeds, it could spell a new model for governing – one that lets the people decide which issues matter. Such a system could very well restore citizens’ lost faith in government.
The direct democracy experiment is progressive
Author of the book Against Elections: The Case for Democracy David Van Reybrouck lauds the eastern Belgian region. He sees these Belgians as rising to a challenge posed by today’s broken system. In his book, Van Reybrouck argues that elections are not the most democratic method of governing. Rather, direct dialogue with citizens is the way to go. For him, letting the people represent themselves is the true path to democracy.
Prime Minister Oscar Paasch contacted Van Reybrouck and his organization G1000 to develop the new democratic model in the German-speaking community.
Some skeptics find fault with a formal Citizens’ Council
The new Citizens’ Council has some critics, though. This may be a great opportunity to practice direct democracy – in a small region of only 77,000 people. One of the classic conundrums of democracy is transferring it to large, diverse populations.
Columnist for Flemish newspaper De Morgen Marnix Peeters pointed out that the region in eastern Belgium is neither populous nor diverse. In addition, many in this part of Belgium have a distrust of centralized power. They feel they can already consult informally with their politicians, and Peeters suggests the new Citizens’ Council is nothing more than a political gimmick. Still, he admits that the Council probably won’t cause any harm to the current political climate.
A new model for citizen participation?
There is still time to see if this new experiment succeeds. Due to the region’s size, it may not become a shining example for the rest of Europe. But the process could provide some insights into modern citizen participation. With the current democratic disillusionment gripping much of the world today, some new insights into the democratic process would be welcome.