The Ostbelgien Model: Belgium's German-speaking community set up a Citizens' Assembly & Council, alongside the old power structures
The deep seam of citizens deliberation is still being mined at the moment. Forms of democratic innovation are being tried out at all levels, all over the world.
So much hope is being placed in citizens assemblies to re-enchant voters who have become disenchanted with representative democracy. So we were delighted to hear of one polity who has taken unprecedented moves to give CA’s (and “Citizens Assemblies”) a formal relationship alongside traditional power, its members chosen by a jury-duty-like sortition process.
The “Ostbelgien Model”, serving the small German-speaking community of Ostbelgien in Belgium, will create a dual structure of a permanent Citizens’ Council and a Citizens’ Assembly, operating in parallel with the regional parliament. We note that it’s been instigated by David Van Reybrouck, who we profiled in Sept 2017, bringing his G1000 process to the city of Cambridge in the UK.
The International Politics and Society journal has interviewed David, and we excerpt his later comments about the Ostbelgien Model below (but the whole piece is worth reading from the beginning).
First question: what is the O-Model?
You have the Citizens’ Council, the Bürgerrat, with 24 people who are there for 18 months and would change every six months. One third goes away, eight people go away to avoid that it becomes like a real parliament.
They have two jobs. The first job is that they set the agenda, that is, they ask the questions. The second one is they take care of the answers, but they don't give the answers. They are going to determine the size and the duration of the Citizens’ Assembly, which might be around 50 citizens drawn by lot working for three weekends over three or four months on recommendations for, let’s say, the isolation of school buildings.
Then when these are ready, they go to the parliament to present their recommendations together with the Bürgerrat. Parliament has to receive them, has to engage in debate with them. After that, parliament and government, the relevant commission and the responsible minister, need to reply.
A year later, the parliament has to say what it has done with the citizens’ recommendations. And if they will not follow up on them, they have to motivate it in written form.
But in a system with non-binding recommendations, the citizens could just be ignored, or politicians engage in cherry-picking what they like.
Yes, true. But the Belgian constitution literally says that all power comes from the nation, that is the parliament. So it’s impossible to have a binding recommendation. We've gone as far as was possible within the Belgian constitutional context. I trust that within the next twenty years, the constitution will be adapted to make deliberative democracy even more substantial.
Arguably, the model does increase citizen’s involvement, but it's still only a fraction of the people that actually participate, even if they rotate.
According to our most careful pessimistic guesses, 60 per cent of people will sooner or later participate. It might easily go to 80, 90 per cent once it’s running. This is with only three assemblies a year.
Still we're running a prototype. Prototypes are expensive. I can easily imagine that this will become five, six, ten assemblies a year. Then you'll see even more participation.
The president of the parliament in East Belgium himself said that he wants it to become the laboratory for democratic innovation in Europe. Let Europe learn from us, he said.
If you scale this up and try having citizens’ assemblies on the national, maybe even European level, this seems to become more complicated as you’ll have a smaller and smaller fraction of people who are actually involved.
That's right. In Ireland, 99 citizens debated about constitutional issues like abortion and gay marriage, and afterwards it came to a national referendum, for the simple reason that the Irish constitution cannot be changed without a referendum.
This helped to include the rest of society, even when a referendum is not ideal. The informed opinion of a subset of your population is often better than the uninformed opinion of the entire population, or the most less informed opinion at least.
The bill to introduce this in Ostbelgien was approved unanimously by all political parties in the regional parliament. Why was there such an openness – and appetite – for this kind of democratic innovation?
I was really moved to see that the six political parties, from across the spectrum, agreed upon the fact that they should do this. The fact that we as an organisation went to talk to every single political party individually and collectively, that really helped. Our role is to be politically neutral and nonpartisan. We speak to everybody basically.
I think the main reason why it worked there for the first time is that it's a very small community, and it's a high-trust society. They have a parliament with 25 members who are only doing this in the evening.
For them, citizens are not these idiots who are shouting irrational demands or trolling or whatever. They’re people they work with during the day in their offices and schools and hospitals.
So this trust between politicians and citizens makes the difference – and do we lack that elsewhere in Europe?
Yes, actually what I see now is that there's little trust in citizens in European democracy. There's very little love for the white proletariat.
With the rise of populism, with the rise of radicalism, with the rise of xenophobia, we’ve been pushing people in the hands of the extreme right by blaming them for behaving badly. A big, big, big, historical mistake.
We have to make a distinction between populist voters and populist leaders. I know a lot of populist voters who are fantastic people, you can talk with them. It's basically taking people seriously, even if they express their demands or their grievances in sometimes unpleasant or ugly ways.
I spent a lot of my last 30 years working on nonviolent communication: read the message behind the message. I think European politics, and especially the left, has become very poorly equipped in terms of emotional intelligence. The left has been chasing people away.
And it frustrates me massively to see how Germany is repeating exactly the same mistakes Belgium and Holland made in the 1990s when we were faced with the rise of the radical right. It's the demonising of citizens.
There's been growing compassion for migrant workers and asylum seekers. And once the factory worker can travel to Spain or to Marbella or to Antalya in Turkey, they no longer seem to receive a lot of compassion.