March 4. 2024. 7:51

The Daily

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Deliberative democracy in eastern Belgium: A model to scale up?

Since 2019, the German-speaking community in Belgium has carried out a deliberative experiment involving citizens in decision-making processes, a model that, according to the former head of the region’s parliament, could be adapted to other government levels.

The deliberative model in the German-speaking community, a small region with legislative powers in the east of Belgium, consists of citizens’ assemblies deliberating on topics chosen by a permanent citizens’ council, which is in charge of managing the process.

So far, citizens drawn by lot were called to deliberate on four themes: care for the elderly, inclusive education, affordable housing, and the challenges of digitalisation. The assembly is now asked to address the issue of migrants’ integration, the last panel of the current legislature before next year’s elections.

“I am quite sure that we will continue the experiment” in the next legislature, said Karl-Heinz Lambertz, former president of the region’s parliament and member of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe.

“Citizen dialogue has become one of the pillars of our activity,” he said.

A permanent council

According to Min Reuchamps, a political science professor at Université Catholique de Louvain (UCLouvain), the deliberative process of the region has the “distinctive feature” of having a permanent citizens’ council, setting it apart from similar experiences taking place in other European regions.

The citizens’ council consists of people who have participated in the citizens’ assemblies and who serve in the council for 18 months.

“This body has two missions. It sets the agenda for the citizens’ assembly and it monitors the work of the citizens’ assembly after it has done its recommendation,” Reuchamps explained, adding that the monitoring phase is particularly important to make sure recommendations are implemented.

Lambertz said the process has so far been successful, although time- and resource-consuming, and that the parliament launched a process to improve the legal basis of the exercise.

Improving the process

One of the main issues is the under-representation of young people and marginalised community members in the citizens’ assemblies and the permanent council.

The parliament is currently working to make sure the population is well represented in terms of gender, age, and background. However, Lambertz said that “we will always struggle to touch a certain public that is already far away from political life.”

“The best way is that the people who took part in the process talk about it and motivate other people,” he added.

According to Reuchamps, although the process can be improved, the experiment is “very recent” and realising its full potential will take years.

“We are still very much in the infancy of this process, so we should still give it time.”

Scaling up

Meanwhile, the eastern Belgium model has already been adopted by the neighbouring German city of Aachen, where a citizens’ assembly with a legal basis and permanent organisational structure was established in 2022 and will start deliberating later this year.

Asked whether this deliberative model could be applied at a larger scale as well, Lambertz said “the shortest answer is yes.”

“Deliberative democracy can work at all levels but needs to be done professionally and with all the necessary means in place,” he said, adding that deliberative experiments need to be adapted to the government level at which they are carried out.

Reuchamps agreed that the process needs to be contextualised.

“It’s very important that each community, each city, each region, each country, when they do something like this, make sure that it’s tailored for them,” he said.