Active democracy in East Belgium: the Citizen Dialogue
In the beginning there was a disenchantment with politics... you could almost phrase it pathetically. It may not (yet) be that bad, but it is a well-known fact that the general public does not necessarily have much to do with politics today, and even more so, it is a problem, especially where the general public rules... should rule, in other words, where governance emanates from the people, in short, in every modern democracy, such as there are many of them in Europe. There are numerous approaches, measures and attempts to counteract this disenchantment with politics and the problems it causes. One of these is the citizen dialogue.
The East Belgian citizen dialogue actually dates back to autumn 2017, when a test run was initiated by the Parliament of the German-speaking Community. At that time, the topic was "childcare". Due to the positive feedback, the idea was born not to leave this format at its one-time use, but to revise it, refine it and make it permanently usable, and with the passing of the "Decree on the introduction of a permanent citizen dialogue in the German-speaking Community" by the Parliament in February 2019, the citizen dialogue became just that - permanent.
The citizen dialogue is intended to enable a more direct democracy, to involve citizens closely in political decision-making processes and to restore and strengthen confidence in politics. The citizen dialogue consists of a citizens' council and a citizens' assembly and is accompanied by a permanent secretary employed by parliament.
Roughly speaking, the procedure can be described as follows: Proposals for topics which normally affect the competences of the German-speaking Community can be submitted by various bodies, for example by having a proposal signed by at least 100 citizens resident in East Belgium. From these proposals, the Citizens' Council then selects or formulates a concrete topic which is then dealt with by the Citizens' Assembly.
The citizens' council is normally composed of 24 former participants of the citizens' assembly, which in turn consists of 25 to 50 citizens living in the German-speaking communities, selected by lot. In the selection process, a number of criteria such as age, place of residence, gender and socio-economic background are taken into account in order to generate a representative cross-section of society.
The members of the citizens' council are drawn by lot for each new topic in order to enable fair and equal participation of the entire society in the citizens' dialogue. Since this is a very young concept that has not yet gone through a complete cycle, the current citizens' council has been put together differently due to the lack of former members of the citizens' assembly. In contrast to the citizens' assembly, this is a permanent institution, but its members are regularly replaced by former participants in the citizens' assembly.
Once the citizens' council has formulated a concrete question, it is discussed in the citizens' assembly, which can consist of several sessions. One to three citizens' meetings are held every year, each of which deals with a specific topic. The citizens' assembly is therefore responsible for the work on the content, whereas the citizens' council is more responsible for the organization. Following the deliberations, the citizens' assembly formulates a recommendation that is presented to parliament and discussed in a public session. Parliament and the responsible minister(s) are not obliged to follow the recommendations of the citizens' assembly, but must give specific reasons for not implementing the recommendations. One year later, the topic is again discussed publicly in parliament, so that the parliament must in any case deal intensively with a recommendation for 12 months. That is the theory.
But how does that work practically? Practically speaking, it is a lengthy process, as the various bodies must first be put together - especially in the early stages of the citizen dialogue, this may take even more time than it will in future. The first citizens' council has been established on 16.09.2019, the topic of the first citizens' meeting has been chosen on 22.11.2019. The topic is "Care is our concern! How can the care conditions for staff and affected persons be improved?" The first meeting of the citizens' assembly took place on 07.03.2020, two more were scheduled for 21.03. and 04.04., but had to be cancelled until further notice due to the corona virus and the resulting restrictions on public life.
It goes without saying that the citizen dialogue cannot be held responsible for the cancellation of the most recent assemblies, and the length of time taken to reach this point must also be put into perspective in that every complex political process requires a certain amount of time to get off the ground in its initial phase. It remains to be seen how efficient and profitable this model will prove to be.
It would be premature and one-sided to condemn it now, before anything has actually taken place, can have taken place. It would also be premature and one-sided to praise it to the skies at this stage and to present it as the solution to all political difficulties. But there is one thing that we must give the people responsible for this already now credit for: in November, the nursing profession was chosen from a large number of topics. Now, a few months later, we are being reminded in an almost cynical way of what an important field it really is. If it does not become clear now what status the nursing profession deserves in our society, then when?
In a way, the corona virus confirms the choice of topics made by the citizen dialogue, highlights their importance in today's society and shows that at least the procedure for selecting topics for the citizen dialogue cannot be that wrong. This is all that can realistically and reasonably be demanded of the citizen dialogue at this point in time if it is to be given a real chance to demonstrate its potential. One thing is certain: a first step towards active citizen participation has been taken.
About the author: Cedric Dümenil has been working since November 2018 in the Erasmus+ National Agency, based in the Jugendbüro (Youth Office) of the German-speaking Community of Belgium, where he is responsible for the evaluation and processing of applications and projects in the fields of school education, vocational training and higher education. In addition to his work, he is also studying law at the University of Trier. In his remaining free time he is particularly interested in languages and literature.
Other blogs from the same author: Cornered by Corona, Turning the Tide