Could randomly choosing citizens result in a better approach to democracy? Photo: Prospect composite

Belgium's experiment in a new kind of democracy

As Britain goes to the polls, the Belgians are turning to randomly-chosen representatives. Could they do any better?
November 11, 2019
Could randomly choosing citizens result in a better approach to democracy? Photo: Prospect composite
As the institutions of western liberal democracy crumble, could a remedy be emerging in a sliver of east Belgium? Take the train from Brussels, and the medieval cities of Leuven and Liege give way to maize fields and forested hills. After nearly two hours, you arrive at Eupen, the capital of Belgium’s German-speaking community. A picturesque church graces the main square, pavements are lined with bistro tables, and cyclists negotiate the cobbled streets. Even the traffic islands are prettified by quaint tableaux of rustic wagons and hay bales.

This quiet, sedate and fairly prosperous provincial town seems an unlikely host for radical democratic innovation. In Belgium’s mind-boggling political system, which has overlaying territorial and language-based federal elements, the German-speaking community has its own government, with devolved powers comparable to Scotland or Wales. With a population of 76,000 (fewer than the Isle of Man), Ostbelgien is Europe’s smallest federal entity, but it has a real parliament whose remit includes education, culture, energy and social care. And from next year, everyday folk chosen by chance will have the opportunity to shape policy alongside the elected MPs—in the first permanent citizens’ assembly in the world.

Citizens’ assemblies (or citizens’ juries) vary in form, but the basic principle is always to task randomly-selected members of the public to thrash out political issues, often with the help of experts or moderators. They’ve become steadily more fashionable over some years, but the Belgian experiment offers a twist in that it builds them into the structures of governance. But on a long view, even government by citizens selected by chance is nothing new. Its advocates critique parliamentary democracy as outmoded because it hasn’t changed since the 18th century—but then happily hark back to ancient Athens (see “the original democracy” overleaf) as the true pioneer of “sortition.”

Back in the 1990s, British reformers proposed replacing the House of Lords with citizens chosen by lot, and before long New Labour was toying with putting a bunch of ordinary people in a room together to come up with “what works” policies: recall Tony Blair’s “Big Conversation.” If that venture looked like a post-Iraq distraction from a prime minister who’d run out of his own ideas, more recently, a citizens’ assembly in Ireland has achieved more practical success in paving the way for the legalisation of abortion and gay marriage in referendums. This success has inspired many glowing headlines, as well as politicians from Ed Miliband and Rory Stewart to Emmanuel Macron—who has promised a grand débat national. Assemblies dedicated to specific questions have popped up in Toronto, Madrid and Gdansk. At home, invitations to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change have just landed on the doormats of 30,000 British households—an initiative by a cross-party group of MPs. The political scientists who hold the blueprints are being fêted by desperate governments around the world.

[su_pullquote]“Populist anger is ‘a gift wrapped in barbed wire. It’s people shouting please let us be involved’”[/su_pullquote]

Prominent among them is the charismatic and eclectic Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck, who warns that a restless public is no longer going to be content to tick a box every five years and then go back to sleep. Voting, he argues, was never designed to give people a meaningful say, but to keep them in their place: the word “elite” originally meant those who are elected.

Along with the earnest and cosmopolitan political scientist Yves Dejaeghere, Van Reybrouck is one of the leading lights of a democracy “platform” called “G1000,” the idea being to convene the masses instead of the handful of leaders at the G7. Eupen had held a pilot citizens’ dialogue in 2017 dedicated to the question of childcare provision. The minister-president was so pleased with the results—though let me come back to exactly what those results were—that he invited the G1000 to establish the “Eupen model.” This autumn, politicians and constitution geeks from as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Bosnia and Peru descended on Eupen for a sortition “summer school” to study Van Reybrouck’s “laboratory for the world.”

Personally, I’m a bit of a sortition sceptic, but not because—as Plato and contemporary elitist philosophers like Jason Brennan have argued—ordinary people can’t be trusted to make good decisions. It’s more that I’d rather my rubbish was just collected on time than spend my evenings “having a say” about it in meetings. Real (criminal) juries are effective because they are limited to crisp yes-no decisions, rather than the mushy muddle of public administration and policy evolution. The principle of representation bows to the reality that, despite Twitter’s ersatz agora, we can’t all be heard all of the time, even if we wanted to, which we mostly (and sensibly) do not. For me, our current problems are down to representative democracy being given a bad name by power-hungry populists supported by self-serving lobbies who distort the system and then blame the underlying structure when it starts to fail. Could the evangelists convert me?

Within spitting distance of the German border, Ostbelgien is no stranger to chauvinist extremism. “Less than three generations ago, this was the most fascist part of Belgium,” Van Reybrouck tells me, but it has since been completely “de-Nazified.” The community was given its own television station, and then its own parliament. The “best protected minority in the world” is now supremely loyal to the Belgian federal state, and for the most part also seems content with their tranquil home. “If you’re sailing a new boat,” Van Reybrouck says, “it’s best to start out on a calm lake.” This is how it will work. A “fixed council” of 24 citizens meets monthly for 18 months. The first cohort—just picked from across Ostbelgien and announced—boasts a construction worker and a lab assistant. This standing council sort of superintends things. It oversees the selection of a citizens’ assembly of between 25 and 50; it will also pick their topics and prepare briefing packs and expert witnesses. Once the system is mature, the council will be filled by some of those who have previously served on the actual individual assemblies, each of which will be tasked with meeting for three weekends over three months to tackle its own specific agenda. Meanwhile, the six political parties in the region can pitch agenda items, but so can any ordinary Ostbelgien if they can attract a minimum 100 signatures. (That compares—in Britain’s far larger polity—with a requirement for petitions to attract 10,000 signatures before the government has to respond, and 100,000 before parliament has to consider something.) The role of citizens in selecting topics is one of the big selling points of the “Eupen model.”

All this builds in a separation of powers, preventing the assembly from being consumed by the participants’ pet subjects. The government isn’t obliged to implement recommendations, but if they don’t they’ll have to give a good reason, in writing. Power must at least account for itself, therefore. Or so goes the theory. Anyone who has ever had a run-in with a “consultation process” set up by a bureaucracy looking to rationalise something it’s already decided on knows that “feedback” can be spun.

The rhetoric around citizens’ assemblies is that of bottom-up empowerment, but its practicalities turn out to be top-down, and fiendishly complex. Take recruitment. “The best, most representative sample is a random sample,” Van Reybrouck tells me. But the process is not as random as it’s cracked up to be. If you just put an ad in the paper, only anoraks and the usual suspects will turn up. So invitations are sent out randomly, and the positive replies are fed through an algorithm to ensure they’re representative in a different sense: a demographic microcosm of the population by gender, age, area and education. If you’re the type of individual who’s inclined to say “Yes” to an invite but within a group that will mostly say “No,” then you’re much more likely to end up picked than the average person.

Shining city on a hill? Democratic innovation is now bolted on to the very structure of Eupen’s parliament. Photo: PHOTOGRAPHY © ULRICH SCHWARZ, BERLIN Shining city on a hill? Democratic innovation is now bolted on to the very structure of Eupen’s parliament. Photo: PHOTOGRAPHY © ULRICH SCHWARZ, BERLIN

Shining city on a hill? Democratic innovation is now bolted on to the very structure of Eupen’s parliament. Photo: PHOTOGRAPHY © ULRICH SCHWARZ, BERLIN

Here it resembles the increasingly disdained science of polling. The Irish assembly, in fact, employed a polling company to find its participants. It emerged later that a fair few were studying politics; there was also a couple and two neighbours. Just as with jury service in the UK, which is supposed to be compulsory but a rising number are nonetheless said to be evading, it’s hard to prevent self-selection by those habitually inclined towards civic duty. In Eupen, the positive response rate has so far been just 11 per cent, despite the offer of €200 per weekend plus expenses. Retention is also tricky: in Ireland, just two-thirds of the original cohort saw out the full 18 months, and only a quarter attended every meeting. The enemy of inclusion is busy everyday life.

[su_pullquote align="right"]“We should make politics more boring”[/su_pullquote]

The story of sortition is a tussle between micromanagement and letting go. Art O’Leary, secretary-general to the Irish President, advised the summer school delegates to hire trained facilitators to ensure all voices were heard, a reminder that egalitarian set-ups are often riddled with informal hierarchies. If a Nigel Farage found his way in, Dejaeghere tells me, they’d be counterbalanced by up to 49 others; there’s also provision for domineering participants to be expelled by parliament. But what if an assembly decided to, say, boot out all Muslims (or the traditional limit case in the UK: bring back hanging)? Well, Dejaeghere tells me, parliamentary checks and balances would apply. He’s slightly having it both ways. The extent to which citizens’ assemblies are sensible is also the reason they are not a panacea.

Britons are already undergoing a crash course in the difference between representative and direct democracy. Deliberative democracy is a third way. In contrast to both low-energy box-ticking and the sugar hit of a referendum, citizens’ assemblies engage their participants in the tough job of assessing policies and reconciling competing demands. “It’s the antithesis of click democracy,” the former Labour MP and political reform enthusiast Graham Allen tells me. He’s at Eupen picking up tips for an assembly he’s trying to kickstart in the UK. “Deliberation is not a quick fix—it’s about taking your time and thinking about it.” Or as Dejaeghere puts it: “We should make politics more boring.”

While the process is ironically rather technocratic, the promise is to provide an answer to populism. Van Reybrouck refuses to see populist voters as “bad people”: “they’re my aunts and my uncles and my cousins, and I think they have something valuable to say.” Populist anger is “a gift wrapped in barbed wire. It’s people shouting please let us be involved.” What about the relatively low response rate? Van Reybrouck reminds me about low election turnouts.

The Eupen delegates talked a lot about expertise, knowledge and power. People don’t trust politicians, Dejaeghere notes, but “We never ask the reverse: to what extent do politicians trust their own citizens?” Van Reybrouck agrees: “A lot of politicians say we shouldn’t listen to citizens, because ‘look at the way they shout,’ or ‘look at the way they vote,’ or ‘look at how irrational they are,’ but all this anger is getting louder as they are ignored.”

It could be you!—Empty chairs in a new chamber in the Ostbelgien parliament, where citizens chosen by chance will be summoned to have their say. Photo: HOTOGRAPHY © ULRICH SCHWARZ, BERLIN It could be you!—Empty chairs in a new chamber in the Ostbelgien parliament, where citizens chosen by chance will be summoned to have their say. Photo: HOTOGRAPHY © ULRICH SCHWARZ, BERLIN

It could be you!—Empty chairs in a new chamber in the Ostbelgien parliament, where citizens chosen by chance will be summoned to have their say. Photo: PHOTOGRAPHY © ULRICH SCHWARZ, BERLIN

But what if people are not stupid, but ill-informed, and certainly less experienced at governing? “Because politicians [currently] need to take care of all the policy problems,” counters Dejaeghere, “sometimes they will read a dossier for just 15 minutes before voting on it.” Citizens’ assemblies that allow participants to dive into the detail much more deeply are then, on this view, actually an advert for expertise—only not confined to professional politicians.

So how do politicians feel about sharing power? I walked up the hill to Ostbelgien’s parliament building, a century-old converted sanatorium with a new council chamber added in 2013, a fitting metaphor for this democratic innovation. Resembling a hotel or an office building, the venue should not intimidate new citizen recruits, whose discussions will—symbolically at least—be knitted into the established machinery of democracy by being hosted under the same roof.

It also helps that in little Ostbelgien, MPs have day jobs and only sit in the evenings. Liesa Scholzen, from the Christian-Democratic ProDG Party, doesn’t look like your typical MP: she’s a twenty-something Masters student in politics. “The first time we organised the dialogue, some people said, ‘now we realise you are normal people,’” she tells me. Are any of her fellow MPs sceptical? “I think some of them only see the practical difficulties, if the participants get some money for the time they spend here, or we’re obliged to take action afterwards, or not. But I think what’s important is the whole concept, and the theory: how you can encourage people to engage and take an interest in politics.”

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The original democracy

Sortition was more than a gimmick in Ancient Athens

The Public Assembly: all citizens are meant to go, and sometimes press-ganged into attendance, but only the first 6,000 can actually fit in. Once there, the populace is sovereign: a simple majority can pass any law, though only after listening to both sides of the argument

The Council of 500: picked by lot from the citizenry, the Council prepares laws for the assembly, and superintends financial and diplomatic executive functions

The officials and magistrates: 700 paid posts with particular responsibilities; 600 are picked by lots for one-year, non- renewable terms; but another 100– with the weightiest (especially military) duties—are elected, and sometimes serve several terms

The excluded: women, foreigners, minors, slaves

Andreas Jerusalem is an equally fresh-faced Green MP and primary school teacher; he waves at his colleague’s young son, toddling about in the corridor. I ask him about the pilot citizens’ dialogue on childcare, the only practical experience with deliberative democracy in Ostbelgien thus far and the inspiration for the whole reform, and he reveals something that takes me aback. Namely, that after the assembly made their recommendations, the minister just went ahead with what he’d already planned. A cynic might wonder if it was the very absence of purchase on the policy process that emboldened MPs to establish a permanent sortition institution. Even if that’s overdoing it, the politicians will cherry-pick: the Dutch government ignored electoral reforms proposed by a 2006 Dutch citizens’ assembly.

There’s an obvious risk that citizens’ assemblies confer purely symbolic legitimacy. Van Reybrouck says “we’re moving now from the right to vote to the right to speak.” But to what end? If people see that their input counts, Jerusalem tells me, “then we’ve got a super good tool to get trust back. But if not then it’s going to be even worse. Because then you create this illusion of participation.”

I have no doubt that taking part is—as Van Reybrouck says—“a life-changing” experience. Accustomed to proletarianised jobs, many feel respected for the first time. In a cosy community like Ostbelgien, after a few years, most people will know someone who’s had a tap on the shoulder. But could it ever scale up? “You don’t do it for the people in the room,” insists Dejaeghere undeterred. “Most people want to have a barbecue at the weekend. In a very large community, chances are you will never be called. But you know that ‘there’s guys like me in there, there’s the postman or the truck driver, and I can have my barbecue because I have something I can trust.’”

Even in its purest, Athenian form, sortition was combined with elections for the high-ranking generals and treasurers. Contemporary advocates of citizens’ assemblies insist they’re designed to complement rather than replace electoral politics. Democracy’s like soup, Van Reybrouck explains, there might be elements (“the chicken and the carrots”) best handled by elections, “but the random sample adds something to the flavour of the stock. I would be afraid of any country changing over to a system based solely on lottery tomorrow morning. But I would also be afraid if a country refused any innovation.”

Here Van Reybrouck slightly underplays his own trenchant critique of representative democracy: his last book, Against Elections, suggested the integrity of the ballot box could never be protected in an economic plutocracy, because donors can use their resources to buy candidates and bewitch voters. Dejaeghere gives another reason for despairing at elections: “electoral politics is a zero-sum game,” whereas the politics he imagines “should be about co-operating, getting together around a table.” And then Van Reybrouck gives yet another argument for change: “party politics forces the vote” against the common good. “With citizens drafted by lot,” by contrast, you may have less professional “competence,” but you gain “more freedom to think in terms of the common good, the long term, and to live with compromise.” But could a new assembly reallybe made immune to vested interests? Dejaeghere says that transparency will ensure that the briefing process is neutral, but it’s hard to imagine this working perfectly.

Bolting a new system on to the old doesn’t answer the fundamental question in times when presidents and prime ministers are contemptuous towards legislatures, the laws that they pass and the courts that interpret them. Namely, can existing institutions be reformed and revived? You could build a pop-up shed for a citizens’ assembly in Parliament Square, but it wouldn’t resolve the dilemma of what to do with the House of Commons. British politicians may now inhabit a professionalised and privileged Westminster bubble, but it doesn’t have to be this way: in 1979, 16 per cent of MPs had been manual workers; by 2015 the figure was just 3 per cent, tumbling far more than could be explained by the changing jobs mix. If the withering of unions hadn’t closed off the old route to selection would this have happened? If local government funding hadn’t been halved over the last decade, would people feel involved in decisions -affecting their community? And if local government were able to function properly, would the Eupen model be so different?

Personally, I’m still attached to what we’ve got. The clash of worldviews in parliament sets the pulse racing in a way that the finer points of transport provision or sewage treatment that assemblies might be tasked with does not. In principle, at least, parties represent opposed class interests. Politics is—and should be—about philosophy as well as pragmatism.

Even granting that, could sortition, perhaps by removing the influence of the donors, still give a competitive edge to some ideologies over others? Do ordinary people tend to come up with, say, more socially democratic policies? “I don’t see the outcomes as being necessarily left or right,” says Dejaeghere. When the G1000 convened a “citizen summit” in 2011, it suggested flatter workplace hierarchies, but also corporate tax cuts (albeit primarily targeted at smaller firms). If that sounds confused, it doesn’t worry Dejaeghere: “Everything has to be labelled ideological in party politics—but that’s not how citizens see things.”

There’s a difference between healthy ideological polarity—which is needed to animate a democracy—and the unproductive polarisation that sortition advocates reasonably wish to minimise, though sometimes, it has to be said, by ducking the hardest problems. “We are not under any circumstances doing Brexit,” says Graham Allen. “It is too toxic.” And regional Green MP Jerusalem is positively pessimistic about citizen decision-making on climate change, something not just British parliamentarians but also Extinction Rebellion protestors have called for. Start a discussion about whether SUVs should be banned, he told me frankly, and “you get a shitstorm like hell.” On the other hand, he thinks, citizens’ assemblies can—as in Ireland—diffuse some contentious issues. Perhaps assemblies can gain more traction where any clash of interest is not too stark (“what, you’re after that SUV I just bought…”) or differences in opinion have not hardened into differences in identity.

Britain’s relationship with the EU is primarily a technical question that has become bizarrely divisive. (There was a time, you may remember it, when we didn’t all have strong opinions on customs unions.) In 2017, the politics professor Graham Smith organised an assembly that succeeded in coming up with a compromise on a soft Brexit, but one that is “politically completely unattainable now,” says Van Reybrouck.

At the start of the year, the Labour MPs Stella Creasy (from Remain-voting East London) and Lisa Nandy (from Leave-leaning Wigan) could still make a splash with a joint plan to task a citizens’ assembly to chart a way through. For Van Reybrouck, though: “You’re all too late… The house is burning.” And this is one of the utopians. But he’s got one more idea up his sleeve: a “preferendum” in which a citizens’ assembly designs a menu of up to 30 Brexit options for the public to rank. But there are procedural (and mathematical) objections to all voting systems. With even the idea of a three-way No Deal/Deal/Remain referendum ridiculed as hopelessly complex, this doesn’t sound like a plan to overpower Boris Johnson’s simple vow to “get Brexit done.”

Back in Brussels, sitting outside with a Witbier, I was approached repeatedly by beggars. I wondered if what I’d seen in Eupen was a political hammer to crack an economic nut. Valuing everyone’s voice equally in the room does not necessarily address gaping material inequality.

The lack of grassroots participation in our system is a problem, but what about its capture from above by the wealthy? “That’s the big challenge now,” Van Reybrouck agrees, after a pause. “In every society there’s a triangle between politicians, people and markets. The markets have run away with the power, and these [other] two are shouting at each other. When two dogs fight for a bone, the third runs away with it. So the best way to restore balance in that triangle is to restore trust between those who govern and those who are governed.”

The real elites are never going to be brought to heel until the people and their politicians can somehow reconnect. The purpose of right-wing populism is to stir up rage that prevents them doing so. If some of that rage can be defused by listening to the voices of citizens chosen by chance, then perhaps sortition can have a role. But it’s inevitably still going to fall to politicians—the people who actually seek out office—to set the broader thrust of policy. The precondition for rebuilding trust in democracy is for them to demonstrate convincingly that they are doing so in the public interest. As things stand, the dog’s still got the bone.

Chance encounters: recent experiments with sortition Running up against parliament: Iceland The financial crisis bust many banks here, and exposed a bankruptcy of politics too. Citizens hungry for change summoned a National Assembly, with four-fifths of the 1,500 people picked by chance. The government was spurred to imitate, summoning 950 randomly- selected folk into an assembly tasked with rewriting the constitutional ground-rules. But this new body soon passed the work to a smaller group of self-nominating and elected bunch of citizens, who—after a legal wrangle—had to be reappointed by parliament. A progressive draft constitution did emerge, and its key recommendations were endorsed by an advisory referendum. But then anti-reform parties prevailed in a general election, and the proposals were left to languish. Falling foul of the smallprint: Canada Two provinces, British Columbia (in 2004) and Ontario (in 2006), decided to hand over to citizens something political parties can’t be trusted to deal with objectively—namely, the electoral system. Each picked random names off their electoral roll, tested their interest in taking part, then whittled down these volunteers through a mix of chance and regard to the demographic mix. Rich deliberations led to plans to replace first-past-the-post with different forms of PR, but these remained subject to a referendum. In Ontario reform was defeated outright; in British Columbia, 58 per cent of voters said yes, but the detailed checks and balances required 60 per cent to do so. Getting it right: Ireland Seven years ago, a constitutional convention mixing 33 politicians with 66 representative citizens chosen by chance began to look at revising contentious articles of the constitution, meeting one weekend a month. After taking the input of experts and other citizens who chose to feed in, it produced recommendations affecting same-sex marriage, abortion and blasphemy that have since been enacted by the Irish parliament and then referendums.