As Britain goes to the polls, the Belgians are turning to randomly-chosen representatives. Could they do any better?by Eliane Glaser / November 11, 2019 / Leave a comment
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…