Bolstering Europe’s democracies from the grassroots

From neighbourhood panels to EU-wide exchanges, European researchers are devising new ways to involve people in decision-making in a bid to counter political polarisation.

By  Sofia Sanchez Manzanaro

In April 2024, the trial of nine people accused of plotting the violent overthrow of the German government began in Stuttgart. The case suggests what can happen when, in extreme circumstances, people feel politically alienated.

The suspects were, in the words of German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser, ‘driven by hatred towards our democracy.’

Local voices

Participation by residents in local decision-making across Europe can bolster public trust in their systems of democratic rule and limit the risk that dissatisfaction with governance veers towards violence, according to James Scott, a professor of regional and border studies at the Karelian Institute of the University of Eastern Finland.

‘The important thing in the process is that people are involved – that they have a sense that we are co-making a decision,’ said Scott, who is also an expert on populist movements. ‘Not only are we deciding on it, but we also see that these decisions lead to concrete results.’

He leads a research project that received EU funding to examine and help spur more inclusive forms of local governance in Europe. Called EUARENAS, the project began in January 2021 and is due to run through October 2024.

The project is entering its final five months as Europe gears up for EU legislative elections that take place twice a decade. On 6-9 June, voters in the 27 EU Member States will choose 720 members of the European Parliament.

Along with the Council of Ministers representing national governments, the Parliament decides on European laws covering everything from food safety and airline passenger rights to car emissions and electricity supplies.

The assembly also acts as the EU’s budget authority and plays a key role in the formation of each European Commission leadership team following the legislative ballot.

Elections to the EU Parliament are in part a barometer of voter sentiment towards national governments and can trigger political changes within Member States.

In the last EU legislative ballot in 2019, voter turnout rose for the first time since the initial European Parliament elections in 1979. Europe’s two main political families – the European People’s Party and the Party of European Socialists – saw their seat totals drop by more than 30 each.

Mind the gap

Many people in Europe view their governance system as too distant to be influenced, leading to a polarisation of public debate and a rise in anti-democratic political forces, according to Scott.

To counter this trend, EUARENAS has studied examples of social movements and local government actions to expand political participation. It also encouraged grassroots initiatives such as neighbourhood assemblies, participatory budget communities and “citizen panels”.

The project has brought together academics, local authorities, policy experts and social activists in seven European countries: Austria, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Italy, Poland and the UK.

‘Many organisations are out there trying to promote a closer sense of citizen engagement, belonging and ownership of governance processes,’ said Scott.

The EUARENAS team has analysed and enacted pilot programmes in Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland and the UK.

Opening up 

One initiative by the project is a housing and urban development plan involving residents of the Polish coastal city of Gdansk.

‘We didn’t want to create the master plan from the top down but instead to involve the communities affected by it in the decision-making process,’ said Scott.

In the Italian city of Reggio Emilia, residents represented in neighbourhood panels designed an agenda to address the main challenges people face. High among their concerns was the climate crisis.

In the Estonian town of Võru, which is grappling with an exodus of young people, EUARENAS identified ways to enhance their quality of life and employment prospects.

Residents of Võru addressed education on mental health and the well-being of youngsters, with one initiative placing stickers with QR codes in two schools. The codes linked to mental health websites.

A prominent role played by young people in the area was reflected in first-hand testimonies collected by EUARENAS.

Lasse Rihard Sissas, a ninth grader from Võru, cited his strong connection to the region and its natural beauty. He recommended more learning opportunities for people his age and called for the creation of a local university.

‘It would be nice if there was a university here,’ Sissas said in a project video. ‘Young people would stay.’

Regardless of the particular local challenges, more inclusive decision-making at that level can limit the risks of social divisions and political exploitation of them by reactionary political forces, according to Scott.

‘Decision-making has to be more democratic, more open,’ said Scott.

Bridge-building

In the German trial in Stuttgart, prosecutors have charged the nine suspects with plotting a coup aimed at installing an aristocrat in power. German police reportedly foiled the alleged plot during raids in 2022.

The court proceedings are among three German trials this year involving a total of 26 defendants, all of whom are accused of plotting the violent overthrow of the federal government.

One challenge in nurturing grassroots involvement in public debates is that people who harbour extreme views are more reluctant to voice them, according to Pierangelo Isernia, a professor of political science at the University of Siena in Italy.

‘They think they will be exposed and attacked because of their ideas,’ he said.

Isernia led another EU-funded project into how liberal democracies can tackle political polarisation through more inclusive decision-making. Called EUCOMMEET, the project wrapped up in February 2024 after three years.

Language lessons

It featured an experiment involving a total of more than 400 people in five EU countries: France, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Poland.

The participants exchanged views on the climate crisis – a topic that Isernia said has had an increasingly polarising effect in Europe and beyond.

Initially, the exchanges took place locally by involving people from the same city. Then the conversations became national and, finally, European with a concluding plenary session in which people from at least three countries exchanged views.

The sessions each involved eight to 10 people. In a reflection of the experiment’s cross-border nature, an open-source online platform allowed the participants to communicate in their native languages.

‘People could discuss in their language and understand what others were saying,’ said Isernia. ‘We showed that this is possible.’

A main finding of EUCOMMEET is that exchanges of these kinds among people help reduce divisions over any given topic.

Isernia said he hopes that platforms like the one developed by the project will be integrated into future EU efforts to involve the general public in policy considerations.

For instance, he recommends that the next European Commission organise ‘short-term consultations’ to capture evolving public opinions.

‘Surveys are not enough to understand what people really think,’ said Isernia. ‘You need to see how a person evolves in their thinking through a conversation and deliberative processes are the best way of understanding this.’

Research in this article was funded by the EU’s Horizon Programme. The views of the interviewees don’t necessarily reflect those of the European Commission.

More info

This article was originally published in Horizon the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.

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