Strengthening Local and Participatory Democracy in the European Union

Giu 03, 2024

EU values and Enlargement Good governance

From 13 to 15 May 2024, ALDA’s General Assembly and Festival hosted a significant panel discussion on “Local Democracy & Participatory Democracy” which explored the Defense of Democracy Package, civil society’s role, and local participatory initiatives within the European Union.

ALDA’s General Assembly and Festival 2024: Spotlight on Democracy in the EU

Key stakeholders from diverse sectors gathered to assess the current state and future of democracy within the European Union (EU).

Defense of Democracy Package: An Overview

Vincent Vandersmissen, representing the Belgian Presidency of the EU, detailed the Defense of Democracy Package (DoDP), designed to protect democratic processes across member states and at the European level. The proposal underscores the necessity of transparency, especially in interest representation, to counteract foreign interference in EU and national policymaking. Vandersmissen stressed the directive’s focus on safeguarding democracy, despite concerns from member states about its implementation.

The directive has ignited debate due to its resemblance to “foreign agents” laws in countries like Georgia, Hungary, and Russia, which have been used to stigmatise NGOs receiving foreign funding. Vandersmissen noted that while 15 EU member states maintain transparency registers, none specifically target foreign organisations. This has raised fears of unjustly labeling NGOs as “foreign agents,” leading to potential discrimination. These concerns are under active discussion at Coreper, with the Belgian presidency acting as an “honest broker.”

The DoDP also includes recommendations to boost democratic participation by increasing funding for civil society organizations (CSOs) and promoting inclusive electoral processes, particularly for mobile citizens.

Civil Society’s Concerns

Gabriela Civico, Director of the European Volunteer Centre and President of Civil Society Europe, shared critical insights from the civil society perspective through a video message. She criticised the directive on interest representation for its vague definitions, potentially affecting around 1,000 organisations. Civico warned that these organisations might be forced to register or lose funding from international sources, exacerbating current concerns about shrinking civic space within the EU.

Civico called for enhanced support from the Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values (CERV) program to strengthen civil society in an increasingly challenging environment. Her message highlighted the indispensable role of civil society in maintaining democratic health and the need for supportive policies.

Participatory Democracy: Practical Insights and Models

José Manuel Ribeiro, Mayor of Valongo, shared practical experiences in implementing participatory democracy at the local level. He acknowledged the traditional resistance of mayors towards participatory democracy, often viewed as a challenge. However, Ribeiro argued that participatory democracy can transform local governance by fostering better relationships between citizens and authorities.

In Valongo, initiatives such as youth and senior participatory budgets have been successful. Despite low participation rates, the impact on participants is profound, fostering a sense of community and belonging. The city also introduced an internal participatory budget for civil servants and urban planning projects involving children aged 10 to 15, showcasing the potential of participatory democracy to enhance local governance and civic engagement.

Mathis Dippon, Programme Manager for the European Capital of Democracy, presented this initiative, allowing any city to apply for the title. Once selected, the city hosts a year-long democracy festival, showcasing best practices in participatory democracy. This initiative aims to create a network of exemplary democratic practices for other cities to emulate.

Barcelona, the current European Capital of Democracy, serves as a model with its various democratic processes and citizen assemblies. Dippon emphasised the importance of targeted approaches to engage different audiences and ensuring that citizens’ recommendations have tangible consequences. This approach not only broadens participation but also strengthens the democratic fabric by making citizens feel their contributions matter.