The Rise of Participatory Democracy in Europe

A new common currency?

, by Guillaume Brocard

The Rise of Participatory Democracy in Europe
Image: Guillaume Brocard

The year is 2022. Trust in democracy and voter turnout ebb inexorably everywhere on the Old Continent, while extremist figures asphyxiate moderate candidates in the polls. A quick glance would paint a gloomy picture of the state of European democracy, and yet, a closer peek tells us a completely different story. Too often reduced to the single act of casting a ballot, democracy is a much more complex spectrum made up of infinite variations. Representative democracy, Europe’s predominant model, is only one of them. On the other hand, the momentum gathered by participatory democracy is spreading everywhere in Europe, transcending borders and political affiliations. Participatory budgets, citizens’ convention, petitions and other expressions of participatory democracy are sweeping the 27 member-states. Are these simple flings, or a new common currency for democracy?

Participatory budgeting: a silent ambassador

In order to provide a better understanding of the phenomenon, let us take a closer look at participatory democracy’s silent ambassador: participatory budgeting (PB). It first appeared in Porto Alegre back in 1989 when former mayor, Olívio Dutra, dedicated a small portion of the city’s budget to projects proposed and endorsed by the city’s inhabitants. Ranging from public health to urbanism, these proposals were tailored to the needs of specific areas. The key to universal participation is the involvement of very local issues, thereby making prior politico-economic knowledge irrelevant.

By devolving a portion of executive power back to the people, PB brings transparency and accountability to the democratic process. Not only do they enable change in specific areas, they also affect the people involved as studies report a surge in participants’ trust in democracy. Seeing their individual involvement rewarded by small - and sometimes not so small - improvements in their daily life illustrates the potential of democratic participation. In some cases, it even leads participants to get involved on a more regular basis with local politics.

A European trend

The Brazilian experiment’s success spread like wildfire in many parts of the world and soon enough, Europe was home to more than 4,500 participatory budgets [1]. On a broader spectrum, Europe has seen an increase in assemblies that directly involve citizens in order to tackle specific issues such as climate change. From Poland to Ireland, a wide range of member-states are now selecting random citizens to make their voices heard. Although these initiatives are often dismissed as restrained by politics at a national level, they are now being replicated at a local level with a much more binding outcome.

Zooming out from the local scale onto a supranational level, the European commission has also taken quite an interest in participatory democracy. Introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2007, the European Citizens Initiative programme [2] has been running for ten years now. The idea is quite simple: any citizen has the right to call on the Commission to act on a specific issue if that EU citizen is able to collect a million signatures in at least seven member-states. Projects span from Unconditional Basic Income to a ban on finning. Successful ECI projects have already led to legislation: Right2Water led to the Drinking Water directive, while another initiative led to an effective ban on glyphosate.

The covid incubator for local democracy

In order to best understand the nature of participatory initiatives, I had the chance to interview Elodie Poudevigne, head of communications of Ma Ville Engagée [3] (My (sustainable) Civic City). This brand new platform allows any given citizen to propose a social or/and green solution to local issues. Ranging from communal hen houses to educational beehives, the solutions uploaded on Ma Ville Engagée illustrate the spirit of the platform: that individual initiative is an untapped resource.

When asked about the impact of Covid-19 on the platform, Mrs. Poudevigne expressed contrasting views: the crisis made it more difficult to convey ideas to local lawmakers and yet, it provided an unexpected boost to citizen involvement. Thousands of solutions have blossomed on the French platform in a matter of months. Mrs. Poudevigne confirms what many suspected: the pandemic made people more considerate of their lived environment, and subsequently more aware of the potential of their actions.

What future?

What to make of these manifestations of participative democracy? Should we see them as patching over a dying democracy, an ersatz of a long-gone era of decision-making? Alternatively, as the solution to the decline in democratic participation? Maybe as an inevitable challenger to representative democracy? A potent tool at risk to be distorted by populism? These are all valid questions to ponder in these trying times for democracy.

Perhaps we do not have to choose and should instead let it grow into what it is set to become: an invigorating force completing our representative democracy. Sure, PB, ECI, and other similar initiatives are no magical solutions, flaws remain: their lack of diversity in participants or their high cost, as examples. But as fellow venturers of democracy, the Ancient Romans, found out two millennia ago - Rome was not built in a day.

Special thanks to Mrs. Poudevigne for her insightful testimony and her time.


[1Participatory Budgeting World Atlas

[3Ma Ville Engagée’s website:

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