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Citizens' Assemblies: A German Perspective

Sarah Händel, Mehr Demokratie
Roslyn Fuller interviews Sarah Händel, Member of the Board at Mehr Demokratie, regarding the movement for Citizens’ Assemblies in Germany, the selection of CA participants and how CAs can be integrated with Direct Democracy.

RF: Hi, Sarah, thanks for doing this interview today. I actually gave a lecture about citizens’ assemblies to a German fact-finding mission a few years ago, so I am interested to see how this idea has progressed. Can you describe the process of what you have been doing recently in Germany?

SH: I would say the movement for citizens assemblies in Germany is about 3-4 years old. Our organization, Mehr Demokratie [More Democracy], deals in general with the development of democracy, trying to make it more open to citizens, so they can be a part of it, rather than just being an object of it. We try to do a lot of direct democracy, but we felt that we were hitting a wall there. So there was a need to find new methods that are more about dialogue and more focused on working together, instead of direct democracy which is sometimes a bit competitive. Therefore, as an organization we opened up to these new ideas and looked around and were actually influenced a lot by the Irish citizens’ assembly. This was mainly because the Irish example combined citizens assemblies with direct democracy which is also our ideal.

We had known about the concept of citizens’ assemblies for a long time, but in Germany it was mostly applied at the local level. At the local level they are called Plannungszellen [‘planning cells’ used for involvement in urban and infrastructure planning], which have existed since the 70s and have also been applied with good results. But nobody thought about using this method on a higher level of government. So we decided to try it at the highest level, the federal level of government, and see if it could work there, too.

We wanted to pick a topic for the assembly that we know a lot about ourselves, because we wanted to feel comfortable during the process. So we picked the topic of democracy itself: how can we develop our democracy in Germany together? What would the people like to see? Which instruments and which new rules should be applied to democracy in general? That was the first citizens’ assembly that we did and it was all self-organized. We had partners, but it was civil society that organized the process in order to create an example of how it could work.

The project worked really well and that gave us more confidence. We were able to get more politicians involved who were now curious about this instrument. Particularly, we got the head of the German House of Commons Wolfgang Schäuble involved. Schäuble is a conservative politician, who has been in politics for a long time and is very well known. His interest was the door to getting the whole German Parliament interested in it. After that all of the parliamentary parties agreed to try a citizens’ assembly and they decided to pick a topic for it that they could all agree on.

It was decided to hold the assembly before the next election, which is in September of this year, so it had to be quick. So, it was a big success that all the parties said, ‘yes, we are willing to try it and we want to find one topic’, but it also meant that they had to find one topic which was not easy. We had a lot of discussions, but it was clear that the conservative party did not want the assembly to be on the topic of climate, because they feared that the Greens would benefit too much from that. In the end, they agreed to the topic ‘Germany’s role in the world’. This was a really broad topic, but we had to work with it, because that was the thing they could all get behind and we didn’t have time to lose.

Normally the process would have been for the government to pay for the assembly and be the project leaders, but because we had so little time it would not have been possible to do this via the official processes. So, again we decided to finance and do it all via civil society. We were able to find the money, because a lot of foundations made donations. In this way, the cost, which was several million Euros, was raised and the process was able to start on time.

It was clear that the purpose was to try out this method and to learn from this process to then be able to say that we can implement this process on the highest level of government, and determine how should it be designed. So the purpose was to try out the topic but also to learn about the process.

RF: And has the process been completed at this point?

SH: Yes, it has been. We gave the final recommendations to the politicians in March and since then two committees have held meetings about the outcomes, which will be part of the political process until the next election. That is not much time, but still it will be talked about in the relevant committees, which are the committees of defence and foreign policy and development aid.

RF: When I heard the topic was ‘Germany’s role in the world’, coming from an international law background, I immediately took that to mean a discussion on Germany being able to send troops to other countries. Is that the case? Or was the discussion broader than that?
[Explanatory note: Since the Second World War, the idea of Germany deploying its military to engage in overseas combat has been, for obvious reasons, strictly off the agenda. However, in recent times, there has been a substantial push both from within Germany (in particular from within the conservative party) as well as considerable pressure from the United States for Germany to again play a military interventionist role in the world. The relevant law on this point, Art 24 (2) of the German Basic Law reads: ‘Der Bund kann sich zur Währung des Friedens einem System gegenseitiger kollektiver Sicherheit einordnen’ (the Federation may join a system of mutual collective security in order to maintain peace), which is generally considered to mean that Germany can be part of the United Nations system as well as NATO].

SH: It was broader than that. That was the challenge of this topic to break it down into sub-topics so that you could actually come to some concrete recommendations. In order to do that, we divided it into five topics, which were: Economy & Trade, Foreign Policy of the European Union, Peace and Security (which discussed the topics you just mentioned), Democracy and the State of Law, and how we deal with autocratic countries like China and Russia. We also had a group that dealt with Sustainable Development, which discussed things like supply chains and how we can make the economy sustainable. These groups had three stages, where they also had different topics at every stage, so it was quite a complex construct that allowed all the topics to be discussed on some level, but you couldn’t go that deep into all of them.

RF: How many participants were there and how long did they meet for? And did they meet online, because, obviously, this must have happened during the middle of the pandemic?

SH: Yes, we had to do it all online, because we had lockdowns and it was not feasible to have even a mixed online/offline event. But that turned out to be more of an advantage, because people could integrate the meetings better into their daily lives. We had ten meetings. Normally when you have citizens’ assemblies you do it on the weekends, however, doing it online we did Wednesday evening and all day Saturday. On Wednesdays it was 3 hours and on Saturdays it was 9am-5pm.

RF: Over Zoom?

SH: Yes. It was 160 people who were divided into these 5 subgroups. On Saturdays we didn’t just have discussions in the smaller groups, but also had plenary sessions where everybody would discuss everything. The groups would present their ideas and they would be discussed with all of the other participants.

RF: Yes, at other citizen assemblies that I have attended, it can be strenuous to have to meet all weekend, but when you have people physically there you have to keep going and do it all in one go. I assume that the participants would also listen to presentations from people or interested parties or experts? How did that process work?

SH: Because we had so many topics, we had a lot of experts who tried to be selected to present. But because there were so many topics we couldn’t have that many experts for each topic due to time constraints. Generally, we had two experts for each topic. But if you only have two experts it becomes really important what these experts say; it enhances the influence of the experts to a point that is sometimes critical. Ideally, we would wish to have more experts on each topic so that we could have a more diverse discussion, especially as the topic of the assembly was not that close to people’s daily lives. It was international politics, so the participants did not necessarily have their own experiences of these topics prior to the assembly. When you are in that position you rely totally on what these experts say to you or on your own knowledge that you may have. We tried to be as diverse as possible in selecting the experts. I think the selection was good and a lot of important people came. It was nice to see that the experts embraced this idea and wanted to be part of it, so we had highly-skilled people. But I would say it was not 100% ideal that we only had two experts on each topic. Maybe that over-emphasized the role of the experts.

RF: And how were the participants who came selected?

SH: They were selected by a quite complicated two-fold process of random selection. It was important for us to have different criteria represented. First, the geographical representation, we wanted all sixteen States to be proportionally represented. Then we have different kinds of community: we had four different classes of community sizes, so that we could also represent small towns, big towns, etc. Then we had representation for female-male and age. And we added educational background, and migration background. We had to invite more than 4000 people to get the 160 participants in a representative manner, so it was quite intense.

RF: Did you write or text those 4000 people? And how did you choose them?

SH: All residents of Germany are administered on the local level, so first we randomly selected communities, like cities and towns, and then we had to go to those communities and ask if we could use their registers to write to people.

RF: To get back to a point you made earlier about the connection between citizens’ assemblies and direct democracy, I was on your webpage earlier and you say on there that 85% of German citizens want referendums on the national level. Obviously in Germany there is not a lot of direct participation on the national level, maybe more on the community level, and there does seem to be more going on on the State level than there was when I lived in Germany. Could you tell us a bit more about that? Is your goal as an organization for direct democracy? Or something else?

SH: Implementing direct democracy on the federal level in Germany is still our main goal. That is why we were founded forty years ago. It was always our aim and we won’t abandon that just because the Zeitgeist right now is a little bit against it. We still aim for that. In the immediate future at the next election we will campaign to implement the citizens’ assembly, because we still feel this is the next step we can find a majority for. But if we achieve citizens’ assemblies on a national level further questions open up, like who is able to initiate them? Obviously, the parliament should be able to, but shouldn’t the citizens also be able to initiate them? Then we already get into the same logic as the direct democracy logic – that you have to collect signatures to prove that a lot of people are interested in that topic. So that is actually our goal for our national campaign this year – that we implement citizens’ assemblies and that we determine how many people should be able to initiate a citizens’ assembly. But in the long term we will need direct democracy especially when we have the citizens assemblies.

Let me explain:
When the parliament wants to make a citizens’ assembly, it wants to do it because it wants help on a certain topic. It wants a solution. It wants to go forward. But what if the citizens say, ‘we have a topic that we want to deal with’ and the parliament is not really interested or says, ‘we don’t care’? In that case, maybe you can force the parliament to organize a citizens’ assembly, but probably nothing will result from it.

So, there is always this challenge that the citizens’ assembly results are non-binding. So the assembly can have really good results, but what do you do if the power game or politicians impede that they will be followed-up? For that situation we need the right of the people to start a referendum to keep the topic on the agenda. But because of the growing distrust between people and politicians and also between people among themselves it is difficult to gain the support for referendums right now. So we have a long term strategy. Our hope with the citizens’ assemblies: that we can have a discussion in our society about the possibilities to put more pressure on the political arena to actually really listen to what the people say. For us, citizens’ assemblies are like a bridge to have the right conversations that we need to have anyway in society. For now we would be really happy if we in Germany would be at that point where citizens’ assemblies would become a normal instrument for dealing with topics, because we see this in a bigger, broader sense. Right now the reason people are afraid of direct democracy is because of polarization. Because we already feel the effects of polarization especially in social media, people are afraid of pouring in a sense more oil on the fire by having referendums which can on occasion have the potential to polarize even more. So we have to accept that for now.

But for that we want to push citizens’ assemblies because they show people that in the right context and with the right rules to talk with each other they can work together really well, even if they have really different opinions. I think for us it is really important to have citizens’ assemblies as a symbol of the possibilities of how people can work together. And that is something that people can also trust on a bigger level. It doesn’t need to be limited to these very controlled settings. Citizens’ assemblies are really controlled and deeply planned and supervised, but with the right setting I am sure that as a society we can also reproduce that in a bigger context and maybe that leads in the end to more trust in processes of direct democracy.

RF: Yes, of course, in Ireland, we have a fair number of referendums and we do discuss things a lot, especially on talk radio shows that the average person can call into. Some of the referendums have been really tight, but generally people accept that if they lost, they lost. I think in countries like Germany or Britain the attitude that a referendum outcome can be point-blank wrong and need to be over-turned is more prevalent. It’s not like we don’t do that sneakily here sometimes, just by running more referenda on the same topic, but I don’t think it would work for a politician to blatantly question the right or fitness of Irish people to make a decision by referendum.

SH: I think the problem in Britain is that there wasn’t really any culture of direct democracy. They did not exercise it before on any topic and then they chose one of the biggest topics there was without a supporting process around it. That is always what we say. Direct democracy has to take place in an environment that sets the stage, for example you have to have transparency rules for campaign donations. That is something a society should think about before they practice direct democracy. They shouldn’t just jump into it. That way it is too risky. But without some element of risk, you will not get people to be interested. That people don’t know how things will turn out is exactly why people say, ‘it matters that I show up’. If you don’t have that it won’t have the same activating effect. It’s about sharing real responsibility. So the risk element is there, but it shouldn’t be uncontrolled. We know the risks of populism. And we can try to hold it within some lines and make precautions, and that should be discussed. But you have to start at some point. If you don’t start at some point you will never develop the culture to deal with these instruments in a good way.

RF: I have two questions related to that: What would be in your mind an ideal process in that sense? And two, Germany has a very strong constitutional court, so what role if any would the court play in this process?

SH: Yes, that’s a very good question. Everyone knows our history so that is why we have a strong constitutional court, and it plays a very positive role in Germany. Because we have that we can be more assured that in Germany we have strict control when it comes to matters of human rights. And that is also built into our process. We have thought a lot about how you could organize direct democracy in Germany based on all the experiences that we can observe out there in the world and we have developed our ideas based on that.

We would start the process by collecting signatures from 100 000 people in favour of holding a referendum on a given topic. Already after this phase, the court can control if there are any problems regarding minority rights violations and stop the process. But if the court says that there are no concerns, then it goes to the next phase. During that phase, supporters of the referendum would have to collect one million signatures that show that enough people are interested in this topic [there are currently about 60 million people entitled to vote in Germany]. Then the actual referendum would be held. It should be organized by a neutral organization which would also be charged with making a brochure, similar to how it is done in Switzerland. This would be an official leaflet with pro and contra arguments and basic information on the topic which is sent to every household in the country. The referendum itself should not have a minimum turn-out requirement (because only then every side has the maximum incentive to take part), and the majority decision should be binding.

However, that is not to say that it should be binding for all time. If the parliament decides after a year that circumstances have changed and it needs to be reorientated, it has the power to do that. But in that case we should also allow the use of a particular Swiss instrument, the ‘fakultative referendum’, that is the right to hold a referendum to stop a government project with a lower number of signatures required for the referendum to take place, only 500 000.

RF: That sounds very promising. Do you have anything else you would like to talk about that we haven’t addressed yet?

SH: Yes, what was interesting for us was also to think about the combination between citizens’ assemblies and direct democracy. You could say that it makes sense to first have the citizens’ assembly work out a solution for a topic and then have a referendum like you did in Ireland. That makes a lot of sense, because the strength of the assembly is to go into detail and have diversified input into the topic, and then direct democracy, via the referendum, has the power to make binding decisions.

But you could also start a direct democracy process from the people via the signature collection I described earlier, and then before the referendum hold a citizens’ assembly that also talks about the topic and see what they would propose and then put both of those proposals forward in a referendum so that people can choose. Or you could have the citizens’ assembly review all the arguments. That is how they do it in Oregon as a preparation for a referendum, to give orientation for the people on how to vote or how the arguments should be weighted, etc.

We also thought of another combination: after the first phase of direct democracy (the first signature-collecting initiative) you could also create a citizens’ assembly to give the topic a real neutral look. The signature-collecting initiatives also try to do that, but some topics are so far outside of mainstream discussion that most people don’t really know about them. So it would be good to have a fair chance to see what a neutral group of people would say after they get input into these kind of topics. This is especially relevant for topics about transforming society like, to give a concrete example, Vollgeld, which would be a total revolution of the banking system. They tried to put that forward in Switzerland. It would have been perfect for them to have a citizens’ assembly after the first round of the initiative so they would know what people really thought of this if they were aware of it. So that is really interesting.

In our State of Baden-Württemberg we actually tried to combine citizens’ assemblies and direct democracy on a local level to see how it works. We had a Staatsrätin [a voluntary position usually held by a person who is accomplished in their field and holds a certain public profile] for participation and she did a really good job over the last eight years. She thought about citizens’ assemblies a lot and she wanted to integrate them into the direct democracy process, so in the next few years we will hopefully see some experiments on a local level of how these instruments work together.

RF: Thanks very much. It was great to talk to you and get an update on the process in Germany. Hopefully, we can visit again soon!


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