"Citizens Can Handle Complexity"

Hendrik Van de Velde is a career diplomat. As part of the Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union, he was heavily involved in organizing a citizens’ panel on artificial intelligence. Marked by the experience of the Conference on the Future of Europe, he shares his vision of participatory democracy.

Missions Publiques: You have been an ambassador to Jordan and Iraq and have worked as a diplomat in Jerusalem and at the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe). You have just been appointed ambassador to Turkey… What was your role during the Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union?

Hendrik Van de Velde: Indeed, I have 26 years of experience within the Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the European External Action Service. I have particularly focused on human rights, democracy, and geopolitics. Three years ago, I was recalled coordinating the preparations for the Belgian presidency of the Council of the European Union. As the Belgian representative, I participated in the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE) between May 2021 and May 2022. At the time, the main challenge was to generate interest and trust among member states and citizens in a complex and not very conducive political context. Even though the overall structure, interinstitutional relations, and governance of the Conference were quite cumbersome (the joint declaration also generated some frustrations), we decided to launch a national Conference on the Future of Europe, as each member state was encouraged to do. That’s how I discovered the process of random selection, citizen deliberation, etc.


Missions Publiques: The experience of the Belgian Conference on the Future of Europe convinced you enough to organize a citizens’ panel this year.

Hendrik Van de Velde: Yes, absolutely. Moreover, Belgium is one of the most active countries in participatory approaches and citizens’ panels, which facilitated the proposal of this initiative. I was also pleasantly surprised by the innovation and commitment of the Citizens’ Panels organized by the European Commission since the Conference(1). During our national conference, I was struck by citizens who had the time to dialogue, listen to opposing positions, change their minds, deepen their understanding of a subject, and develop complex viewpoints. With all these elements, we wanted to set up a citizens’ panel within the framework of the Belgian presidency of the Council. Finally, and pragmatically, we had a budget dedicated to communication. The cost of a communication campaign is equivalent to that of a panel; it is often even more expensive, and we are rarely fully satisfied with the results. Involving citizens seemed to me a more interesting dimension to explore than yet another communication campaign about Europe.

"Debating is not about answering yes or no to a simple question in referendum mode.

Hendrik Van de Velde


Missions Publiques: Another bold move: organizing a panel about artificial intelligence. Why this choice?

Hendrik Van de Velde: No subject is simple. To summarize, we had the choice between a major legislative subject (what the European Union does, public policies) or an international subject (concerning states or diplomacy), rather in my domain. We hesitated. Should we debate the issue of enlargement? Ukraine? What are the consequences for Europe? In the context of a presidency, we could have imagined a process in the Balkans with Ukrainian citizens. It’s fascinating, but the project seemed too large for Belgium to carry alone. We therefore agreed on the other aspect and chose the subject of artificial intelligence in the fall due to its importance for Europe and the growing interest of citizens in it. A European Panel on virtual worlds was organized by the European Commission, and the subject came to the forefront of the political scene. Recently, the 27 EU countries reached an agreement within the Council of the EU on the final text of the AI Act, which aims to regulate risky uses of artificial intelligence. What is the vision of a diverse Belgian citizens’ panel on the evolution and development of artificial intelligence in Europe? What are the risks and opportunities of these technologies in our society? What should European actors (political and private) prioritize over the next five years to address current and future challenges? These are the questions we wanted to discuss with Belgian citizens.


Missions Publiques: How did this Citizens’ Panel proceed and what do you take away from this approach that is now concluding?

Hendrik Van de Velde: 60 citizens were randomly selected and met over three weekends. A dozen experts intervened during the sessions (academics, digital actors, scientists…) to support the Panel. The process went well, with active participation from citizens who delivered recommendations, but above all a comprehensive vision of artificial intelligence and key messages for the European Union. They described their legitimate concerns (data, monopoly, etc.) and the potential of AI in the field of work or health. They also identified AI as a potential lever for developing new skills and combating climate change. It is a solid opinion with work avenues for policymakers. It is proof that citizens can handle complexity and contradiction. Debating is not about answering yes or no to a simple question in referendum mode. Deliberation allows for nuance, partly thanks to the moderation of the process. Participatory democracy has strong potential in Belgium, but its sustainability will depend on how the panels’ recommendations are considered in the political and legislative process.

Read the citizen’s report on AI

(1) Since the end of the Conference on the Future of Europe, the European Commission has organized several Citizens’ Panels (150 randomly selected citizens from the 27 EU countries, gathered over three weekends) on various topics: virtual worlds, food waste, energy efficiency, combating hatred, and more.
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