“Democracy cannot be taken for granted”

Dubravka Suica is Vice President of the European Commission for Demography and Democracy and is Leading the Commission’s work on deliberative democracy and the Conference on the Future of Europe. As the Citizens’ Panels open a path towards new opportunities, we asked her about her perspective on her work, the challenges facing EU members States and the EU, and what it means to be a European today.

Missions Publiques. You are Vice-President for Democracy and Demography. What is the link between the two subjects?
Dubravka Suica.
Democracy and demography are complementary and interconnected. In both democracy and demography, you find the word demos: people. As people are reconsidering their life choices, their relationship with government at all levels, with policy-making and with each other, we must find different ways to better understand and respond to our citizen’s needs.

I believe we need to examine both democracy and demography under the lens of change. This requires us firstly to understand the change, secondly to address the change and, thirdly and most importantly, to look at harnessing the opportunities change brings. This is a key task for both democracy and demography and it requires both researchers and decision-makers to take action.

We need to start with understanding change. My work is about accompanying and supporting people throughout their entire life cycle. Let me give you one concrete example: I see how people feel left behind and are feeling dissatisfied. Why this feeling? The underlying causes lead to the so-called geography of discontent, which is strongly linked to my portfolio responsibilities. This phenomenon refers to the sentiment that develops among those who live in territories that have, for example, stagnated for long periods and been unable to develop. It also includes cities and regions that were once centres of economic activity, but which have experienced prolonged economic and industrial decline. This leads to both people leaving, which accelerates depopulation, and, for those who remain, the feeling of being left behind: by their elected representatives, by society and their government. Furthermore, this divide can provide fertile ground for a populist discourse and affect the democratic functioning of our societies.

Therefore, as part of my demography portfolio, we have presented a Long-term Vision for Rural Areas, where we seek to actively support rural areas, to harness their potential and to help them become attractive again. We have also presented the Rural Pact and a Rural Action Plan, which aim to connect Europe’s rural areas and make them stronger, resilient and more prosperous. Through these initiatives, we seek to enable and empower people to build their lives in those very regions, and by this reviving them.

If we observe electoral patterns in the EU, but also globally, we can see that in a democracy, demography can shape political balance: when populations change, the democratic landscape changes too.

Missions Publiques. Europe is sometimes distrusted: some member states have recently declared that national law takes precedence over European law; in others, there is a backward slide in human rights. What do you think are the main challenges facing the European Union?
Dubravka Suica.
Trust is a vital part of our democracy, and it has to be earned. It is not given. Human and Fundamental rights are our very foundations and we must ensure that they are safeguarded and respected to prevent any backsliding. In doing so, we must protect and empower individuals and build stronger, inclusive and democratic societies inside the European Union. We need to create and protect safe spaces for debate and deliberation. As new technologies are increasingly part of our daily life at all ages, we must address the challenges they bring to human and fundamental rights, while harnessing the opportunities they present.

When it comes to challenges in specific EU Member States, it is not for me to comment on them. But let me tell you this: in a healthy and thriving democratic system citizens can freely express their views, choose their political leaders, and have a say about their future.

The past years have shown that democracy in the EU is facing great challenges ranging from rising extremism, disinformation, populism, election interference to spread of manipulative information and threats against journalists – offline and online.
People are feeling left behind. This creates a vacuum and we must pay attention to ensure that the vacuum is not filled with narratives that are populist or extreme and that undermine our democracy. For this very reason, we need to ensure that we reach out to those that have lost faith in our institutions, in democracy and the European project. We need to speak to each and every one and not shy away from difficult conversations.
We learnt our lesson: democracy cannot be taken for granted. The European Democracy Action Plan seeks to empower Europeans and to strengthen the resilience of our democracies by proposing measures to safeguard the democratic environment. We know that no democracy is immune to backsliding. It is therefore vital that we, both policy-makers and citizens, consistently review our democracy and its mechanisms to see how we can improve it, from the bottom-up.
Having already held many dialogues with citizens, I believe that the Conference on the Future of Europe has a key role to play in building a more effective, healthier and genuinely strong Union. Citizen participation at all levels of policy-making is part of our response to making our democracy more responsive and more resilient.
Active citizen participation should always come with critical thinking and deliberation, reflecting a broad range of views. Ideas thrive when citizens gather and discuss with each other and with decision-makers, with experts and representatives of the institutions.
This is exactly what we are doing with the Conference on the Future or Europe. Having seen the enthusiasm and genuine engagement at the European Citizens’ Panels, I am confident that we are on the right track.

"In a democracy, demography can shape political balance: when populations change, the democratic landscape changes too.

Dubravka Suica

Vice President of the European Commission for Demography and Democracy

Missions Publiques. What is to be a European citizen today? How to strengthen tomorrow’s European citizenship?
Dubravka Suica.
I would redirect this question to the citizens, and to anyone reading this article. What does it mean to be a European citizen to you? How do you view the Union and what do you feel it brings to you? Their views of being European matter. It is their views that build the future of our Union. I believe European citizenship is above all about engagement and active political participation. Europe is founded on the principles of democracy and human rights. Being European, means that you are part of a unique project, one that can enable everyone to live to their full potential and exercise their rights. It means living in societies that aim to maintain peace and unity, while appreciating and protecting our diverse backgrounds, cultures, languages, territories and communities that we call home.

But we need to do our homework, remember our history and address our internal challenges as we evolve into who we want to be as a society. All the tools are there. One of the most innovative ways this is being done at the moment on an EU level is through dialogue and deliberation, through the Conference on the Future of Europe.

I invite everyone to join us. Participate, exchange, share your ideas, give them life and become ambassadors of our common European future.

Missions Publiques. The Conference on the future of Europe is a new initiative, decided jointly by the three European institutions and which integrates the voice of the citizens. How will you judge the success of this process?
Dubravka Suica.
For me, the success of the process will ultimately be judged by our citizens. For us as politicians, we can only wait to see the outcomes of their deliberations and act on them as effectively as possible. Only then can we reflect on the process itself. What I can say is that by taking this initiative, we are demonstrating that Europe is changing and that we want our citizens to be more included in shaping our future, for the better. It might not be perfect, but it is a willingness, a step towards something that has already changed the way we exchange, deliberate and work. And our citizens are demonstrating the will to be a part of this process, they are recognizing that these institutions, our work, is based on them, it is for them. We are not drifting apart, irrespective of what a tiny minority try to say.

As for the process, we are now starting the third round of citizens panels, and many ideas are still in the process of being developed, more is expected. The COVID-19 crisis is a painful experience for us all, but it is also an opportunity for us to come together to work on the issues that need improvement. To have the courage to change and forge a new relationship with our citizens, of all ages. What they thought we did right, where we can improve and how we can go forward together. This wide participation across all generations will define the outcome of the conference and shape the outcome of our Democracy and make it truly Fit for the Future.

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