OPINION PIECE by Valentin Dupouey
Regions are, along with cities, the first ring of the democratic chain that links local to global, cities to continents, grassroots initiatives to global challenges, citizens to institutions. This democratic chain is under heavy pressure but we cannot afford to see it break.
The health of democracy is extremely heterogeneous across the different rings of the chain. At the scale of the wider rings, the nation states and the European Union, democracy is under direct and serious threat. Citizens’ growing disinterest in political matters, the so-called disenchantment for democracy, the growing gap citizens perceive between their decision makers and their daily lives appears very sharply. Ever lower records of voter turnout, in particular among young people, and the rise of extremist parties with openly anti-democratic claims are just two symbols of the challenges democracy is facing today. Should further concrete examples be needed, one can turn his or her eyes towards Hungary and Poland, where democratically elected leaders are openly advocating for an ‘illiberal state’ jeopardising fundamental freedoms.
At the European level, these threats are equally affecting the object of democracy: the need for thriving coexistence. The inexorable movement of border opening known in Europe since the end of the Cold War has suddenly come to a halt. The refugee crisis is showing the limits of our desire for more open societies. The recent talks for a restricted Schengen area are additional signs of the same regressive movement.
Among the main causes would probably be the growing distance between citizens and policymakers; the complexity of democratic structures; the defiance to policy makers tied to private, vested interests; and the perceived inability of representative democracy to improve the state of things and common well being.
The need for young people and for all citizens to understand their own democratic structures, their desire to see their choices turning into changes, and their willingness to be actively participating in the decisions affecting their life must be taken into account if the hopes to revive democracy are to be turned into reality. A paradigm shift is now crucially needed among policy makers.
Grassroots democracy as embodied by local and regional authorities is the first link in a long chain and we cannot afford to see break. The proximity with decision making places allows individuals to better understand the democratic structures they live in. It offers citizens platforms for participation that no other level can offer. The low geographical gap and regional scope of decisions allow everyone to witness more discernibly the impact of their choices and actions. Tools and practices are available for policy makers to revive and renew grassroots local democracy. It is all about uptake and dissemination.
How can regions help rebuilt empowering democracies, that gives young people the means and will to be engaged for the common good?
Through competences for democratic culture
A whole book could easily be written on that concept…oh wait! It already exists! The work of the Council of Europe to develop a framework for competences for democratic culture composed of a set of 20 competences divided into values, attitudes, skills and knowledge is possibly the most important work recently done in the field of civic and citizenship education. The document “describes a conceptual model of the competences which need to be acquired by learners if they are to participate effectively in a culture of democracy and live peacefully together with others in culturally diverse democratic societies.”
The project is still on-going and aims at developing tools and resources for educators in order to facilitate this new approach to civic education.
Check the work of the Council of Europe on Competences for Democratic Culture:
Through applied civic and citizenship education
Civic and citizenship education cannot be a simple top-down sharing of knowledge anymore. A passive transfer of knowledge was, partly, relevant, in a more rigid, less open, society where representative democracy was almost unique democratic pillar. Participatory democracy, direct democracy, civil dialogue, democracy through intermediary structures such as NGO requires a much wider range of knowledge, skills and attitudes.
Civic and citizenship education should aim at developing these skills and attitudes: team work, how to run an NGO and a project, how to collectively organise to run a campaign, critical-thinking and media literacy, understanding of active participation, etc.
It should equally offer opportunities to apply the learnt competences: co-management structures within schools, local youth councils, time and support to be engaged in NGOs at a younger age. We could possible imagine credits for civic engagement (with the utilitarian limits that it poses) or facilitation of gap years for engagement.
A complete overhaul of our approach to civic education is necessary.
Through Co-management structures and meaningful youth participation
Co-management of some structures designed for the common good such as sports facilities, libraries, schools could provide a very good ground to share responsibilities between authorities and citizens, to collectively develop a sense of shared responsibility and to give opportunity for civic engagement at the local level. The best example is probably sports facilities that could quite often be much more efficiently used if real co-management systems would be put in place between local sports clubs and authorities.
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe has adopted a charter of participation of young people in local and regional life. A very concrete tool to make regional authorities more innovative in youth participation: https://rm.coe.int/16807023e0
Through encouraging and supporting youth work
While the reality, diversity and complexity of youth work is still not fully understood, there is a strong common agreement that provision of quality youth work is vital in helping young people, in particular the most disadvantaged in their transition periods, as it develops critical thinking, increases the sense of belonging, and strengthens young people’s capacity to resist negative influences and behaviour.
Check more about the newly Council of Europe adopted resolution on youth work: http://www.coe.int/en/web/portal/-/quality-youth-work-key-to-preventing-a-lost-generation-in-europe
Through observatory for democratic innovation and civic participation
Finally, I believe most of the ideas and practices we need to secure strong democracies through the rebuilding of trust between citizens already exist. It comes down to dissemination and transfer of successful initiatives. Public authorities at all levels should equip themselves with ‘democratic innovation and civic participation intelligence units’ in charge of exploring what works in other context and of importing these operational initiatives in their own contexts. It doesn’t require to reinvent the way we do things, it requires an open mind and open eyes and a political will for innovation.