Disrupt & Innovate

Populism and Civic Engagement: Engaging citizens to strengthen Europe’s democratic foundations

14th May 2020 by Bernardo Jurema

Ahead of an upcoming update to our 2019 report on ‘Civil Society Innovation and Populism in a Digital Era’, the Centre has invited guest blogs from new contributors we have heard from about their interesting initiatives to respond to the challenges posed by populism. Since last year, The Democratic Society has been involved in the ‘Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE)’ project running citizen ‘democracy labs’ across Europe. We asked Bernardo Jurema, Research & Project Officer, to tell us more about this experience so far.

A project to understand populist movements across Europe

The ‘Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE)’ project, a Horizon 2020 project funded by the European Commission, involves us at the Democratic Society and eight other partners across Europe. We are aiming to understand different aspects of populist movements, identify and build upon lessons from positive examples of connecting with citizens, and through this play a part in constructing a firmer democratic and institutional foundation for Europe.

Over the last decade in Europe, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, there has been a rise of political forces loosely labeled as “populist,” that question the prevailing liberal order of the last 40 years. PaCE intends to respond to the illiberal and un- or anti-democratic tendencies of these populist movements.

By involving people’s voices throughout the project, especially those of minorities and under-represented groups, in a transparent, open and welcoming way, PaCE aims to strengthen our research process and legitimise our results.

Putting dialogue and ‘democracy labs’ at the centre

The polarisation of societies across Europe at the root of populism — particularly between perceived “elites” and an imagined “ordinary people” – makes the need for a structured process for dialogue between decision-makers, researchers and the public especially necessary. PaCE has therefore put dialogue at the centre of our actions, recognising the general public and civil society actors as key interlocutors with legitimate views, concerns and claims that will benefit our research.

These dialogue forums, our ‘democracy labs’, seek to overcome the distance, whether actual or imagined, between the general public and the economic, political and intellectual elites that fuel populist movements. Through them, we aim to better understand how citizens’ attitudes towards democracy are shaped, how they access and evaluate which information they can trust, and how this process influences their voting decisions.

Local civil society organisations (CSOs) are key partners for our labs because of the role they play within local communities. As multipliers, they reach specific target audiences, and can also incorporate the research findings into their own work aiming at strengthening democracy across Europe.

The labs will take place in several European countries to both complement and disseminate our research findings. We have held two so far: one with under-represented members of the public in Messina, Italy, and one in Brussels, Belgium, with stakeholders from EU institutions.

Our first democracy lab with members of the public in Messina, Sicily, Italy

The last few decades in Italy has seen a decline in party-based representation, a rise in populist protest movements, and new media dynamics leading to personalisation and anti-intellectualism. Former Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni has explained that the traditional political parties have failed to address citizens’ concerns whilst populist parties are seen as posing the “right questions”.

Since 2017, the island of Sicily has been governed by the Diventerà Bellissima party, a regional affiliate of the Brothers of Italy (FdI), the national party seen as the main heir to the Italian neo-fascist conservative movement. Messina, the third largest city on Sicily, was therefore a particularly interesting location for our first citizen democracy lab.

Our lab took place in the city’s public library, a neutral meeting space for participants of all backgrounds and affiliations, in September 2019. Our two local civil society partners – Associazione Ionio Messina and Startup Messina – brought in their language skills and local expertise to help ensure representative participation, reduce the barriers to civic engagement and take ownership of the process beyond the lab itself.

Local participants were of different age groups and social backgrounds. One woman found the  experience ‘very significant and motivating’: “ …I got the chance to talk with people I didn’t know before, of which I have absolutely no idea about their political opinions. With them, I have argued about relevant topics, such as conscious approach to voting….These meetings should be planned more often, involving more people…it would be nice to be able to discuss our ideas with many others”.

Our second lab with EU policymakers in Brussels, Belgium

In contrast to Messina, our Brussels lab was attended by professionals already working on democracy issues, and included policymakers and EU staff, as part of the 2019 European Public Communication Conference (EuroPCOM). The session was a real-time simulation of citizen participation around the question of how we can make our democracy stronger, with our specific focus on: ‘what needs to be done to ensure informed voting?’

The discussion revolved around innovative new forms of citizen engagement to address populism in the EU, the need to include emotions and values in our communication, and the responsibilities inherent to citizenship.

The main takeaways that emerged from this lab were the importance of:

  • access to neutral, objective, non-partisan information,
  • tackling disinformation and prioritising transparency,
  • fostering better relations between citizens and politicians, and
  • focusing on broader education that includes critical thinking and media literacy.

Join our upcoming labs!

With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, we have moved the next upcoming democracy labs across Europe online. This gives us the opportunity to bring stakeholders from different countries together to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak based on the varied governmental response measures and strategies experienced across the continent.

With these upcoming labs, we will continue to engage with local CSOs to learn and put into practice innovative ways to engage with citizens. The report of each event will be shared publicly, and we also plan to present our broader findings at events and conferences to inform wider research efforts.

Local CSOs from across Europe interested in taking part or hosting one of our online labs can contact me at: bju10@demsoc.org.

Find out more about the project on Twitter and Facebook @popandce, or visit www.popandce.eu to sign up for our newsletter and stay updated on research developments.

Bernardo Jurema

Research & Project Officer - Populism and Civic Engagement (PaCE)

The Democratic Society

Bernardo Jurema is the Research & Project Officer (PaCE) at The Democratic Society. Previously, he worked at the International Crisis Group in Guatemala and Brussels, and with other non-governmental organisations in Brazil.