German President favours Citizens' Assemblies

05. July 2019 Uhr
Bundesregierung/Steffen Kugler

Germany can draw inspiration from Ireland - e.g. with new forms of citizen participation, such as the citizens' assembly. President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said this at the state banquet in honour of Michael D. Higgins, President of Ireland, at Bellevue Palace on 3 July 2019.

"We in Germany can also draw inspiration from Ireland - for example when it comes to strengthening our democracy for the future, for example with new forms of citizen participation.

I have followed the work of the Irish Citizens' Assembly with great interest, for example in preparation for the referendum on the right to abortion. Ninety-nine Irish people who did not know each other at all before - students, lorry drivers, teachers, engineers and nurses, a cross-section of society - gathered for this in a Dublin hotel. Supporters and opponents of the constitutional amendment. They talked to each other, exchanged arguments, weighed up the pros and cons.

"Not exactly the stuff of political revolution", as one daily newspaper commented. And yet these citizens managed to turn one of the most politically and ethically difficult issues from confrontation towards consensus. I think this example can give us courage in the creative power of our democracies. Or, as one newspaper headlined: "You have shown the world what democrats can achieve with a little ingenuity."

Democracy needs renewal

I am convinced that democracy needs such impulses of renewal. All over Europe, including here in this country, we can feel that democracy is changing. But it is not on the brink of extinction - on the contrary: the political interest, the will to shape things, the expectations, especially among young people, are enormous. I hope that our democracy will not succeed in pushing away this commitment, but rather in taking it up and integrating it. To this end, I wish those who bear responsibility today - in parties, parliaments, governments - the necessary confidence and openness not to perceive the new as a threat, but to dare new forms of participation and to pave new paths in politics and political institutions. In short, I wish us in Germany a bit of "Irish courage" too!"

Background

The Citizens' Assembly in Ireland has an institutional character and has become an important part of the democratic process over the years. The 99 members are randomly selected by a polling company to discuss key issues of political discourse, such as abortion, the ageing population or climate change. With the help of experts, the participants develop proposals that are submitted to parliament and, if necessary, to the people for a vote.

The Irish Citizens' Assembly was founded after the financial crisis in 2011 and the resulting loss of confidence of the population in the existing democratic institutions. Since then, Irish people have voted in referendums on four proposals from the Citizens Assembly. They voted to allow same-sex couples to marry and to repeal the ban on abortion and the blasphemy paragraph. A lowering of the minimum age for presidential candidates from 35 to 21 was rejected.

More information: Speech by Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a state banquet in honour of the President of Ireland (PDF)