The Belgian Parliament passed a law on 9 February 2023 that allows deliberative committees to be formed and citizens' assemblies to be convened at the national level. These bodies are to advise the parliament on its political decisions. The government thus wants to involve citizens more in politics. On a national level, this regulation is the first of its kind in the world.
The new law allows citizens who are not politicians and do not necessarily belong to a political party to be involved in political decision-making. They are randomly selected from the population and invited to voluntarily participate in citizens' assemblies or deliberative committees. Citizens' assemblies consist exclusively of randomly selected citizens, while deliberative committees attached to parliament consist of both MPs and citizens drawn by lot.
Legal basis for sortition
With the Act, a legal basis now exists for the random selection of citizens from the residents' register of the municipalities. Residents invited on this basis can apply to participate in the body for which they have been drawn. In a second round of random selection, a group of citizens is assembled that is a reflection of the population by gender, age, place of residence and level of education.
Before the deliberative committees or citizens' assemblies formulate recommendations, they deliberate on the respective topic with the help of MPs, experts and representatives of civil society.
Minimum age 18
Each citizens' assembly will consist of a minimum of 50 and a maximum of 75 participants. Deliberative committees will have a minimum size of 39 members and a maximum of 51 participants. The participants must be at least 18 years old. People who are MPs or hold government office at regional, national or EU level are excluded from participating. Parliamentary staff with certain responsibilities and judges with specific functions are also not allowed to participate.
"This government is making concrete work of citizen participation. Our ambition is to get citizens more involved in politics and give them insight into political decision-making. I am convinced that their insights can lead to more innovative ideas that and they can be an additional sounding board for Parliament," said Minister of Democratic Renewal Annelies Verlinden.
Parliament is currently preparing the establishment of a first deliberative committee or citizens' assembly. Thematically, it is to deal, among other things, with the report on the citizens' consultation "A Country for the Future". The report will be presented to the government and parliament shortly.
Deliberative Committees in Brussels and Wallonia
Deliberative committees of MPs and elected citizens already exist in the two parliaments of the Brussels-Capital Region and in the parliament of the Walloon Region. While this perpetuation of cooperation between citizens and MPs was already decided in Brussels in 2019, the introduction of such mixed committees in Wallonia was only decided on 2 February 2023.
In the Brussels-Capital Region, each deliberative committee starts with a topic that must be supported by at least 1,000 inhabitants of the city, or by a proposal from members of the regional parliament. A deliberative committee consists of one quarter of MPs from the parliamentary committee responsible for the chosen topic and three quarters of randomly selected citizens.
The MEPs from the committee responsible for the subject ensure that the recommendations are followed up within nine months of their adoption. The Brussels government has also committed itself to such follow-up. After nine months, citizens who participated in the deliberative committee are invited to a meeting where the follow-up action taken is presented. If recommendations have not been followed up, this must be justified.
Since 2021, deliberative committees in Brussels have developed proposals on five topics: Biodiversity, the role of Brussels citizens in times of crisis, the introduction of the 5G mobile phone standard, dual education and homelessness.
In Wallonia, at the initiative of citizens or parliament, 30 randomly selected residents can develop recommendations for decisions of the regional parliament together with ten elected members of parliament.
Regional and local citizens' assemblies
In Belgium, numerous citizens' assemblies have taken place at regional and local level. Outstanding among these is the citizens' dialogue in the German-speaking Community (DG) of East Belgium. There, citizens who have been randomly selected do not only formulate recommendations to the parliament of the DG. Rather, a body specially randomly selected for this purpose also has organisational power. This citizens' council decides on the topics of the individual citizens' assemblies on the basis of proposals from its own ranks or from the population, parliament or government. Since 2019, four citizens' assemblies have discussed the topics of digital skills, inclusive education, care and housing.
Municipal citizens' assemblies in Belgium, for example, addressed climate in Arlon, Forest, Namur and the Province de Luxembourg, transport in Ghent and Kessel-Lo, the radicalisation of young people and community cohesion in Molenbeek-Saint-Jean, and a municipality merger in Wichelen. In Brussels, a permanent citizens' assembly has been operating since 3 February 2023, with a rotating composition to drive climate action in the Belgian capital.
Prehistory: Citizens' Summit 2011
The development towards more democracy by sortition in Belgium has a longer history, however. In 2011, after the previous election, the parties could not agree on the formation of a government for 541 days. In the midst of this political crisis, the G1000 initiative wanted to breathe new life into democracy with a citizens' assembly.
On 11 November 2011, almost 1,000 people gathered in Brussels for the "G1000 Burgertop". The topics: social security, the distribution of wealth in times of crisis and immigration. The G1000 citizens' summit became a milestone for the democratic renewal of Belgium. With G1000, this initiative has become an enduring organisation that has initiated many of the democratic reforms of recent years.