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How Belgium Leads the Way

Belgium is a democratic innovator. What can the world learn from its example?

This story is republished from NOEMA, with permission of the author.


Democracies across the West are so paralyzingly polarized today because the public square where competing propositions can be tested against each other in the full gaze of the body politic as a whole has virtually disappeared.

As we have written before in Noema following the insights of the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, democracy has largely given way to “infocracy” as peer-to-peer connectivity “redirects the flows of communication. Information is spread without forming a public sphere. It is produced in private spaces and distributed to private spaces. The web does not create a public.”

The possibility of arriving at a governing consensus through negotiation and compromise is being shattered by a cacophony of niche propagandists egging on their own siloed tribe of the faithful to engage in an endless partisan battle.

In short, the digital media ecosystem is disempowering the public sphere. Just as republics have historically created institutional checks and balances when too much power is concentrated in one place, so too we need to foster checks and balances for an age when power is so distributed that common ground can scarcely be found.

The Belgian Experiment

One way to reconstruct a public sphere is through citizens’ assemblies where the broader civil society is proactively recruited to weigh in on how to address the most critical concerns of the day through informed deliberation.

It is an irony that this new institutional check on the splintering of common platforms for discourse is most practiced today in the European Union where the “democratic deficit” between Brussels and ordinary citizens has been so pronounced and denounced. Perhaps it is precisely because the gap of distrust between the public and the institutions of self-government has grown so large that the imperative to close it is greater there than elsewhere.

In late February, Belgium announced that, as the rotating president of the EU in 2024, it was “launching a pioneering democratic initiative: a citizens’ panel on artificial intelligence. … This initiative, which is the first of its kind for a European presidency, underlines our country’s commitment to an inclusive and participatory approach towards the formulation of European policies.”

As the sponsoring Belgian authorities describe it, “The citizens’ panel, which is made up of 60 people selected at random from over 16,000 invitations sent out across Belgium, brings together all strata of the population in terms of age, gender, levels of education and other demographic criteria. This diversity will ensure that the discussions and recommendations reflect a wide range of perspectives and experiences rooted in people’s lived experiences.” 

Each session over the three-month period of deliberation is facilitated by professional moderators and can draw on a roster of AI experts and “enlightened … players in the field” to dig into the complexities of the issue.

AI as the topic of deliberation was chosen because it is in the forefront of everyone’s mind as they contemplate its future promises and perils. “Artificial intelligence is now omnipresent in our lives,” the Belgian presidency website notes, “from shopping and music recommendations to route planning and e-mail spam filtering, it has become difficult to do without. Yet this rapid development raises a number of questions: What impact will it have in the workplace? And in terms of our health? And on education or even on our security? 

AI lies at the heart of current debates on technological independence, digital inclusion, and disinformation and therefore requires a Europe-wide approach that is coordinated and visionary.” 

The citizens’ panel already met twice in late February and mid-March and will conclude with its recommendations after a final gathering at the end of April. The recommendations will be presented to Belgian and European political leaders on May 25. While the panel’s advice is not binding, the relevant authorities are obliged to take it into serious account because of the high public profile of the exercise and because they themselves commissioned it.

As the Belgian minister of foreign and European Affairs puts it, “This initiative demonstrates our determination to put the Belgian people at the heart of the decision-making process. Civil society must be heard on issues as important as artificial intelligence and contribute towards ambitious policies that meet their expectations. Together with the entire federal government, we are committed to relaying the views expressed by the panel to the various European institutions.”

The broader implication of the Belgian experiment is a recognition that there can be other modes of advice and consent in today’s troubled democracies beyond the passive citizenship of periodically voting in elections dominated by partisan strife.

Indeed, it is becoming clear that democracy will only survive the fragmenting force of distributed communication technologies if it can find ways to bring the broader civil society into governance through common platforms that enable and encourage the search for social consensus.

IMAGE CREDIT: assemblee.brussels