So, Belgium is a very big political mess. “The best, most representative sample is a random sample,” Van Reybrouck tells me. If you do not know your login details, simply close this pop-up and click 'Login' on the black bar at the top of the screen, then click 'Forgotten password? “We are not under any circumstances doing Brexit,” says Graham Allen. They’ve become steadily more fashionable over some years, but the Belgian experiment offers a twist in that it builds them into the structures of governance. Namely, can existing institutions be reformed and revived? It would be change that anyone who abhors government by “grand coalition” — the equivalent of a mushy, meaningless centrist party — should applaud. The Walloon socialists followed with 20. Dejaeghere says that transparency will ensure that the briefing process is neutral, but it’s hard to imagine this working perfectly. Valuing everyone’s voice equally in the room does not necessarily address gaping material inequality. Your password will then be emailed to you. Because then you create this illusion of participation.”, I have no doubt that taking part is—as Van Reybrouck says—“a life-changing” experience. The result would be another full-blown crisis that would dominate Europe for a year or two and offer another excuse for leaving the world’s problems to America. “The first time we organised the dialogue, some people said, ‘now we realise you are normal people,’” she tells me. If some of that rage can be defused by listening to the voices of citizens chosen by chance, then perhaps sortition can have a role. Britain’s relationship with the EU is primarily a technical question that has become bizarrely divisive. The Belgian Solution. In 2017, the politics professor Graham Smith organised an assembly that succeeded in coming up with a compromise on a soft Brexit, but one that is “politically completely unattainable now,” says Van Reybrouck. The big ideas that are shaping our world— straight to your inbox. Democracy here is based on proportionnal representation, very different than the US and UK system, where it’s “First Pass the Post”. The U.S. also could aim for a “Belgian solution.” Make the president a nominal caretaker leader. There are times when the role of the King can be seen more clearly, particularly after elections when he chooses an informator, then a formator for the government. And tell Washington’s leeches to power — lobbyists, journalists, bureaucrats, even think tank scholars — to get real jobs. Personally, I’m still attached to what we’ve got. It’s more that I’d rather my rubbish was just collected on time than spend my evenings “having a say” about it in meetings. Anyway, even the journalists acknowledged that regional governments play the biggest economic role in Belgium. But on a long view, even government by citizens selected by chance is nothing new. It is by suggesting, advising, warning and encouraging that the King brings this action to bear on political protagonists. Here Van Reybrouck slightly underplays his own trenchant critique of representative democracy: his last book, Against Elections, suggested the integrity of the ballot box could never be protected in an economic plutocracy, because donors can use their resources to buy candidates and bewitch voters. The markets have run away with the power, and these [other] two are shouting at each other. Liesa Scholzen, from the Christian-Democratic ProDG Party, doesn’t look like your typical MP: she’s a twenty-something Masters student in politics. In third place was another Flemish nationalist party, which took more votes than the socialists but gained only 18 seats. And economic issues are mostly handled outside of Brussels. But if not then it’s going to be even worse. Rich deliberations led to plans to replace first-past-the-post with different forms of PR, but these remained subject to a referendum. In a country such as Belgium, this involves not only Parliament and the government, but also all the bodies which lead to decisions. A “fixed council” of 24 citizens meets monthly for 18 months. And from next year, everyday folk chosen by chance will have the opportunity to shape policy alongside the elected MPs—in the first permanent citizens’ assembly in the world. But I think what’s important is the whole concept, and the theory: how you can encourage people to engage and take an interest in politics.”, Sortition was more than a gimmick in Ancient Athens, The Public Assembly: all citizens are meant to go, and sometimes press-ganged into attendance, but only the first 6,000 can actually fit in. The Eupen delegates talked a lot about expertise, knowledge and power. The government isn’t obliged to implement recommendations, but if they don’t they’ll have to give a good reason, in writing. Third, “the government has become a less attractive employer — meaning it is harder to attract and retain top talent.” If the national authority isn’t really necessary and doesn’t do anything really important, why should it attract the best talent? The result was a similarly fractured electorate with the same two leading parties. Just as with jury service in the UK, which is supposed to be compulsory but a rising number are nonetheless said to be evading, it’s hard to prevent self-selection by those habitually inclined towards civic duty. The top talent should go to the private sector and regional governments. So the best way to restore balance in that triangle is to restore trust between those who govern and those who are governed.”. Yet Belgium appeared to get along just fine without a bunch of national office-holders pretending to matter. A very thorough approach to draining the Swamp. PLUS you’ll find out about the big ideas that will shape our world with Prospect’s newsletter and receive our Top Thinkers e-book free. Once there, the populace is sovereign: a simple majority can pass any law, though only after listening to both sides of the argument, The Council of 500: picked by lot from the citizenry, the Council prepares laws for the assembly, and superintends financial and diplomatic executive functions, The officials and magistrates: 700 paid posts with particular responsibilities; 600 are picked by lots for one-year, non- renewable terms; but another 100– with the weightiest (especially military) duties—are elected, and sometimes serve several terms, The excluded: women, foreigners, minors, slaves. But none of the premiers mattered in the least. In Belgium’s mind-boggling political system, which has overlaying territorial and language-based federal elements, the German-speaking community has its own government, with devolved powers comparable to Scotland or Wales. Try to make a government with those numbers! Democracy’s like soup, Van Reybrouck explains, there might be elements (“the chicken and the carrots”) best handled by elections, “but the random sample adds something to the flavour of the stock. Andreas Jerusalem is an equally fresh-faced Green MP and primary school teacher; he waves at his colleague’s young son, toddling about in the corridor. For me, our current problems are down to representative democracy being given a bad name by power-hungry populists supported by self-serving lobbies who distort the system and then blame the underlying structure when it starts to fail. Power must at least account for itself, therefore. His perspective is one of continuity of duration, of long-term objectives, and of "grand designs" for the country and the State. Take recruitment. Here it resembles the increasingly disdained science of polling. Retention is also tricky: in Ireland, just two-thirds of the original cohort saw out the full 18 months, and only a quarter attended every meeting. The specific mention of national inde-pendence and of the integrity of the territory was probably inspired by circumstances existing at the time that the Constitution was drafted, a time when Belgium had just taken shape as a sovereign state whose borders were being contested. Citizens’ assemblies (or citizens’ juries) vary in form, but the basic principle is always to task randomly-selected members of the public to thrash out political issues, often with the help of experts or moderators. How would a weak coalition solve this problem? Shining city on a hill? At home, invitations to join a citizens’ assembly on climate change have just landed on the doormats of 30,000 British households—an initiative by a cross-party group of MPs. The succeeding parties gained 14, 13, 12, 12, 12, 9, 8, 5, and 2 seats. The government was spurred to imitate, summoning 950 randomly- selected folk into an assembly tasked with rewriting the constitutional ground-rules. But you know that ‘there’s guys like me in there, there’s the postman or the truck driver, and I can have my barbecue because I have something I can trust.’”, Even in its purest, Athenian form, sortition was combined with elections for the high-ranking generals and treasurers. Once the system is mature, the council will be filled by some of those who have previously served on the actual individual assemblies, each of which will be tasked with meeting for three weekends over three months to tackle its own specific agenda. Prominent among them is the charismatic and eclectic Belgian historian David Van Reybrouck, who warns that a restless public is no longer going to be content to tick a box every five years and then go back to sleep. In Ontario reform was defeated outright; in British Columbia, 58 per cent of voters said yes, but the detailed checks and balances required 60 per cent to do so. The Irish assembly, in fact, employed a polling company to find its participants. And collapse. But then anti-reform parties prevailed in a general election, and the proposals were left to languish. Prospect subscribers have full access to all the great content on our website, including our entire archive. After taking the input of experts and other citizens who chose to feed in, it produced recommendations affecting same-sex marriage, abortion and blasphemy that have since been enacted by the Irish parliament and then referendums. I walked up the hill to Ostbelgien’s parliament building, a century-old converted sanatorium with a new council chamber added in 2013, a fitting metaphor for this democratic innovation. Well, Dejaeghere tells me, parliamentary checks and balances would apply. In Eupen, the positive response rate has so far been just 11 per cent, despite the offer of €200 per weekend plus expenses. Prospect may process your personal information for our legitimate business purposes, to provide you with our newsletter, subscription offers and other relevant information. “That’s the big challenge now,” Van Reybrouck agrees, after a pause. Belgium has not had a functioning government since December 2018. Each picked random names off their electoral roll, tested their interest in taking part, then whittled down these volunteers through a mix of chance and regard to the demographic mix. /*