“Ogni blocco di pietra ha una statua dentro di sé ed è compito dello scultore scoprirla.” (Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.)
President Michael D Higgins quoted this marvellous remark by Michelangelo Buonarroti in Florence this week at a conference on solidarity in Europe. “We are in a sense the sculptors of this European generation, still working on a block of valuable marble which has been passed down to us from the founding fathers of the European Union,” he said in his well-received speech at the European University Institute’s annual State of the Union gathering of academics, policy-makers and media. “If solidarity remains our guiding principle, I have no doubt that our European future, the outlines of which we can see but much of which remains to be discovered by our own chisels, will be a source of pride for ourselves and an object of admiration for others.”
Higgins noted that “we have entered a period when, for the first time in many years, the future shape of the European Union has become a matter of contestation and debate. In the shadow of Brexit and of social forces which have given rise to so much doubt across Europe, we Europeans are invited to define, through deliberation, the outlines of the European Union that we seek.”
If deliberation is discussion aimed at producing reasonable and well-informed opinion, Ireland too is going through an intense period of reflection, contestation and debate. How prepared are Irish voters? Brexit raises future relations between Northern Ireland and the Republic and between Ireland and Britain in dramatic fashion. Ireland’s role in Europe is part and parcel of that debate. We are in what the UCD political scientist Jennifer Todd refers to as a “constitutional moment” in which major decisions about our future will be taken.
Higgins welcomed French president Emmanuel Macron’s view that Europe must be renewed and rebuilt from below after what Macron described as the glacial period of technocratic governance that resulted from rejection of the 2004 EU treaty by the French and Dutch electorates in their referendums. Since then there has been a taboo on treaty change discussion, he argues, for fear of rejection. But unless political leaders are willing to conduct this debate openly and democratically, they deserve to lose voter support.
Ireland is in the middle of an abortion referendum, having had nine on Europe since 1972. A real innovation this time was the Citizens’ Assembly which deliberated whether and how to amend the Constitution so that terminations can be carried out in this State. The radical shift of view registered at the assembly towards allowing abortions in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy was matched in the Oireachtas committee considering it; opinion polls so far indicate that is also the case among voters. Deliberation of evidence and women’s personal experience has enabled this change of view, breaking previous taboos.
Ireland’s turn towards such deliberative techniques has been closely followed by researchers who helped organise and inform the assemblies. The political scientists involved say it is a mistake to judge their success only by such changes of view, although that is one obvious indicator of their effect. Some sets of view remain unchanged after more intense discussion, as we see in British opinion polling on Brexit and last week’s English local elections.
Brexit and the future of Europe are being discussed intensively in civic forums and citizens’ meetings, adding new dimensions to Irish democracy. Brexit raises the question of Ireland’s constitutional futures, ranging from renewal of the Belfast Agreement, a more federal or differentiated UK to a likely growing demand for Irish reunification and Scottish independence if a hard outcome transpires from the present political dramas in London and Brussels.
Citizens’ assemblies would be an appropriate way to test public opinion on these possible futures as part of a wider process of preparing politically for such potentially rapid tipping points. We need to map them out by research and inclusive debate before events force ill-informed decisions.
Other ideas for more direct public involvement at European level include randomly selected citizen MEPs in the European Parliament elections next year, a participatory element in the EU budget process and a yearly deliberative poll on citizens’ policy priorities. The Scottish, Swedish and Finnish parliaments have forums, committees or ministers responsible for chiselling away at their futures.