Citizens’ panel: an intense democratic experience

Policy op-ed

In good Brussels lingo, we speak of the “Energy efficiency first principle“. This must be applied in all policies so that “only the energy that is needed is produced, investment in inefficient technologies is avoided and energy demand is reduced and managed cost-effectively

At the request of its President, the European Commission organised a citizens’ panel on this issue and undertook to take account of the recommendations made. As an expert in European energy policy, I was lucky enough to take part in this unique exercise, which came to an end this weekend, so I’ll give you my first-hand impressions.

150 randomly selected European citizens worked on this technical issue over three weekends. It was a fascinating experience. What a powerful tool, what potential these citizens’ panels have for democracy!

I’ll leave you to discover the recommendations produced by the panel, which were presented to European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic on Sunday 14 April.

Let’s look back at the process

First of all, ‘non-expert’ citizens are able to put their finger on the issues at a very strategic level. There is also the ability to point out inconsistencies. For example, the main European response to transport needs is to propose electrification. However, the inconsistencies of this option are immediately apparent: because it is not physically possible today to have enough material for batteries, because we do not yet have the networks, or because it is not clear that the production of an electric vehicle is truly virtuous and requires less energy (considering the entire cycle of each product). This animated the debates of many sessions. The inconsistencies in the proposed policies were immediately identified.

A second “lesson” is the existing mistrust of political institutions. One participant suggested giving the Commission feedback on their “ecodesign” guide, which apparently contains many factual errors. How can we trust their evaluation criteria if they are biased? This participant’s excellent suggestion was to open up these guides (which are generally the result of inter-governmental negotiations and inter-institutional compromises) to public comment. To be much more open and collaborative in the development of the standard.

I’m fascinated to see where ‘non-expert’ citizens get their knowledge from. The first source is everyday common sense, which, if better supported, would have immense potential for saving energy and improving efficiency. Why – says the heating engineer – is he systematically asked to oversize his installations? It’s astonishing to see that the ‘totem’ expert Jancovici‘s deciphering of energy policies extends well beyond the circle of French-speaking engineers. Equally astonishing, certain concepts speak to everyone, such as the 15-minute city. And then there’s Bill Gates for the technology geeks…. It’s a sobering thought as to how we communicate on energy issues and how much we still need to invest
in a true energy democracy.

Organising thousands of citizens’ panels

Lastly, the debates constantly raised the issue of globalisation, of markets that only favour the big players, and of the role played by Europe in this drift, which leaves small, local players with no margin for action and no power over their choices. It’s much more than just background music for the European elections – it’s really a knot that the European Union will not be able to untie, and therefore review the core of its dogma that the European project is built by the market.

For all the participants, the main conclusion was that we cannot achieve energy efficiency without reviewing the way in which society is organised (working hours and places, housing policy, consumption, etc.) and our place in the world (we cannot continue to extract resources that we do not have).

I am still amazed by the incredible quality of the debates and the power of the process to create consensus and joint political decision-making. That’s why we absolutely must organise thousands of citizens’ panels.

That’s my conclusion.