Honourable Members,

In France, the Citizens’ Convention on Climate Change has just submitted its proposals to the President of the Republic. These have already elicited many contradictory reactions.

For France, this was a true innovation. For the first time, deliberative democracy was taken seriously, involving 150 citizens, the hearing of many experts and six months of debate become nine months due to the lockdown. It is interesting to draw lessons for Europe, in the twofold perspective of the Conference on the Future of Europe and the European Green Deal.

Having followed the work of the Convention closely, I have drawn two lessons from it: on the one hand, the interest of deliberative democracy has been confirmed – the 150 citizens felt passionately about the process, they worked seriously and they reached a consensus; on the other hand, the purely national organisation of the citizens’ panel, the context in which the process took place, the mandate given to the Convention by the Presidency of the Republic and the method laid down by the Governance Committee for the conduct of the debates mean that the proposals are not up to the challenges, and this weakness, if not remedied in the future, runs the risk of compromising the very idea of deliberative democracy.

Let us begin with the final outcome: 150 citizens, 150 proposals debated, 149 adopted, often by a large majority. The very number is revealing; on the one hand, there is a problem, namely an economic, political and social rationale that makes us irresponsible in terms of safeguarding the planet, and on the other, an avalanche of measures, necessarily adopted in a hurry. These measures are exclusively ‘obligations of means’, all of them defined at the national level. The text of the proposals contains 119 times words indicating prohibition and 303 times words indicating obligations, all of which fall mainly on the citizens. Detractors of the Convention are then at liberty to denounce a ‘punitive ecology’. The aim is not to bring about an overall change in the economic system, it does not address the responsibility of citizens, companies, banks, local and regional authorities, and states, it does not in any way affect the legal conditions for the exercise of responsibility and it hopes to bring about a change in behaviour by means of injunctions ranging from requiring a percentage of vegetarian meals in school canteens to putting speed limits on motorways and banning advertising for energy-guzzling cars. In the thirty years since the need to preserve the climate has been recognised, however, this multiplication of obligations of means has proved ineffective, as have successive international agreements, which have never set any obligation of results for states.

Moreover, so many measures cannot have been seriously evaluated in terms of their legal and economic feasibility and impact, not to mention that many measures are in fact under the responsibility of the European Union or of local and regional authorities. Once the enthusiasm of seeing these supposedly ‘ordinary’ citizens grasping such a complex subject and reaching a consensus on such varied measures has passed, the inadequacy of the proposals to the stakes becomes obvious. It is not the principle of deliberative democracy that is at issue, but the way in which it has been implemented. And this is what is interesting as a lesson for Europe.

The first question to be raised involves the organisation of this Convention at a single level, the national level. Since 2016, for the Conference on the Future of Europe, I have been advocating the idea of a ‘citizens’ foundatioanl process’ in two stages, a summary presentation of which you will find attached. There is a first stage at the level of the European regions and a second stage at the European level. Application of this method for the Citizens’ Convention on Climate would have had a twofold advantage: it would have led to a territorialised discussion, anchored in the reality of the territories; and it would have made it easier to distinguish between developments that fall within the scope of territorial governance and those that fall within the scope of the national level and the European level.

But most important is the way in which the context, the mandate and the method that were followed predetermined the conclusions of the Convention.

The context: the revolt of the ‘yellow vests’. It recalled that taxing carbon affects the poor infinitely more than the rich. For our dyed-in-the-wool economists, and consequently our political elites, the ‘price signal’ is the only overall means of influencing consumption, but after the yellow vests, citizens had no choice but to dismiss it. They were not given the opportunity to design another one. Since there was no incentive for all society’s players to reduce their emissions drastically from year to year, the only solutions envisaged were constraints: prohibit, impose; from speed limits to the obligation to insulate housing and the content of school meals.

The mandate. It asked the Convention not to dwell on matters of substance. These were dealt with quickly, at the beginning, when the Convention members had not yet had time to reflect and become informed. As of November 2019, the Convention members split into five predefined thematic groups – work, food, housing, travel and production – making it impossible to return to substantive issues. This introduced another bias that can be summarised as follows: ‘You, the citizens, are experts in daily life. Forget about the grand economic, political, legal or philosophical debates, let’s talk about what you can understand.’ This also concentrated the thinking on the visible consumption of fossil energy, whereas ‘grey energy’, which is incorporated into the goods and services we import, now accounts for more than 40% of our carbon footprint.

The method. The need to vote at a given date on measures thus developed within a thematic framework, very rapidly identified in order to allow a very approximate assessment of their real impact, their financing or even their feasibility could only lead to such a list of measures. For the sake of efficiency, a linear process from diagnosis to voting was imposed, which was the best way to avoid the fundamental questions; it was always either too early or too late to raise them.

What lessons can be drawn for the European Union ?

The first lesson is the very importance of the debate at the European level. If we wish to move from an obligation of means to an obligation of results, as I described in an article published in Le Monde in March 2020, which you will find attached, we must admit that greenhouse-gas emissions should be capped at the European level, with account taken of the entire carbon footprint of Europeans, including grey energy, at a ceiling falling by 6 to 7% year on year. The single market makes it most natural and easiest to manage this cap at the European Union level.

Second lesson: if, as is currently the case for the European Green Deal, we confine the discussions to a sectoral framework, we run the risk of producing the same effects as the Citizens’ Climate Convention in France, namely a multiplication of obligations of means, certainly on a better scale and no doubt better evaluated, but nevertheless remaining on the surface of things. To be convinced of this, we need only to look at the way the economy is recovering around the world. During the lockdown, we have seen a proliferation of pleges on the fact that ‘the world of after’ would no longer be as it was before, that lessons had been learned from the crisis and that it would be necessary, to use Emmanuel Macron’s expression, to ‘reinvent ourselves’ but, in concrete terms, all the measures that have been taken aim instead to reconstitute as quickly as possible ‘the world of before’, basically the only one known by our political leaders and economists.

The third lesson is the use of a referendum. The link between deliberative democracy and referendums is interesting in principle. A citizens’ convention should make it possible to formulate the questions to be submitted to the population as a whole and to purge the referendum process of its political undertones, which, at least in a country like France, changes any referendum into a plebiscite for or against the government in power. The President of the Republic, when launching the Citizens’ Convention, had indicated that some of the proposals could be put to a referendum. Among the proposals actually made, those that would seem to be the most legitimate are those that touch on the preamble of the constitution, explicitly introducing the duty to preserve biodiversity and the climate or the crime of ecocide. Here again, however, the fragility of the proposal is evident. An Environmental Charter was introduced into the French Constitution in 2005 without bringing about any serious reorientation of public policies.

In the light of these examples, what could a referendum be at the level of the European Union, either on the initiative of the European Council and Parliament or on a citizens’ initiative as a conclusion to both the Conference on the Future of Europe and the debate on the European Green Deal? It seems to me that it could focus on three interlocking issues :

a) Is the climate a global common good, the preservation of which engages the responsibility of each in proportion to their individual impact ?

b) If so, do the international commitments made by the European Union and its Member States to reduce our overall carbon footprint by 6 to 7% year on year engage the European people, its institutions and its leaders ?

c) If these are engaged, our global carbon emissions are to be rationed and decreased year on year. How should this rationing be managed ?

  • by putting a price on carbon such that demand is reduced in the desired proportions ?
  • by auctioning the authorised quantities of carbon?
  • by distributing the right to emit fairly among all in the form of annual tradable allowances, allowing those who make the most effort to sell part of their allowance to those who wish to maintain a carbon-consuming lifestyle ?

In addition, a European Charter of Human Responsibilities could be introduced into the European treaties, to be submitted to a referendum. This would transpose the attached Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities to the European Union and complement the European Convention on Human Rights.

Hoping that these few thoughts and proposals will be able to feed the European debate, please accept, Honourable Members, the assurance of my highest consideration.

Pierre Calame, author of Petit traité d'œconomie, Paris: ECLM, 2018; of Métamorphoses de la responsabilité et contrat social, Paris: ECLM, 2020; and of Sauvons la démocratie !, Paris: ECLM 2012.