The Netherlands was one of the first countries to organise a national citizens’ assembly, it was also one of the first to introduce a Climate Act to live up to the Paris Agreement. Despite this head start, the country is now lagging behind on both fronts. While surrounding countries such as Germany, France, Denmark and the UK have organised national citizens’ assemblies – and the German-speaking part of Belgium even having implemented a permanent Bürgerrat – The Netherlands have not. Nor is it reaching the European goals for renewable energy, and is it a near world champion when it comes to biodiversity loss – with a staggering 75% decline of insects over the last thirty years. To counter the odds on both fronts, Dutch grassroots organisations have joined forces. After a year of intense pushing for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate & Biodiversity, they seem to be successful. Although there is still a major hurdle to take: good old party politics.

This is the final article in the international project Climate Citizens’ Assemblies: Learning With, From and For Europe. Through various interviews, European key players share practices and their reflections on Climate Citizens’ Assemblies. Curious about the results of this exploration? Check out our online publication with concrete insights for impactful Climate Citizens’ Assemblies.

Bold move, disappointing counter

For a brief moment in time The Netherlands seemed to become one of the leading countries in using citizens’ assemblies to crack tough decisions. As early as 2006 it organised a national citizens’ assembly to reform the electoral system (Burgerforum Kiesstelsel), which inspired now famous citizens’ assemblies such as the Irish Assembly on abortion and same sex marriage. It was a bold move of Minister of the Interior Alexander Pechtold to ask a group of 140 randomly selected citizens to help his Ministry to decide on the most appropriate electoral system for the House of Representatives. He was awarded for trusting citizens with this responsible task, with a useful and thorough set of recommendations.

Unfortunately however, none of these recommendations were implemented. By the time the citizens’ assembly presented its final report in December 2006, a change of government had taken place. This new government refused to implement – or even seriously discuss – the recommendations of the citizens’ assembly. Since then the chances that another national citizens’ assembly would ever be organised in The Netherlands seemed next to zero.

For another brief moment in time it also seemed that The Netherlands would lead the way in living up to the Paris Agreement. In 2017 the Dutch government announced that a Climate Agreement would be developed to formulate the measures to meet the Paris Agreement – in other words, how the country was to reduce its carbon emissions by 49% in 2030, and by 95% in 2050. This Agreement would then form the basis for a Climate Act. The idea was to involve the whole of society in developing this Climate Agreement, as these measures, whatever their shape or form, would affect everyone.

This would have been the perfect time to organise a national Climate Citizens’ Assembly. While across the North Sea the Irish Citizens’ Assembly was taking place, tackling climate change and other topics, no Dutch politicians or civil society actor thought of doing something similar. A missed opportunity, as the Netherlands could have built upon the Irish example, taking it one step further by focusing exclusively on climate, while drawing some useful lessons from its own failed 2006 citizens’ assembly. That could have led to a landmark event that might have paved the way for other countries. Would the French and UK citizens’ assemblies on climate have been so disappointing in terms of political follow-up had they been able to learn from a full-fledged Dutch antecedent? We will never know. But what we did see in France and the UK was a sorry repetition of the mistakes the Dutch made in 2006: a toothless assembly that failed to secure parliamentary commitment.

What happens when you don’t involve citizens

Not citizens but stakeholders got a seat at the table. At the Climate Agreement talks, a group of 150 companies and ngo’s – from Shell to Greenpeace – was tasked with formulating the necessary measures. Citizens could only give some input through an online consultation, but were excluded from the working groups where the Climate Agreement was actually being shaped. These so-called ‘Climate Tables’ on Industry, Agriculture, Mobility, Buildings and Electricity thus favoured interest groups over everyday people. Citizens’ concerns, nor their ideas or even their best interest were properly advocated at these tables, resulting in a set of measures that catered far more to the vested interests of the corporate world than anyone else. A carbon tax was for instance vetoed by a number of major companies.

As a result several climate organisations and a major trade union pulled out of the Agreement. They didn’t want to sign a deal that made citizens pay too much and polluters too little. Nevertheless, the Climate Agreement was adopted in 2019 and has become the cornerstone of Dutch climate policy ever since.

Meanwhile, popular resistance has been growing, against wind farms in particular, but also against the transition of neighbourhoods to renewable energy. Although the majority of Dutch citizens have concerns about climate change and understand the need for climate action, this doesn’t translate into support for climate measures. On the contrary, resistance has become ever more fierce and has deeply divided some municipalities, with local governments now barely knowing how to meet climate goals without causing major unrest.

Nowhere near enough

The real tragedy of course is that the measures that are being taken – in The Netherlands and elsewhere – are ‘very, very far from where we need to be’, as the U.N. Climate chief Patricia Espinosa stressed earlier this year. If such relatively mild measures cause so much trouble, what will happen if we move deeper into the transition?

But there is a silver lining. Research indicates that it is not so much the measures themselves that cause frustration, but a broader sense of injustice. When citizens feel that they have to carry a heavier burden than polluting corporations, they understandably disavow even the lightest of measures. And they hardly had a serious say in the process to start with. Some municipalities try to involve their citizens now, but it is too little too late. The plans are usually next to final, leaving very little room for citizens to discuss alternatives. The result is growing frustration and despair in the political camp. Local and national politicians understand they need citizens’ support to democratically transition towards a low carbon society, but have come to fear mass protests and electoral loss.

Reviving democracy

In the summer of 2020 several Dutch citizens and grassroots movements decided it was time to help the struggling politicians. What they shared was a deep concern over climate change and biodiversity loss, and an equally deep concern that today’s democracy is not fit to properly tackle those crises, crippled as it is by electoral fear, party politics, short-termism, and commercial lobby groups. But they also shared the belief that citizens’ assemblies are part of the solution, that they can revive democracy and make it strong enough to tackle the major challenges of our time.

One of those groups was Extinction Rebellion The Netherlands, which (like in many other countries) was the first to call for a national Climate Citizens’ Assembly and had been doing so for over a year. They drew inspiration from citizens’ assemblies in countries like Belgium, Ireland, Canada and India. The call for a Climate Citizens’ Assembly even became one of the three demands of Extinction Rebellion across the globe, besides demanding governments to tell the truth about climate change and to act now. Of course this is not so much to prevent protests – the movement is obviously a protest movement in its own right –, but because they trust citizens to come up with solutions that are in the best interest of society as a whole, instead that of political or corporate factions. After forty years of insufficient climate policy, that has turned climate change into an unprecedented crisis, Extinction Rebellion considers it crystal clear that elected politicians are in dire need of help: climate citizens’ assemblies are just that.

In The Netherlands their demand coincided with developments abroad, such as the permanent citizens’ assembly that was installed in the Fall of 2019 in the German speaking part of Belgium, and the start of the French Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat in that same period. As a result, the idea of citizens’ assemblies received occasional attention in Dutch media, although still very little. Extinction Rebellion reached out to several politicians to inform them about the workings of citizens’ assemblies, but not every one of them was willing to talk to the activist group. But they were willing to see what the French President was doing, asking 150 randomly selected citizens to formulate socially just measures to reduce France carbon emissions by 40% in 2030.

Coalition for a Citizens’ Assembly on Climate & Biodiversity

By the summer of 2020 other Dutch grassroots movements started to push for a national Climate Citizens’ Assembly as well. The advocacy group Bureau Burgerberaad (platform for citizens’ assemblies) consisted of citizens with diverse backgrounds, who all shared a passion for deliberative democracy. The group wrote op-eds, talked to politicians, and organised lectures and workshops on citizens’ assemblies for politicians and civil servants, while at the same time providing information to the general public.

Their work, and of course that of Extinction Rebellion was picked up by De Transitiemotor, a movement of movements, aiming to kickstart a just and sustainable transition in The Netherlands. These three organisations decided to join forces and start a coalition to push for a national Citizens’ Assembly on Climate and Biodiversity. They developed an easy to understand cartoon and wrote a manifesto formulating the preconditions for an adequate and meaningful Climate Citizens’ Assembly, which was endorsed by dozens of organisations, and thousands of citizens.

Meanwhile, a motion was passed in Parliament in November 2020 asking for an independent committee to examine the possibilities of citizens’ assemblies on climate and energy. Again, the French Convention Citoyenne pour le Climat, which had presented its recommendations a few months earlier, provided a big push. Suddenly, a seemingly outrageous idea – everyday citizens developing ambitious climate policies – had become a reality. It made more and more Dutch politicians susceptible to the idea of involving citizens in decision making through citizens’ assemblies.

The research committee, chaired by the former national Ombudsman Alex Brenninkmeijer, started its work in December and asked members of the grassroots coalition to provide input and give feedback on its preliminary findings. In the meantime the coalition itself had started a petition for an ambitious Climate Citizens’ Assembly, as well as a public campaign to make sure not only Dutch politics, but society as a whole would be aware of the preconditions of a properly run assembly.

The Brenninkmeijer-report was published directly after the Dutch national elections of March 2021. It concluded that citizens’ assemblies are a valuable addition to democracy, specifically with regard to complex issues such as climate change and the energy transition. Drawing on amongst other the extensive OECD-study on deliberative processes, it formulated various conditions to organise a meaningful citizens’ assembly. But it also addressed conditions formulated by the grassroots coalition, that specifically focus on climate assemblies. And, very un-Dutch, the Brenninkmeijer-report strongly suggested to experiment with and learn from citizens’ assemblies by simply starting to organise them. In other words: learning by doing. In short, it seemed as if there was now nothing standing in the way of the new government organising a national Climate Citizens’ Assembly. Except a new government.

Symbolic citizens’ assembly in The Hague, June 22, 2021 © Eva Rovers

Standing on the shoulders of local citizens’ assemblies

I am writing this article in September 2021, six months after the elections, and there is still no new government – despite promises of a swift formation and a new style of governance based on serving the interest of citizens instead that of political parties. As the months passed and national politics seemed more self-obsessed than ever, the grassroots coalition kept reminding politicians of the need for a national Citizens’ Assembly on Climate & Biodiversity. In June it organised a symbolical citizens’ assembly right next to Parliament and offered the Prime Minister and members of Parliament their help by giving them a ready-made paragraph on a Climate Citizens’ Assembly: the text only needed to be copy-pasted in the Government Agreement. Until now to no avail, as there still is no government, let alone an Agreement.

Because climate change and biodiversity loss do not wait for the Dutch government to sort out its internal conflicts, the grassroots coalition is moving forward to make sure there will be a national Climate Citizens’ Assembly within a few months. They feel empowered to do so by various municipalities that have organised or are planning to organise local climate assemblies. The city of Amsterdam, for instance, has taken Brenninkmeijer’s suggestion seriously and is determined to learn by doing. It recently announced to organise a short “mini-citizens’ assembly”, asking citizens to help the city reach its climate goals. It wants to give the assembly serious political follow-up and has therefore decided to make it a short one, so that it can take place well before the next municipal elections next spring. This way it is guaranteed that the outcome will be acted upon and not be passed on to the next city council. By organising this mini-version, the city will learn and will be able to use the lessons for a next, hopefully full-fledged, citizen’s assembly.

Just as in Poland and Hungary it seems that in The Netherlands municipalities have more guts when it comes to democratic renewal and trusting citizens. Local governments will have to lead the way for the national government. It is up to citizens to make sure that they do, and that they do it properly. This means relentlessly pushing for citizens’ assemblies and endlessly stressing the preconditions, such as a clear mandate, selection by lot, full transparency, a deliberative process, and a plan for serious political follow-up. This takes time and effort. A lot of time and effort. But that is a small price to pay for a true democracy, let alone a liveable planet.

If you want to know more about this subject, check out our online knowledge platform, with an overview of various European casestudies, and our final publication with concrete insights for impactful Climate Citizens’ Assemblies.