From 4CITIES to Brussels Parliament

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Last year, 4CITIES alum Pepijn Kennis (Cohort 05) was part of a panel discussion hosted by the OECD on changing the relationship between government and citizens. Here’s the short bio provided on the OECD website:

“Pepijn Kennis is passionate about making better cities together. He obtained a masters’ degree in Urban Studies from universities in Brussels, Vienna, Copenhagen, and Madrid. After this, he coordinated Toestand, a non-profit organisation turning abandoned spaces into community places. Currently he is a member of the Brussels’ Parliament for Agora. Brussels, a citizens’ movement promoting the idea of a permanent citizens’ assembly with equivalent power to parliament. His role there is to defend decisions taken by such citizens’ assemblies organised by the movement to showcase the potential of citizens’ decision making.”

4CITIES recently caught up with Pepijn at his office in Brussels to find out more about his new role in local government.

4CITIES: Good to see you, Pepijn! Let’s dive right into it. What do you do as a member of the Brussels Parliament? What does the job entail and how does it work?

PEPIJN KENNIS: It took me a while to figure out how it actually works in practice, but on paper it’s fairly simple. There are three main things any Member of Parliament does: vote on legislation, vote on budgets, and exercise democratic control over the government.

New bills, new laws in Brussels, are called ordinances. They concern everything from separating organic trash into its own bin to the speed limit on roads to, well, anything that’s within the competences of the Region. The second thing is voting on the budget. Every year the government needs to propose to Parliament like, hey, this is how much we’re going to receive and this is how we want to allocate that money. And then there’s exercising democratic control of the government, and I’d say that’s the bit that takes up most of my time. It consists of, basically, asking critical questions to members of government. What are they doing? Why are they are doing it? What impact should these actions have, and on whom?

4C: What happens with the answers to these questions? Do they form the basis of some kind of report or something that’s then presented to the people, or is it about having them recorded as part of parliamentary sessions and becoming a matter of record?

PK: Primarily the latter. But it’s also about shaping discourse. Sometimes just asking a question can expose problems people weren’t aware of. And if asking the question reveals a problem, they will usually try to find a solution before responding. You can also kind of force attention to be paid to systemic issues by continually asking the same question. There was a Belgian senator who introduced the same question over and over again. Something like, what’s the gender balance in your public administration and on different levels of management? Each time a Minister had to answer that question, they basically had to say, well, it’s more or less 50-50, but the more you go to the top, the more male-dominated it is. And of course by having to repeat that answer over and over and over again, it becomes awkward and you want to change that. So, you ask questions not only to find answers, but also to get things moving sometimes.

4C: As a Member of Parliament, you represent Agora. What is Agora? How did you come to be involved in it, and how did you end up as its representative?

PK: Alright, so Agora is a citizens’ movement that started in 2018 with the idea that we need to enrich our democratic system, that only having elections, and only every five years, is not enough to be really involved in political decision making. That kind of system doesn’t represent the idea of a democracy being the power of the people because in effect you give away your power every five years. In Against Elections: The Case for Democracy, the Belgian writer David Van Reybrouck makes a compelling argument for randomly selected citizens’ assemblies as either a replacement of or a complement to elected parliaments. Especially when it comes to things like climate politics, where you really need to think long-term and govern accordingly, but negative short-term effects prevent parties from acting because they fear losing votes in the next election. Citizens’ assemblies aren’t vulnerable to those pressures because they don’t operate the same way.

I got involved when I heard of this idea of maybe having a new political initiative that would think about doing politics differently. I was always interested in politics, but I have kept a distance because I don’t think the current political system, with action framed by political parties, is the way to go. I went to a few meetings with Agora and a planning weekend and got more and more involved, notably with research into what the existing parties thought about this idea. It turned out that while some parties like the idea of a citizens’ assembly, none were keen on actually giving it power, which entails giving away some of their own power. That’s the reason that we decided to run for elections with the hope that we could break into the system of Parliament, kind of like a Trojan horse. That would give us the financial and human resources to organize citizens’ assemblies and show that it could work. We ran, and we won one seat.

Within Agora, we have a procedure that is called an election without candidates. Usually if you have an election, even internally in an organization, you have all sorts of self-promotion that can push the issues to the side. Here the idea was to do the opposite. As a group we decided on the criteria or characteristics that someone needs to have to be an MP. Everything from temperament to availability (so, not people already working full-time jobs they weren’t going to leave). I think seven or eight people were identified. Then, whoever wanted to propose one of these people wrote their name on a little paper, put it in a hat, and we picked a piece of paper at random out of the hat. My name happened to be the first one that got picked, and I agreed to represent Agora in the Brussels Parliament.

4C: What are the major issues that have been raised by the citizens’ assemblies that you’ve been tasked with engaging or raising awareness of or even implementing?

PK: The three major issues that have produced their own assemblies have been housing, employment, and energy. Well, climate, more generally, but with a focus on energy.

The housing assembly focused on housing for people in precarious situations: housing for the poor, housing for the homeless, social housing. Secondly, renovation of rental housing, as in Brussels it is often in a poor state and needs to be renovated. And then you have empty houses, empty buildings. We’re trying to bring the supply of space within reach of those needing it so that we don’t have people living on the streets while flats are sitting empty.  And then you have regulation of the housing market to reduce the power inequality between landlords and occupants, and to act against things like Airbnb, which are transforming our cities into unaffordable places to live.

For employment they started with the question of how to ensure that all people in Brussels have access to a quality job that suits them. So those were the four themes: coverage, access, quality, and fit. How to close gaps between empty positions and people searching for work, how to reduce discrimination in access, for example the process of interviewing or making CVs anonymous. But also if a job opening exists, the company should be obliged to post it in a central database and to invite people from the public employment office as well as those who directly apply, proposals like that. As for quality, they wanted to ensure that jobs with social value are supported. Nurses, teachers, street sweepers, any kind of work that not only benefits the worker but society as a whole. And on the level of this job that suits them, they want to better link job coaching to actual personal competences rather than focusing solely on diplomas or credentials.

The final issue is energy. We need to better inform people as to their energy use and ways to reduce it. Building renovation comes in here again, to improve energy efficiency. And the manual professions relevant to building renovation need to be made more attractive. Mobility patterns need to change to reduce carbon emissions, so making public transport free, or at least partly free, and finding creative ways to reduce the use of private cars is important. Plus shifting energy production to be as local and green as possible.

Photo by Kevin Van den Panhuyzen for BRUZZ

4C: As a Member of Parliament representing a party that has one seat, where do you see the potential for having the greatest impact?

PK: There are two possible answers to that. One is more constructive and the other is more populist, I’d say. The more constructive would be to keep on playing the role as I’m playing it now. Playing nice, in a way. Introducing bills that transpose what the citizens said into legislation and trying to pass those bills, be it by making compromises with majority parties or helping them see that, hey, this is this is also good for you and I’m actually helping you and I’m furthering your agenda as well. The more popular thing would be to produce a load of bills that are not necessarily well-written and would not necessarily hold up, and to communicate massively around them that this is what the citizens want. Even though we know there’s no chance of them being passed, or maybe even especially then, so we can demonstrate the flaws in our democratic system.

More and more, I’m realizing that within Parliament there are a lot of good people, but the system is just so messed up that they don’t have the power to actually do what they need to do and want to do. And so even if they agreed with our bill, they would not vote for it because they would never grant a small party with one seat a big victory in having a bill passed. I want to show how messed up the political system is, but that won’t help people find housing, and it might even further social polarization. That’s sort of the constant schizophrenic situation I’m in. We want to try to improve the situation of everyone in Brussels based on the proposals of the assemblies. And we also want to show that playing nice doesn’t work, that the system in which you’re supposed to play nice is corrupt as a system, not necessarily in terms of the people in the system, but as a system itself. And therefore we need a different one.

There’s an essay by Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”. And above the door in my office there’s a portrait of Lucy Parsons with one of her famous quotes, “Never be deceived to think that the rich will allow you to vote away their wealth.” These are things I think about a lot, because they point to the constant struggle of trying to change a system through participating in it or through refusing to participate.

4C: Given your experience with a variety of organizations and approaches, what advice would you give to people who are looking to get involved and be an active part of improving their city?

PK: One would be to pick your fight. There’s so much to improve in our societies and there’s so much to do that if you want to do everything you’ll just end up exhausted, frustrated, and having done nothing. So pick your fight and even with like, all of the things that I talked about in the assembly, all of the themes that they touched upon, we really focus on one or two key proposals in each theme because otherwise it’s just impossible.

And the other one is to try to find your place, find a role that suits you best. Some people will feel very comfortable being in Parliament and taking the constructive role, writing bills and having them refused and rewriting them and trying to negotiate. And some people will be very happy to go to demonstrations and take part in direct actions. You need to find not only which issues move you most but the ways of engaging those issues that work for your personality and skill set.

The work I did with Toestand was more activist, with very concrete things that have very short lifespans. What I do now is much less concrete, but if you succeed in putting something in this little book which is the Brussels Housing Code you could have a huge and lasting impact. I think I’m still looking for my perfect place and I don’t know yet what my next job will entail, but it will probably be somewhere in between. But just by trying things and looking for your place you can learn a lot. And in the meantime you will do a lot of stuff that will help society, hopefully.