23rd Jan 2020


Europe Day: Hard challenges, soft democracy

  • Nine out of 10 Europeans still do not know about their new right (Photo:

There is no doubt that history was made on Europe Day in 2012. It marked the first time a direct, transnational and digital tool of formal citizen participation came into operation.

But the first European Citizens Initiative (ECI) risks setting a poor precedent for subsequent initiatives.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or join as a group

“Mobility, Progress, Europe – we demand more funds available for EU exchange programmes.” This is the idea behind the so-called “Fraternité 2020” initiative with its historic registration number ECI(2012)000001. It could also be the slogan of a europhile political party with ambitions for the 2014 elections. Or it could be an internal strategy paper from an EU institution focusing on ‘nice’ common values.

What it is not is a challenge to those that set the agenda in Brussels.

A duly “thrilled” Vice-President of the Commission, Maros Sefcovic, announced that “more initiatives will be registered in the next days”.

In principle, this is soft democracy at its best - the right of more than 350 million people across Europe to put their heads together and – as the Commission has acknowledged clearly and loudly – to “set the agenda of the Union”.

We need such a channel more than ever.

The new ECI is designed to allow citizens to make their voices heard between elections and to increase the legitimacy of legislative processes at the transnational level.

In practice, however, the very early ECI usage offers us an insight into an unfinished democratic adventure.

Initiative proposals like “Fraternité 2020” and the upcoming “Right to Water” and “Let me Vote” are still very much an immature way of using the new instrument. They do not concern tough legislative proposals but address the Commission in a old-style petition manner, where demands are expressed and appeals are made.

Such initiatives are not challenging. An ECI like “Fraternité 2020” is rather like a dream initiative for EU officials as it is genuinely pro-European, pro-youth and pro-education. There is nothing new in it and nothing which opposes current policies.

The problem with such initiatives is that it will be extremely hard for them to gather the necessary support from EU citizens. The ideas in them are simply too nice and too vague for most people to be persuaded to part with the personal information required when signing up to them.

And there is another major concern. Both the organizers and the recipient have no (human and financial) resources available to expand this ECI into a pan-European dialogue process.

While the organizers are obviously hoping to build their campaign on the idealism of spiritually motivated young people across the continent, the EU Commission has not been able to overcome its internal ambivalence about citizens genuinely engaging in agenda-setting.

These are very early observations. But it is time to act on all fronts.

The Commission needs to increase its ECI-related staffing level in order to be able to inform, train and educate the nine out of 10 Europeans do not know about their new right.

Other EU institutions, such as the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, have to step up their efforts to facilitate the process by coordinating various support activities and help out with translations.

In a modern democracy, hard challenges - such as Europe’s current crisis - require soft responses. True. But the softness of ECI(2012)000001 - addressing “European Brotherhood” - risks become an undesirable habit. This must be avoided.

The ECI instrument could be beefed up at the local and regional levels by creating supportive infrastructures; at the national level by comprehensively informing and educating citizens; and at the European level by investing at least as much money in the process as when Europe elects its own parliament.

It is our common responsibility to take our new, direct-democratic right at the EU level seriously and use it wisely. Europe Day is a perfect day to start doing this.

The writer is President of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, the author of the European Citizens Initiative Pocket Guide [] and member of a city government in Sweden, where a supportive infrastructure for the ECI and other participative tools are in the making (


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

First citizens' petition set to be on water

There is just over a week to go until the EU makes its long-awaited foray into the world of participatory democracy. The first formal attempt is likely to centre around securing a promise from Brussels to never privatise water.


What's Libya's impact on EU foreign policy?

The Libya case might finally give the EU some strategic clarity. This sounds like a small thing, but EU foreign policy is in such bad shape that it would be a big leap forward.

Why isn't Germany helping gay rights in Hungary, Poland?

The European Centre-Right LGBT+ Alliance demands Germany give up its resistance to the Anti-Discrimination Directive and suggest the commission and centre-right parties exert further pressure on Polish and Hungarian authorities to improve conditions for the LGBT+ community and people.

Is there more than coffee for European Works Councils?

In 1994, the EU decided that, at least, the employee representatives of a multinational were to meet each other and the management from time to time. In these meetings, management had to inform and consult the employees about transnational issues.

Brexit - Europe's 'Versailles moment'?

The spectre of another peace agreement looms: that of the doomed Versailles treaty, which, by sowing resentment and perpetuating misunderstanding of each other's true ambitions and principles, created more tensions than it dissolved.

Why EU subsidy schemes don't work - the evidence

Counter to popular beliefs among policymakers, the positive effects of support schemes are found to be very limited. In order to revitalise Europe, the newly appointed EU Commission needs to reconsider government's role in innovation and entrepreneurship.

News in Brief

  1. UK watchdog unveils online child-privacy standards
  2. Alleged 'bully' nominated for EESC presidency
  3. Greens/EFA fail to agree on accepting Catalan MEPs
  4. MEPs approve over 55 gas projects for EU funding
  5. Italy deputy PM Di Maio quits as Five Star party leader
  6. EU investment bank to keep pressure on Turkey over gas
  7. 'Rare' migrant boat from Belgium to UK sinks
  8. First annual rule of law report expected this year, Reynders said


Why nations are egomaniacs

A nation, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, is not capable of altruism. Even less so, if such a group has formed on the basis of strong emotions and casts itself as the "saviour of the nation".

Maltese murder - the next rule-of-law crisis in EU?

While Poland's government is escalating its rule of law crisis by introducing even more drastic measures against the country's judges, another problem is looming over the EU's commitment to upholding the rule of law: Malta.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers40 years of experience have proven its point: Sustainable financing actually works
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic and Baltic ministers paving the way for 5G in the region
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersEarmarked paternity leave – an effective way to change norms
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Climate Action Weeks in December
  5. UNESDAUNESDA welcomes Nicholas Hodac as new Director General
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersBrussels welcomes Nordic culture

Latest News

  1. EU warned on 'vigilance' after Davos spy fail
  2. What's Libya's impact on EU foreign policy?
  3. EU commission 'lacks ambition' on future conference
  4. Will US privacy-lite hollow out GDPR?
  5. Senior Polish member at EU body faces Belgian abuse probe
  6. Why isn't Germany helping gay rights in Hungary, Poland?
  7. US retiree, scammed by former EU official, awaits justice
  8. Vienna-Brussels night train returns amid EU green talk

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAUNESDA appoints Nicholas Hodac as Director General
  2. UNESDASoft drinks industry co-signs Circular Plastics Alliance Declaration
  3. FEANIEngineers Europe Advisory Group: Building the engineers of the future
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew programme studies infectious diseases and antibiotic resistance
  5. UNESDAUNESDA reduces added sugars 11.9% between 2015-2017
  6. International Partnership for Human RightsEU-Uzbekistan Human Rights Dialogue: EU to raise key fundamental rights issues

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us