Sunday

26th Jan 2020

Opinion

Europe Day: Hard challenges, soft democracy

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

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.

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“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 [europeancitizensinitiative.eu] and member of a city government in Sweden, where a supportive infrastructure for the ECI and other participative tools are in the making (falun.se/democracy)

Disclaimer

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

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