Sunday

22nd Jan 2017

Opinion

Happy New European Citizens' Year?

  • Since its launch last year, 23 European Citizens' Initiatives were filed in Brussels (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The "European Year of the Citizens" in 2013 will put a spotlight on one of the hardest-fought-for EU reforms, the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI).

This new instrument - which says that if 1 million EU citizens from at least seven member states call for a new law, then the European Commission must take notice - lurched into life in Spring last year.

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Over the past few months, people filed 23 ECIs with the commission's registry, covering issues such as the environment, health and public morality.

One (the second call for a nuclear-free policy proposal) is still pending, two have been withdrawn (including the Happy Cow initiative on animal welfare) and six have been refused by the commission on legal grounds that they address issues outside its area of competence.

But the majority of the ECIs made it to the decisive phase of the whole process - the gathering of signature.

Fourteen are currently up and running, but just a few of them have started a real dialogue between citizens indifferent countries.

In the six months since the ECI started in April, not one of the 14 campaigns was been able to gather signatures online. The reason? The so called "free" Online Collecting System (OCS) developed and offered by the EU simply did not work and the administrative costs of fixing it were too high for the organisers.

When the OCS did start to work (using "free" servers in Luxembourg) it was held back by a host of bugs which kept many people's names off the registries.

The developments showed that many of the ECI campaigners and EU authorities were badly prepared and badly resourced.

By mid-December the 16 active ECIs reported total funding of less than €500,000. Just three of these accounted for more than 90 percent of the money pot, while three others had no financial contributions at all.

Meanwhile, most of them did not take the trouble to register a draft legal act (for potential submission to the commission) and three of them did not even have a website (!) where potential supporters could learn more.

So what to do in 2013 to give the ECI a boost?

Here are three proposals.

Train the trainers

The ECI imposes an obligation on our public authorities, as they are not only decision-making and implementing bodies but also institutions of public service to all citizens.

This means they have to invest in informing EU citizens about the new principle, in making the procedure user-friendly and in making the support provided accessible to everyone.

They need to be fully and properly trained. But it is not just the authorities who need to improve - other stakeholders such as potential organisers, supporters and observers (in the media and academia) also need more ECI-specific education in order, for example, to better assess the accessibility criteria for initiatives.

Support the infrastructure

The ECI could be called the very first tool of "super democracy," as it enshrines all the key features of modern 21st century representative rule: it is direct, transnational and has a digital profile.

Having said this, it is obvious that it is not yet a robust, well-known and simple instrument that can be used easily and correctly by EU citizens.

As the 'owner' of the ECI, the EU needs to dramatically step up its efforts, from comprehensive Europe-wide information campaigns about the new right to reimbursement schemes for initiatives which can demonstrate a serious level of support - at least 50,000 signatures, for example.

Improve understanding

The early days of the ECI have shown that most ECI organisers do not know what they are doing.

Civil society - including academia and the media - need to help generate an adequate level of public understanding - a contribution which would offer critical knowledge as to what direct democratic tools can contribute to representative democracy and what it takes to successfully conduct an ECI, including the need for effective fundraising.

As a basic rule, at least one euro per signature is needed to cover the cost of collecting signatures and promoting an initiative. Organisers who intend to gather 1 million statements of support will have to raise at least €1 million.

The ECI is here to stay, as is the principle of transnational participative democracy.

What we have seen so far is just teething pains.

Bruno Kaufmann is head of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, a German-based NGO

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