Five steps to a better future
The European Commission must be congratulated! It has done a good job with the draft regulation on the European Citizens' Initiative. What is especially positive about the proposed regulation for the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) is the balanced approach: designing such a totally new procedure presents an enormous challenge, but things have been kept fairly simple.
On the other hand, the requirements underline one very important thing: as a legal right and democratic procedure the ECI is an electoral process. Which means: the ECI is much more than a consultation, an opinion poll or a petition.
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Having said this, it is important to emphasize that the new procedure will have to be optimized, supported and revised on a regular basis in order to become the tool everyone is looking forward to - namely, the very first tool of transnational direct democracy in world history!
In the ongoing debate on the strengths and weaknesses of the proposed regulation we should never forget what we are about: a long process of making representative democracy truly representative. The decade-long job of crafting the ECI shows that Europe is starting to be ready for such an updated version of modern democracy. This is a development to be highly welcomed!
So let's have a look at the five different steps of democratic evolution we are currently witnessing in the context of the ECI-making process.
Step One was the new paradigm of a modern democracy, established during the Treaty discussions over the last twenty years. When the Cold War was over it became clear that a modern representative democracy in the 21st century must go beyond purely indirect ways of agenda-setting and decision-making and beyond purely nation-state-based democracy. By establishing the notion of a transnational political union this was implicit in the Maastricht and Amsterdam Treaties, becoming explicit in the Constitutional Treaty, now called the Lisbon Treaty. Art. 11 states that the EU is based on representative democracy which equally respects indirect/parliamentarian and direct/participatory forms. The medieval contradiction between representative and direct democracy has therefore gone – in principle.
Step Two began during the work of the Constitutional Convention in 2002/2003. An informal working group of the Convention, facilitated by IRI Europe and supported by activist networks from across Europe, started to discuss possible direct-democratic elements in the EU constitution – and finally came up with the ECI, the new right. The golden idea within it was to put the citizens on an equal footing with the Parliament and the Council - not to change the political system of the EU as such. This new right of a transnational Citizens' initiative inspired many groups across Europe to launch their own signature-gathering campaigns and to gain some very useful experience. So, the new right was there and managed to survive both the ‘no'-referendums in France and the Netherlands as well as the repackaging exercise of Lisbon.
When Lisbon came into force the Step Three began: the work on the new procedure. Solid preparatory work by former Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, supported by us and others, laid out the foundations, which could now be built on and developed into a fully-fledged regulatory proposal. Again, overall, the proposed regulation – given the limitations of being part of the existing political system of the EU and considering the challenging novelty of direct democracy at the transnational level – is a rather good one. But there are obvious weaknesses in the proposals, such as the quite high thresholds and above all the unclear follow-up stages. So it's no secret that there will be a real need for the procedure to be updated before it comes into force.
Then we come to Step Four. It's the new infrastructure, stupid! And here the Commission has not done its homework and has not listened to most of the recommendations made during the consultation process. There will no more than two EU officials redeployed to deal with the new key procedure of transnational citizen participation! There is no provision for support of transnational initiatives, no educational input, no coordination of advice by the EU representatives across Europe. It will be up to other European institutions like the Economic and Social Committee and independent players to come up with all of this. Just imagine having a European Parliament with no paid office space, no assistants and no travel reimbursements. What we really need now is to establish a supportive infrastructure for this extremely important contribution to European democracy - by the people, for the people and with the people.
Last but not least, we need Step Five, the new practice. It will be very interesting to see which initiatives will be first out of the starting-blocks and how they will do next year. And it will be very interesting to see how the EU and other official stakeholders will deal with this new transnational direct-democratic practice – supportively, antagonistically, or just with indifference? Take note of the flagship role the ECI is acquiring in a world where established democratic procedures are increasingly questioned and new transnational forms of modern democracy have so far been very weak. The ECI is an embodiment and an expression of a desire for change and of a real hope for a better future. In order to deliver on that we have to make all the five steps – in the best possible manner!
The writer is is president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (www.iri-europe.org) and co-host of the 2010 European Citizens' Initiative Summit in Salzburg/Austria (May 7-9).