27th Sep 2023


Democratic explorers

Once again the world is experiencing a spring of people power. This time not in Eastern Europe, Latin America or South East Asia, but in Northern Africa and the Arab world. Not surprisingly, these winds of democratic change are producing very different immediate results so far - like the peaceful revolution in Tunisia and the brutal anti-revolution in neighbouring Libya.

At the same time the old elites are trying to adapt to the new times. In Egypt the military is trying to establish an election law tailor made to their own needs. In other countries like Syria and Bahrain the old rulers are still trying to avoid the move forward by labelling the democratic movements conspiracies against their nations.

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  • The European Citizens' Initiative is the very first tool of a 21st-century ‘superdemocracy' (Photo: Flickr)

Not so far from the southern shores of the Mediterranean, another democratic wind is gaining power. At midnight last night a seemingly rather humble legal reform entered into force in the European Union: the regulation on the European Citizens' Initiative is from now on the law of the EU.

This is nothing less than a milestone in the history of modern democracy. For the very first time, citizens will have the formal right to set the political agenda of a supranational body, by gathering at least one million signatures from at least seven member states within twelve months.

What we can see in this part of the world is not a revolution but an evolution into uncharted democratic territory. The European Citizens' Initiative is the very first tool of a 21st-century ‘superdemocracy'. Why? Because the new instrument addresses the threefold challenge of citizen lawmaking in our times.

Firstly, it addresses the fact that our predominantly indirect parliamentary democracies must become more direct and participative. Secondly, the European Citizens' Initiative is about establishing citizen participation at the transnational level, where more and more important policies are decided. And thirdly and finally, the ECI also addresses the digital communication challenge of our times by allowing – another world première – the electronic gathering of signatures (‘statements of support') across Europe.

The establishment of the European Citizens' Initiative has been widely applauded. In the European Parliament no less than 628 members approved the new regulation, while only 15 voted against it last December. In addition, all 27 Member States accepted and ratified the new principle of modern representative democracy in the Lisbon Treaty, which puts indirect-parliamentary and direct-participative democracy on an equal footing.

But to be frank, this great innovation would never have seen the light of day if democratic explorers from across Europe had not begun more than 20 years ago to develop, propose and promote this novel type of democratization.

It took many years, Intergovernmental conferences, an EU Convention and several attempts to ratify a new Treaty before progressive forces in the Parliament, the Council and the Commission were able to agree on the new regulation, which entered into force today.

And yet, this was just a beginning. Now we need many new democratic explorers who are ready to continue the struggle for more and better democracy at the transnational level. Some of those explorers may see the introduction of the new tool – which will allow for the first real citizens' initiatives to be launched on April 1, 2012 – merely as an opportunity to earn money.

Others may have different reasons for entering the growing community of ECI-professionals, without however really understanding the dynamics of a modern direct-democratic process such as the European Citizens' Initiative.

Since many procedural questions about the ECI process are still open and must now be answered by the EU Commission or the Member States, democratic explorers are also now needed within these governmental bodies. What we can see is that there are excellent and highly competent individuals in both the Commission and the "competent authorities" of the Member States. But they are few and they are not very powerful.

So it will be crucial for the leaderships both in Europe and the Member States to understand the enormous potential in the ECI for the vitality and legitimacy of European democracy in the near future. What is needed are much greater resources than are currently on offer to improve, communicate and support the ECI in the months and years to come.

And the ECI regulation can clearly be improved, especially when it comes to the eligibility of initiative supporters. Under the current rules more than ten million citizens are deprived of their right to launch and support a European Citizens' Initiative since they are, for example, British citizens living outside Britain. And the Commission should not miss the opportunity of a lifetime to invite all Europeans to check out the options and limits of the new tool, which will obviously increase the overall understanding of the functioning of the European Union as a political body.

Finally, support will be crucial when it comes to basic information, legal advice and practical assistance in, for example, translating an ECI proposal into the other official languages. EU institutions such as the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) are especially requested to finally fullfil their role as a bridge between civil society and the Union. Non-governmental and non-profit organisations will nevertheless play an enormously important role in securing the quality of the new democratic process within the ownership of the citizens themselves.

Many good preparatory moves have already been made - such as the email-based hotline of the European Citizens Action Service (ECAS) and the initial guidelines developed by the ECI Campaign. Together with the Green European Foundation my Institute has published an initial ECI User's Manual, the "European Citizens' Initiative Handbook", available in five languages. And, in May, the EESC will publish a Pocket Guide to the ECI – in all 23 official languages.

Ultimately, however, support offices and guideline publications will not make the real difference. The real difference will be made by those democratic explorers among us who have the courage and patience to embark on a multi-year work project, by preparing, conducting and implementing an initiative of their own. In 365 days exactly we will know and see which of these democratic explorers will be the first to register a European Citizens' Initiative.

The writer is president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, the co-host of the 2011 European Citizens' Initiative Summit in Vienna/Austria (May 6-7) and the main author of the "European Citizens' Initiative Handbook" available in English, French, German, Spanish and Polish.


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

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