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19th May 2019

Online petitions to put EU under public scrutiny

With just weeks until to go until the EU dips its toe into the unpredictable world of participatory democracy, internet giants are warning the European Commission it had better be prepared for scrutiny by a critical and highly-wired public.

On 1 April, over 10 years since EU leaders publicly declared that they need to make the union more democratic, a system giving citizens the chance to shape European debate and potentially its legislation will go live.

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  • Anti-austerity protest - the first subject of a pan-EU petition? (Photo: CGTP-IN)

The so-called Citizens Initiative requires the European Commission to consider legislating in an area on the back of at least 1 million signatures from a minimum of seven (or one quarter) of member states.

"This new right will open a new chapter in the democratic life of the EU. Not only will it provide a direct gateway for citizens to make their voices heard in Brussels, it will also encourage real cross-border debates about EU issues," said EU commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic at a conference launching the initiative website on Thursday (26 January).

Danish Europe minister Nicolai Wammen indicated the most important aspect of the new tool will be that citizens will have the chance to "set the agenda," noting that getting a "conversation" going about an issue means already being "half way there."

With the Arab Spring showcasing the power of social networks such as Facebook to spread news and ideas, some at the conference suggested the Citizens Initiative will see the fairly disparate protests against unemployment and austerity measures in various member states become a single, widely-supported petition.

For her part, Facebook's policy chief in Brussels, Erika Mann says that "humans love to have a connection and to live in a better world" and that this "all connects to the political world."

Simon Hampton, European public policy director at internet search company Google, believes it is likely to be a game-changer for the way the commission interacts with citizens. "The internet-powered citizen expects to be listened to. They want to be part of the conversation," he said. He added that the new tool "puts the commission under scrutiny too."

In a recent example in the US, the White House reconsidered a new anti-piracy law after thousands of people voiced concern about free speech on the internet and popular websites, such as Wikipedia, blacked out their homepage in protest.

Some social network sites say they will be natural allies of the European initiative.

Giuseppe de Martino, secretary general of video-sharing website Dailymotion, said his company could be a "video platform that uses images to explain the initiative."

Further down the line, successful initiatives are likely to be taken up by European political parties which will next year begin thinking about their campaigns for the 2014 European elections.

But the first few months are likely to see a period of experimentation by both sides - citizens seeing how it works and the European Commission seeing how to respond.

Critics have warned the initiative could be hijacked by one-horse issues pushed by a particular interest group.

But the commission says this will be countered by the threshold of member states and signatures required. It also has several get-out clauses - initiatives cannot be called for actions which lie "outside" its powers or which are "abusive, frivolous or vexatious." They are also prohibited from being "contrary to EU values."

The success of the EU's foray into participatory democracy is likely to depend on how fairly citizens think the commission applies these criteria.

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