Europe’s first experiment with transnational participatory democracy

March 29, 2012 News

Brussels – Starting on Sunday, April 1, 2012 the regulation to implement the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) will ultimately be applicable: a new tool created by the Lisbon Treaty which gives 1 million citizens the right to ask for changes to European law. According to Carsten Berg, ECI Campaign Director “We warmly welcome the introduction of the ECI. It is the first transnational instrument of participatory democracy in world history. With it, Europe enters a new territory of citizen participation. It is the result of nearly a decade of work which will open up new perspectives for democracy building in Europe.” 

The ECI Campaign is a grassroots coalition of democracy advocates and over 120 European NGOs dedicated to the creation and successful implementation of a European citizens’ initiative right. It first campaigned for the inclusion of the ECI in the EU Constitution and later for user-friendly implementing rules. Now The ECI Campaign wants to see many citizens raising their voices through the new ECI instrument and is giving advice to individual European citizens and organizations on how to organize ECIs. It welcomes those who now plan to launch an ECI.

However The ECI Campaign strongly rejects the assumption that it will be “super-easy to collect a million signatures” as recently expressed by Maros Sefcovic, the EU Commissions’ Vice-President. While the final regulation which becomes applicable April 1 is much simpler than the Commission’s original proposal, it still remains unnecessarily bureaucratic and burdensome. It will be relatively easy for citizens’ groups to launch an ECI, but extremely difficult to complete one successfully.

Based on the ECI Campaign’s experience with over 20 unofficial citizens’ initiatives, using the rules entering into force on Sunday, it will be almost impossible for truly grassroots, volunteer-run citizens’ campaigns to gather 1 million signatures in 12 months. Only very well-organized and financed lobbies have a chance to succeed, and even they will find it a huge challenge.

The ECI Cam­paign will therefore monitor the practical use of the ECI and work to remove all its burden­some restrictions when the ECI regulation is officially reviewed in 2015. Specifically, it will be needed to:

A) Simplify the signature form and eliminate ID number requirements. Eighteen member states will ask their citizens for personal identification numbers when signing an ECI. Such intrusive personal data requirements are frequently unnecessary, will deter sup­porters and raise privacy concerns. Also the European Data Protection Supervisor determined that ID card numbers were not necessary and should not be collected from citizens supporting an ECI.

B) Extend the time limit for signature collection from 12 to 18-24 months. The proposed 12 months to collect one million signatures are too short for ECIs coordinated by smaller organisations without a huge budget or for issues that are not yet well known or understood by the general public.

C) Allow ECIs which propose treaty amendments. The Commission has sta­ted it will not register ECIs which propose amendments to EU treaties. This however would exclude many ECIs from the start. As the Commission itself is entitled to propose amendments to treaties, it also should be possible to launch initiatives which relate to treaty amendments. As a consequence of the current interpretation many of the expected initiatives run the high risk to be inadmissible.

D) Provide adequate practical support to ECI organisers. ECI organisers should have access to free and comprehensive information on how to conduct an ECI, legal advice and translation assistance. First experiences with the information services provided for by the Commission prove to be not adequate yet.

The ultimate success or failure of the ECI, however, will depend on how the Commission responds to a successful ECI. According to Mr. Berg “One million citizens cannot be ignored. A successful ECI must have consequences and lead to political decisions. Only when citizens realize that they are actually being heard will this instrument strengthen the democratic engagement of citizens. Otherwise it could simply lead to more frustration.”

Democracy, Press release