European Citizens´ Initiative

The Initiative for the Initiative

, by Carsten Berg

The Initiative for the Initiative

One of the twenty European Citizens’ Initiatives is about the European Citizens’ Initiative itself – or, more precisely, about the detailed rules for implementing this new direct-democratic instrument at the transnational level. Carsten Berg outlines the pan-European campaign to bring the people onto the political centre stage.

The idea of launching this initiative for the introduction of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) emerged shortly after the French and Dutch citizens rejected the Constitutional Treaty in their popular votes in 2005. These two votes once again reflected the strong “disconnect” between the EU and its citizens, or, generally speaking, Europe’s democratic deficit, which has alarmed political observers for many years.

One reason for the “disconnect” is that citizens feel how Europe is becoming increasingly influential, but that it does not reflect who they are and does not address the issues that affect their everyday lives. Thus the absence of proper democratic means of participation and communication makes many citizens feel like powerless spectators. If at all, they perceive the EU as a distant, cold and centralistic bureaucracy which is dominated by a small elite. This crisis of legitimacy led Jacques Delors to say as early as 1993 that “either Europe will become more democratic or it will disappear”.

The people and organisations who are engaged in the initiative for the ECI want to respond to this European crisis of confidence and democracy. They have realized that traditional advertising to promote Europe will not work any more and that it needs more substantial change instead. Europe is not a “product” to be sold to passive consumers. European democracy needs new “producers” – it needs to become a project that is created and shaped by active citizens. If democracy cannot be prescribed from above, then it needs to be developed out of its own roots, starting with individual citizens. This is where the initiative for the European Citizens’ Initiative enters as a first step along the long path to democratic reform.

The door-opener initiative

With the campaign for the introduction of the European Citizens’ Initiative we want to evoke debates and educate ourselves and others about the concept of the European right of citizen initiative. The ultimate goal of this project is to enable citizens to propose concrete policy and law changes to the European Commission, by introducing a comprehensive citizens’ right of initiative. This new right of initiative would require the European Commission to respond to a proposed change in European law signed by at least one million EU citizens. Any resulting proposal would then go through the normal legislative process. European citizens and civil society organizations could then directly influence the political agenda of the EU for the first time in history.

In order for future Citizens’ Initiatives to work the legal basis for ECI must be designed in a citizen-friendly way, so as well as our core demand, we prepare guidelines on how this can be ensured. When implemented the ECI will be the first transnational and direct tool of democracy. It will give citizens a right of initiative that is much more effective than the current European citizens’ right of petition. Experience shows that direct democratic elements like the right of initiative tend to make representative democracy more representative and responsive. It helps parliamentarians to be closer to voters’ wishes, and encourages positive collaboration between citizens and their representatives. This kind of sharing power and communication makes individual and public learning much more probable.

Of course communication can only be as good as its content. This is true for the individual as well as for the public level. But in order to express concrete proposals in the public sphere, it takes open channels and procedures, by which content can be made public. The key to the problem of the EU is to create such public open channels for citizens. In the ideal case citizens-law-making procedures, like the citizens’ initiative, create more transparency, more legitimacy by convincing and finally also more identification. Being issue-focused, the right of initiative will contribute to shaping a more open European public space around key debates that reflect citizens’ concerns. In other words the ECI will not only help to close the gap between citizens and institutions, but also contribute to the development of a European civil society. This represents only one step along the long path of democratic reform, but it would clearly signal the direction of travel and creates more awareness for the question of democracy.

The signature gathering starts

The campaign was launched on 9th November 2006 by a series of citizen actions in numerous EU-member states. We have organized street actions, public debates and press conferences. One of them took place within the European Parliament, where we have received the support of more than 50 MEPs from all political groups. Among them the former Polish foreign minister Geremek, Diana Wallis and Gerard Onesta both vice President of the European Parliament, Jo Leinen chairman of the constitutional affairs committee and of Cecilia Malmström, now Swedish minister for European affairs. The Dutch ECI team, the strongest of all member states so far, has managed to organize a press conference in the national press center in The Hague where some well-known Dutch have set the first signatures. Among them former interior minister Ed van Thijn, actress Victoria Koblenko, who is a major character in one of the most popular soap series on Dutch TV and Funda Mujde who is columnist of the biggest Dutch newspaper Telegraaf. Similar support was shown in other countries and the ECI launch was covered for example by the Danish national radio, BBC-TV and several national newspapers in Spain and in Germany.

From then on, volunteers all across Europe have been collecting signatures, and the tool of online signature gathering is also available at www.citizens-initiative.eu. The best place to collect signatures turned out to be public events of the supporting organisations. Moreover for example in Poland many signatures are being collected at public schools as an element of civic education. Most signatures so far have been collected on paper, this might however change as we plan to improve the online procedure by for example implementing “spiral mails”, which are likely to evoke a chain reaction. If one person has signed online, then the signer receives an automatic mail saying:

“Thank you for SIGNING www.citizens-initiative.eu the European Citizens’ Initiative, the campaign calling for the introduction of the Citizens’ Right of Initiative in the EU (which will GIVE US THE POWER TO PROPOSE CHANGES TO EUROPEAN LAWS). If you would like to help a little more to promote this Europe-wide signature collection, please take a moment and FORWARD this email to all your contacts.”

A comprehensive alliance of supporting organizations

It took us about one year of preparation before we actually started this signature collection. We looked for advise with experienced people and organisations, including the responsible persons in the Swiss administration, who are consulting and monitoring Swiss citizens’ initiatives. There we learned for example that we should calculate and fundraise, one Euro per signature. That is the experience with citizens’ initiatives in Switzerland, where only signatures on paper are allowed.

Whenever one wants to start a European Citizens’ Initiative, one has to take into account that there are huge geographic distances and language barriers...

In December 2005 we invited as open as possible all interested Civil Society organisations and individuals to come to Brussels and discuss the idea of a Europe-wide signature collection for the introduction of the ECI. In other words we applied an open and participatory method to prepare this project, because we knew very well, that one only can reach a significant number of signatures, if one creates such a project together with as many people as possible and if there is a big alliance of organisations, ready to commit and invest in the project. After the two initial organisations, Democracy International and the European Students Forum (AEGEE), had invited for the first time, more than ten open public so called ECI-NGO meetings followed. The number of supporting NGOs grew constantly and comprises today more than 120 organisations in all EU member states. This includes a huge variety of NGOs from different policy sectors in all EU-member states, especially organisations dealing with democratic education and development or European integration. An other important pillar are supporting think tanks, like IRI Europe and the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), which have given us tremendous important advice for coordination and fundraising. Last but not least the third essential pillar consists of supporting foundations, namely Cultura Foundation, King Baudouin Foundation, Heinrich Böll Foundation and Madariaga Foundation. With their financial and logistical support we could set up a minimum office infrastructure in Brussels and temporarily pay a small team, which is coordinating the project. Foundations are also a very important meeting point for the NGO meetings and ECI-Campaign Seminars.

Four launching criteria

We developed four decisive launching criteria, which concern the aspect of alliance building at regional and local level, the support of NGOs, the commitment to gather signatures and the financial resources to be fundraised. Only if we would have achieved the following criteria we would actually launch a one-million campaign:

1. There should be at least 100 NGOs officially decided to join the alliance.

2. There should be well-established national/local alliances for ECI in at least 8 EU-member states; two of these should be “big” states (France, UK, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain) and two should be new member states.

3. At least 100 000 signatures should be “expected” from NGOs by an advance commitment.

4. There should be at least 100 000 Euro fundraised.

While criteria one and two were accomplished, three and four were not. We therefore decided not to call for a million signatures, but instead call for as many signatures as possible.

Transnational Challenges

Whenever one wants to start a European Citizens’ Initiative, one has to take into account that there are huge geographic distances and language barriers, which can heavily slow down the internal communication and decision making process. Another difficulty is, that there is hardly any European public, which would receive the message of ECI. Instead there are rather 27 public European spheres, which have not come together yet. We therefore had to experience, that it is much more challenging to organize and promote a signature collection on the transnational level then on the national level. Since it was impossible for many participants to come the long way to Brussels, we have learned to become very patient and to communicate careful over long distances, in order to keep everybody on board. Finally translating the material into more than 20 EU-languages is very time consuming or expensive if you give it to professional translators.

We had to realize that there are big differences in political culture. Only twelve EU-states have a citizens’ initiative right on the national level. That means that many people in the other 15 countries have hardly ever heard anything about the concept of the citizens’ initiative. At the same time there is very little knowledge about the EU, when one asks ordinary people in the streets (in countries like the Netherlands and France, where people voted on the constitutional treaty this seems to be a bit different). We therefore have to explain many basics about democracy and the EU, before a person signs. This makes this citizens’ initiative a huge project of European civic education.

Finally we had a very controversial debate, whether we should allow online signature gathering at all, due to the difficulty of verification. On the other hand, the internet is an excellent tool to bridge the long geographic distances. We therefore decided to make use of an online signature gathering procedure, but only with a verification mechanism, in order to avoid misuse. However this way we loose signatures, as many citizens are not ready to go through the verification process as they still are afraid to give personal data via the internet.

Carsten Berg is member of the Initiative for the Initiative Initiative Committee and coordinator for the “Dialogue for Europe” project by the Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe. www.citizens-initiative.eu

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