75 MEPs ask EU Commission to urgently improve the European Citizens’ Initiative

April 4, 2013 News

75 Members of the European Parliament have asked the Commission and Council, through an official parliamentary question, to improve the ECI instrument. The ECI Campaign welcomes this initiative as many of our concerns have been addressed and integrated; however, by far not all. Special thanks go to all the ECI organizers who have given their valuable input to these questions. After a first written question by MEP Turmes, MEP Häfner has now submitted the following questions which are supported by a large group in the European Parliament from all the different parties.

(For summary of the following EP debate click here.)

The Open Letter:

Since 1 April 2012, citizens across Europe have the right to submit their ideas to decision makers on the European level using the European Citizens’ Initiative. However, almost all the registered initiatives keep reporting significant technical and administrative difficulties leading to tremendous delays and unacceptably high costs. Most issues concern the open source software for online signature collection offered by the EC, which is extremely complicated to handle. Assistance remains slow and ineffective. An estimated 11 million EU citizens residing outside their home country are denied their right to support ECIs by some Member States.

• Is the Commission aware of the problems reported by the initiatives and what measures has it undertaken or plans to undertake to solve them?

• Does the Commission plan to extend the assistance with the deployment of the online signature gathering tool also to upcoming initiatives so that fair and equal treatment of all is guaranteed?

• What will the Commission do to improve response times and capacities for problems reported?

• Will the Commission create the necessary infrastructure for answering directly to citizens’ difficulties?

• Will the open source software be re-developed in a truly open procedure using a community approach including proper testing and appropriate documentation?

• What prevents the Commission from establishing one centralized online collection platform that is hosted on Commission servers as the place to store signatures, but that allows all the front-end material – the public forms – to be realised within the individual campaigns’ websites?

• Would the Commission consider revising the implementing regulation before the foreseen deadline in 2015? If yes, how can it be ensured that the experience of the existing initiatives is reflected and the responsible Committees of the European Parliament are fully involved?

• Can the initiatives that have been loaded with the burden of testing and bug fixing the software apply to be reimbursed for their costs?

• Does the Commission have sufficient resources to provide the necessary technical environment and technical support to the initiatives? If yes, by which budget lines are these covered and by which organisational units are they carried out?

• Will Member States consider unifying the requirements for the scrutiny of signatures (both online and in written form), thereby eliminating legal insecurities and creating a level playing field for all citizens?

• What will Member States do to ensure that they are able to check the signatures of all their citizens regardless of their place of residence?

• Will Member States ensure that the design of paper signature gathering forms is citizen friendly and reflects feedback from initiatives?

• Will Member States grant the European Commission the resources it needs to deliver a full and equal support to all initiatives?

• Does the Council intend to establish a single point of contact for the initiatives on matters of the ECI which fall under the responsibility of Member States to avoid organisers having to enquire at 27 (28) different authorities, facing linguistic and bureaucratic hurdles?

Questions to the Commission and the Council on the lessons learnt from one year experience with the implementation of the European Citizens’ Initiative

– Explanatory Statement –

The European Union announced 2013 as the European Year of the Citizens. This is a good occasion to remember that the main goal of all EU Institutions is to serve the citizens and that all legitimacy for our political actions stems from the citizens. It is a good occasion to inquire to what extent the promise for more democratic participation made by the Lisbon Treaty is put into practice and in which way this new legal instrument for citizens´ initiatives has changed the role of and the relationship between EU-citizens and institutions.

One year ago, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) entered into force as the first transnational instrument of participative democracy. Since April 2012, citizens across Europe have the right to transmit their ideas towards decision makers on the European level in a bottom-up process. Undoubtedly, the ECI has the potential to be a major step towards a more democratic EU. It could foster truly transnational debates, contribute to the emergence of a European public space and strengthen the sense of ownership for EU policy making among Europeans. It is tremendously important, therefore, that the EU institutions undertake all efforts to ensure the functioning and the success of this instrument as well as to encourage citizens to use it.

In practice, however, a large number of technical and administrative shortcomings have caused severe problems and a feeling of disappointment among those citizens who tried to make use of what should be an unbureaucratic and citizen-friendly instrument of participation. Almost all initiatives registered as admissible by the European Commission since 9 May 2012 or tried to do so, reported significant difficulties concerning the legal framework and technical issues:

• The open source software for online signature collection offered by the EC has not been conceived, developed and tested in an open community approach. It has not been tested properly at all. The result is a product that is extremely complicated to handle, full of bugs and very poor in terms of customization possibilities and multilingual capabilities. Organisers of the first ECIs had to spend hundreds of working hours and thousands of Euros to handle this.

• The technical and procedural requirements for certification of an online collection system have been set so strict in the implementing regulation that it consumes an unrealistically high amount of resources which most initiatives cannot afford – irrespectively whether they work with own programmers or try to look for commercial solutions.

• The assistance provided by the Commission to individual initiatives seems to be clearly less than effective. First contact points are too often not familiar enough with the matter. Bug reports are not given the priority they should have. Reaction time for simple questions or bug reports takes often a week or longer; on the Commission’s “Joinup” platform in many cases more than six months.

• The ad-hoc solution that, after seven months of attempts to solve the problems,  the European Commission has offered to the first initiatives – i.e. using a central deployment of the collection software on Commission servers – does not address all problems, but neutralise all the added value of using an open source software. The degree of interoperationability with the initiatives’ own website is close to non-existent. Customization of the online collection forms, even concerning look-and-feel design issues, is not possible. Initiatives can use only the original version of the collection software.

• An estimated 11 Million EU citizens are denied their right to sign, even though this being an inherent part of their citizenship rights guaranteed under the Treaties. Some Member States decline to check signatures of their citizens if they reside outside of their home country. Other Member States refused to cooperate with the Commission on extending the deadline for signature gathering for initiatives with start-up problems they can not be made responsible for.

• The interface of the online collection software does not meet common standards for user-friendliness; it is discouraging and sometimes misleading citizens willing to support an initiative. In some cases, the online signature gathering tool does not allow EU citizens to sign if they do not reside within EU territory; it also does not accept certain number formats of otherwise valid identification document. The way the Commission implemented the security measure that is meant to prevent scripted mass-signing (the “CAPTCHA”) actually prevents a large number of natural persons from supporting an ECI. The Commission has been notified of this problem by the initiatives repeatedly since September 2012, but failed to take action so far.

• Initiatives also reported problems with the design of the form for written signatures that has obviously not been favourable for gathering purposes.

• There is a high level of uncertainty among initiatives on what grounds signatures can be declared invalid by the authorities, even when the identity of the signatory can be clearly defined.

• At this stage, initiatives are requested to respond to all technical and legal difficulties citizens experience when trying to sign their initiatives. It is obvious that it goes beyond their means to find answers on problems that the EU institutions and Member States have created by the legal and practical design of the rule set and the technical tools.

The majority of EU citizens still do not even know the ECI exists. The Commission never promoted the ECI in a comprehensive way. There is not enough staff and not enough money to actively promote it, to provide sufficient and competent assistance, to train the necessary personnel in the institutions involved, and to develop, run and maintain solutions for the online-collection of signatures that work smoothly and citizen-friendly in every digital environment.

There is no time to be wasted. If citizens feel that the institutions have no interest in turning the ECI into an open, functioning communications channel but allow unnecessary bureaucratic and technical hurdles to block it, the effects for its popularity and acceptance could be devastating. This would also mean a long lasting blow to the EU’s already fragile democratic credentials. We need a clear signal of commitment from the institutions towards the citizens now.

For summary of the EP debate click here.