After the first six months – state of the art of ECI

October 1, 2012 News

For half a year now the ECI is officially and practically available for European citizens. As such it is the first element of transnational, participatory and digital democracy in history, giving 1 million citizens the right to ask for changes to European law. Expectations attached to the EU’s new participatory democracy tool are high. Read the report by Carsten Berg, general coordinator of the ECI Campaign, about the first experiences made with the European Citizens’ Initiative.

In the meantime the game has switched from theory to experience – the first twelve ECIs have been inscribed in the register with the EU Commission. They cover such diverse issues as securing the right to water, waste management, extending voting rights, abolishing roaming fees (for mobile phones), guaranteeing animal protection (against testing), banning research on human embryonic stem cells, increasing exchange programs for students, climate change and, last but not least, a central online collection platform for ECIs themselves (more information on the registered ECIs click here).

But for all the optimistic pre-implementation debates about the ECI’s potential to contribute to the creation of a European public sphere, the EU’s new democracy instrument has gotten off to a difficult start. In the first six months there is only one ECI, the so-called right to water ECI, that has actually begun campaigning and collecting signatures. Why is this? The software set up for electronic signature gathering did not work in practice and ECI organizers had troubles with the required server (more info on current problems with the software). As a result, almost all the initiative campaigns have struggled, and since “old-fashioned” signature collection on paper is more costly than online collections, ECI organizers haven’t even started, another one has withdrawn .

The Commission has acknowledged the problem and decided to let initiative organizers use the Commission’s own servers to set up electronic signature gathering systems. It has also extended the one-year limit for gathering signatures to assist the ECIs which had initial problems. Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič explains: “During these early stages of what is, after all, the biggest ever experiment in transnational participatory democracy, the Commission is absolutely determined to make sure that organisers of the first ECIs face no insurmountable stumbling blocks. Since some organisers struggled to find suitable host providers on the market for collecting signatures online, the Commission will offer its own servers to them as a hosting environment.”

But there are still further severe hurdles that will make it difficult for European Citizens to campaign for and run a successful ECI. 18 member states 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.  Another problem is that the Commission has decided that it will not register ECIs which propose amendments to EU treaties. This has recently led to the rejection of several ECIs from the start, including issues like Atomic Energy, a Basic Income, Esperanto and the European anthem. As the Commission itself is entitled to propose amendments to treaties, it should also be possible to launch initiatives which relate to treaty amendments.

Last but not least, the ECI challenges are connected to the nature of transnational democracy itself. Huge geographic distances in the EU make it difficult and expensive for citizens to meet and plan their actions. More than 20 official languages make it difficult to communicate across borders and the absence of a strong common public space makes it almost impossible to make one’s voice heard Europe-wide through the media. It will therefore be vital to provide adequate practical support to ECI organisers. They should have access to free and comprehensive information on how to conduct an ECI, legal advice and translation assistance, as is the case for citizens’ initiatives in Switzerland, for example.

Clearly there are still significant challenges to be overcome by all stakeholders before this new instrument becomes workable. Responsibility lies especially with the EU institutions, but also with ECI organizers, the media and those who are working on European citizenship education and democracy building. Given the potential inherent in the ECI for more democracy in Europe all-round commitment is needed. The investment would bring a healthy return. Even when it comes to the very basic task of making Europeans aware of the new right we are still at the very beginning of this experiment in participatory democracy at the European level.

This article of Carsten Berg, general coordinator of the ECI Campaign, was first published in the NECE Newsletter (Networking European Citizenship Education) of  the German Federal Agency for Political Education.