And the floor is…for your opponents! Including outside stakeholders in an ECI’s hearing is an insult to campaigners.

May 14, 2015 News

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To promote open debate on reforming the ECI, The ECI Campaign occasionally shares guest blogs from various thinkers. Here Heike Aghte, organiser of the ECI “30 km/h – making streets liveable”, critiques a proposal to include an ECI’s opponents in its public hearing. She asserts that this eliminates a major reward of using the ECI and so will reduce its appeal. Furthermore, the Commission has sufficient time and opportunity to consult diverse stakeholders via traditional processes, such as online consultations, prior to issuing their formal response to an ECI.    

We know that the ECI does not yet work very well. The Commission recently published a report on its implementation admitting as much. The European Parliament and Council are now discussing how to respond. MEPs will vote on their opinion in September. As the AFCO and PETI committees explore reform ideas, one proposal tucked into the end of the Commission’s report is generating much interest.

In this proposal, the Commission suggests also listening to opinions other than those put forth by an ECI’s organisers during the ECI’s public hearing. The reason given is that the Commission must decide within three months how it will react to the ECI. It can propose legislation, do something else or do nothing. This decision must be justified in detail and the Commission claims it’s under time pressure. Sounds reasonable, but is it really?

A successful ECI appears about as suddenly and unpredictably as Christmas Eve. Organisers announce their ECI to the Commission 18 months prior to any hearing. First, the Commission takes two months to perform a legal admissibility check. Then, during 12 months of signature collection it can easily check how much support the ECI is gathering on the online collection system it hosts. Finally, several more months go by while signatures are verified by national authorities. Where is the time pressure? The Commission has plenty of time to identify which ECIs are likely to succeed and prepare well-balanced opinions in advance.

Ask former ECI campaigners what they think of this proposal and you are likely to hear “are you serious?” or even “don´t you feel ashamed Commissioner?”

Each ECI can involve hundreds of people working for sometimes many years to build networks and prepare a campaign that covers the entire EU. It engages legal advisors, IT experts, media professionals and volunteers who collect signatures, lead discussions and overcome administrative hurdles. It requires raising masses of money because ECI campaigns are expensive. Fewer than 10% ever succeed. Imagine an ECI’s organisers finally getting their well-deserved hearing in the Parliament, where they can present their issue….only to share their precious time with their opponents who did nothing. Why would anyone work that hard to create a grand entrance for their enemies?

Consider what topics ECIs have addressed so far: water privatisation (“Right to Water”), environmental destruction (“End Ecocide”), animal welfare (“Stop Vivisection”), economic security (“Unconditional Basic Income”), street safety (“30 km, making streets liveable”) and so on. What kinds of groups might oppose such ECIs and benefit most from getting free tickets to speak? Primarily, powerful interests already present in Brussels. Including them only reinforces the status quo. This is not amusing.

One should concede that the idea of organising a well-balanced discussion is indeed an honourable goal. However, the Commission only needs to read its own website from time to time to be informed on up-coming issues and avoid time pressure. They could also make better use of article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty which suggests that EU institutions should organise stakeholder discussions and online consultations as appropriate instruments for participation. This could even be done while an ECI’s signature collection is taking place.

If I could tell Commissioner Timmermans, who is responsible for the ECI, one thing it would be: “please don’t forget that ECI’s organisers deserve special attention and real respect after having managed the difficult task of running a successful ECI campaign.”

Heike Aghte