Does EU really want to make citizen politics work? What is at stake during the final stages of EU talks on the legislative revision of the European Citizens' Initiative

2018-10-26 News

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is the world’s first and only instrument of transnational participatory democracy that is currently undergoing a much-needed revision. The EU institutions have arrived at the most critical stage of this revision process: the trilogues, , or three-way talks between the main EU bodies – the European Parliament, European Commission, and EU Council. The question that the EU negotiators need to ask themselves is: do we really want to make this instrument work or not? If their answer is ‘yes’, they need to get their priorities straight and heed the emergency call from 18 ECI and online campaigning experts: to preserve ECI organisers’ already existing and increasingly used right and freedom of choice for online collection tools. The ECI simply cannot afford a step backwards.

The ECI allows 1 million EU citizens from at least 7 member states to propose legislation to the European Commission. The ECI was hailed by the EU institutions as one of the key innovations of the Lisbon Treaty that would bring the EU closer to its citizens. In practice, however, the ECI is extremely difficult to use due to massive bureaucratic hurdles and legal flaws governing the ECI process. After a first wave of ECIs in 2013, the instrument was hardly used in 2015 and 2016 and remains at a low level use up until today. The legislative revision is a critical opportunity to blow new life into this instrument, but if the newly raised expectations are once again not met, it could be a fatal blow.

EU institutions currently negotiate in trilogue on how to reform the ECI. Surprisingly, the digital dimension of the ECI has become a key point of contention. The Council wants to ban the use of so-called ‘individual online collection systems’, which would leave future ECI organisers no choice but to use the Commission-run central online collection system. What may appear like a technical detail in fact has far-reaching implications for the future of the ECI. As argued by 18 ECI and online campaigning experts in an open letter to the EU institutions, banning individual online collection systems would “create uncertainty for future ECI organisers” and “undermine the ECI’s digital dimension.”

With 62% of the ECI signatures collected online, the question of how to go about online campaigning is a very important one. Only since September 2015 – and only after the many problems experienced with the Commission’s online collection system – ECI organisers have a real choice to make: the use of the free-of-charge Commission’s online collection system or an alternative software developed by ECI organisers and for ECI organisers, called ‘OpenECI’. While this alternative is still relatively new and unknown, and while it requires an extra financial investment by ECI organisers, it is currently used by 50% of the ECIs. Its effectiveness has been demonstrated by ECI Stop Glyphosate, which collected the necessary 1 million signatures in few than 5 months – a record. ‘OpenECI’ has not only been helpful for ECI organisers using the software, it has also given the Commission an incentive and a learning opportunity to further develop its own online collection software and services. On top of this, by not having to rely on a single centralised collection system, one spreads the risk of a possible system breakdown.

The Council opposes individual online collection systems because of “lack of proportionality and administrative burden in having several online collection systems.” The ‘administrative burden’ spoken of, is the result of Member States’ responsibility to certify online collection systems. While at present there seems to be no solid information on the exact administrative costs involved, one could have a sensible discussion on whether one can organise certification in a more cost-efficient manner. However, this should be kept separate from the discussion on whether or not to preserve ECI organisers’ right and freedom to use alternative collection tools.

This leaves us with the question of ‘proportionality’: while ‘Open ECI’ has given the Commission a free civil-society lesson on how to further develop its online collection system, the ECI costs the EU’s taxpayers nonetheless a significant amount of money. The question thus arises: is it all worth it? This is a question that ECI organisers ask themselves every day. From the EU institutions, we expect only one answer: if they are serious about building a Europe of and for citizens, then it is simply worth the investment, because it will pay off in the long run and the ECI is at present the only real vehicle for bottom-up change in Europe.

While it is difficult to foresee exactly how much damage a ban on individual online collection systems would cause, ECI and online campaigning experts are unified in their call to preserve this existing and increasingly used right and freedom of ECI organisers. If the EU institutions are equally serious about making transnational citizen participation work, they should realise that the ECI simply cannot afford any step backwards, and they should make this their priority during the negotiations.

This opinion piece is written by Carsten Berg (Director) and Maarten de Groot (Campaign Coordinator) on behalf of The ECI Campaign. It is originally published on the EUObserver.