ECI DAY 2018 – A SOBERING EXPERIENCE
What could have been a day to jointly celebrate the rebirth of the ECI, turned out to be an event during which the gap between citizens and ECI organisers, on the one hand, and the European institutions, on the other hand, was felt all the more real. If the EU institutions wish to have an ECI DAY in a different spirit next year, then it needs to demonstrate its will to make the ECI instrument more politically meaningful through actions and concrete results in the upcoming trilogue negotiations on the revision of the ECI regulation. What follows is a report from this sobering experience on April 11, 2018.
During last year’s ECI DAY, First Vice-President Frans Timmermans announced the long overdue revision of the ECI regulation, as we have already been demanding for several years, with increasing support from other EU bodies and the European Parliament in particular. Had the Commission suddenly seen the light and considered the importance of the ECI instrument for EU democracy, instead of seeing it as a threat that fosters Euroscepticism (as expressed in a Commission meeting in December 2015)? Clearly, this was an idle hope. The Commission’s proposal for ECI revision, as presented in September 2017, crucially failed to make improvements in the politically meaningful aspects of the regulation: the scope of the ECI and the follow-up on successful ECIs. In other words, and to use the Commission’s vocabulary: it was big on small things, and absent on big things.
Frans Timmermans used the 2018 edition of the ECI DAY to present the launch of the Commission’s communication campaign #EUTakeTheInitiative and the European Citizens’ Initiative Forum, an online platform for (potential) ECI organisers. Notwithstanding the increased efforts and activities aimed at making the instrument more known, accessible and easier to use, the Commission fails to pick up on the alarm signals sent repeatedly by former ECI organisers and civil society organisations. That is to say, it fails to recognise that without increasing its impact the ECI instrument cannot be sold – no matter how good the campaign or the speaker. Ultimately, the ECI must sell itself, because citizens sense and hear from others that this participatory instrument can make real difference. As put succinctly by Emily O’Reilly, the European Ombudsman, during the opening panel, “If the ECI continues, in the eyes of the citizens, to lack relevance and to lack a real impact, then it will really be simply a democratic decoration.”
In the afternoon, when all high-level officials had left the event to continue with their busy agendas, it was time for current and former ECI organisers to share their views on the ECI instrument, and in particular on how to maximise the impact of successful ECIs. The messages from representatives of successful ECIs Right2Water and Stop Glyphosate could not have been clearer: they are tired of – if not outright angry with – the Commission claiming to have responded positively to their ECIs. David Schwartz, coordinator of Stop Glyphosate ECI, argued that the only meaningful impact of their ECI has been on the national level in a number of Member States. “Our campaign was successful, but our ECI was not a success,” he said.
If the ECI is to have any future, the EU institutions need to start taking these alarm signals seriously, take their collective responsibility for this participatory instrument, and integrate structural changes and new institutional mechanisms in the follow-up to successful ECIs into the new regulation. Check out our 9 ways to improve the Commission’s proposal for concrete suggestions, as well as the recently published study by Bertelsmann Stiftung: ‘The ECI is largely unknown and hardly has any impact’. Furthermore, you can watch back the opening panel discussion of ECI DAY 2018 here.
PS. Was it only doom and gloom during the ECI DAY? Of course not. There were several interesting workshops with inspirational, forward-looking perspectives, including our workshop ‘Pioneering Participation: the reform of the ECI as a starting point for a more participatory European Union’, jointly organised with Bertelsmann Stiftung. Read our workshop report in the EESC event report (pp. 7-9).