First ECI withdrawn

July 20, 2012 News

For the first time an ECI has been withdrawn. Please find their letter which was sent to the European Commission explaining the reasons behind this difficult decision:

Date: 20 July 2012

To: European Commission

European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) Unit

Subject: Withdrawal of the EU Directive on Dairy Cow Welfare (ECI(2012)000004)

Dear European Citizens’ Initiative representatives,

Further to recent communications, we regret to inform you of our decision to withdraw the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on the EU Directive on Dairy Cow Welfare.

This decision has not been taken lightly but after long consideration we feel that the ECI, in its current format, presents too many risks for the organisers and the supporting organisations, as it is not yet fit for purpose.

Before detailing the reasons for our withdrawal we would like to make it clear that we hope to resubmit an ECI on the same issue in the future, once the risks have been minimised and the ECI is a workable tool. We still believe that in principle, the ECI is a strong instrument for European citizens to have a say in EU laws.

We also remain at the European Commission’s disposal to discuss further the problems encountered, should our experience be useful to improve the mechanism.

The biggest challenge of the ECI we have encountered is overcoming the data protection risks given the high level of personal data that is required for both on-line and paper signature collection. As you know this risk factor is the main cause of the issues with the software implementation, but you may be less aware that this is also a huge obstacle to the paper collection too.

Implementing the ECI: signature collection hindered by unforeseen issues
When we first decided to apply for a European Citizens’ Initiative in 2011 we knew that getting one million signatures in just one year was going to be a challenge, but one we all agreed could be achieved with the support of other NGOS across Europe and significant hard work and budgetary commitment from the three sponsoring organisations. From the ECI conference held in January, we understood that there were areas still to be ironed out, particularly around verification processes but we trusted the mechanism would be manageable.

When we submitted the application in April 2012 we did not realise the extent of the problems that we would encounter and the challenges to the feasibility of gathering one million signatures across the EU within the organisational constraints that have since become apparent. These issues have already delayed our campaign and will seriously hinder any chance of achieving the goal and could cost us unprecedented expense.

Online signature collection

On 29 May, three weeks after our ECI was approved to collect signatures, we filed a complaint letter about the software problems, which are now well known to the Commission. The EC responded by inviting us along with other ECI organisers to discuss the ECI issues further on 16 June 2012 with DIGIT, SG and HR Commission departments and has since responded with a letter on 12 July outlining proposed support and extension.

Whilst we value the support given by the European Commission to overcome the problems encountered with the ECI it still remains unworkable for us.

The ongoing delays have for us been costly and problematic. We have undertaken a huge amount of work in trying to find solutions and the two options open – working with the Commission on implementing and hosting the software, or employing More Onion, the only ECI web developer accredited by the EC so far to collect online signatures would certainly entail further delay to our campaign. Added to this we know the system has never been tested before so its reliability and functionalities in a live situation are untested. With supporters and offices across Europe eager to start the campaign in earnest, we simply cannot risk further delay – or further cost of charitable funds on this unknown tool.

Paper signature collection

Until our ECI was approved we were unable to submit the paper forms for approval. Originally, we planned to largely collect paper signatures in a single signature postcard style form, which would be sent directly to our offices or presented to one of our staff or trained volunteers. This would have also been branded and given more information about the issue of dairy cows in order to motivate and inspire the citizen into signing the form. This form however was refused by the EC who, following at least eight different attempts, have made it clear they will only approve the template form proposed by the ECI. This form collects 10 signatures and has no reference, branding or detail about the sponsoring organisations, which greatly reduces the appeal for people to sign.

In addition to the format of the paper form, the level of sensitive personal data required exposes citizens to identify theft and fraud and leaves the ECI organisers liable for fines (in Germany the possible fine is 300,000 Euros) if data is not protected at every stage of the campaign.

This completely changes how we planned to collect signatures offline and puts us at huge data protection risk and potentially endless expense. The costs associated with ensuring thorough data protection measures are put in place to prevent or limit the risk of security breach of personal data collected on paper petitions could run into huge figures and a complex logistic operation would be needed across all 27 member states to protect data. It is not enough that the EC will protect the data once submitted at the end of the 12 month period the level of information needed changes all traditional forms of petition signature collecting.

We also have reason to believe that there could be difficulties with the verifying authorities as not all have made their intentions clear. The UK for example told us that they are considering writing by post to verify all signatures – at further cost to the organisers and risk of reduced numbers.

To conclude, we have undertaken extensive feasibility assessments, and come to the conclusion that the ECI as it stands today does not seem ready to collect one million signatures safely or at reasonable costs for organisers. In light of the strict data protection requirements, of the unavailability of a free online software and of the limitation imposed on the paper form to collect signatures, we believe that ECI might not yet be the most effective mechanism to achieve our campaign’s objective which is to improve the welfare standards of European 23 Million dairy cows.

In addition to the promises made to improve the software and support existing ECI in implementation and hosting we believe the European Commission should seriously consider revising the data required. Many similar democratic tools are in existence across Europe, including the EU petition and many member states own government petition sites. None of these require the combination of personal data that carries such heavy risks yet are successful advocacy tools. We will review the situation periodically and reserve the right to submit an ECI on dairy cow welfare in the future.

We would be very happy to discuss the issues outlined above if useful.

Yours sincerely,

Julie Middelkoop, Citizens’ Committee Sub