For “An ECI That Works”, listen to the people who’ve used it!

2013-12-16 News

“We all encounter the same challenges, the same problems.” – Prisca Merz, ECI End Ecocide in Europe

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is nearing its two year anniversary. The first ten ECI campaigns have completed their 12 month signature collection period. These and other pioneering ECI campaigns have amassed a wealth of practical experience that can now be used to assess and then improve the ECI. To learn from their experiences, The ECI Campaign convened a full-day workshop entitled “An ECI that Works!” on 5 December 2013 in Brussels. It was co-hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee and supported by Citizens for Europe.

The practical experiences of organisers of ECI campaigns were at the heart of this workshop. They were complemented by equally valuable reflections by EU officials, advisors, lawyers, IT experts and academics. Real-world experience gave their voices strength and credibility. They, better than anyone else, know how the ECI works and to what extent it needs urgent improvement.

In her excellent summary of the workshop, Prisca Merz from the ECI End Ecocide in Europe noted how all campaigns faced similar barriers, whether they were well-resourced initiatives like Right2Water which collected 1.8 million signatures or all-volunteer efforts such as her own End Ecocide, which has collected an impressive 80,000 signatures with next to no funding.

Representatives from all ECI campaigns noted significant weaknesses in the ECI implementing rules and experienced substantial problems with ECI support tools, such as the online signature collection software (OCS). Below is a brief overview of some of the most common suggestions expressed at the workshop.

Simplify and harmonise ECI processes

Ana del Pino from ECI One of Us and Jan Willem Goudrian from ECI Right2Water, the first successful ECIs, which have each collected nearly two million signatures, both underlined the need for a radical simplification and harmonisation of the ECI rules. The ECI procedures are overly bureaucratic and burdensome, even for ECI organisers with a strong organisational infrastructure such as theirs.

Harmonise data requirements across countries

Each EU member state requires different personal data from ECI supporters. This means campaigns must create 28 different signature forms and submit signatures for verification to 28 different national authorities, instead of to a single collection point. In addition, transfer of personal data from ECI signatories has raised data security concerns. For instance, several national authorities have provided no means for safe transfer of online data, such as security “keys”.

Eliminate ID number requirements

Nearly all ECI organisers reported that requirements for ID numbers, as well as for birth dates and places, have raised serious privacy concerns and deterred many citizens from supporting an ECI. For example, Prisca Merz of the ECI End Ecocide said 80% of potential supporters from France failed to complete the ECI support form, probably for this reason. The European Data Protection Supervisor explicitly determined that ID card numbers were not necessary for the ECI. Yet, 18 member states still require them.

Ensure that all EU citizens can support an ECI

While the ECI is a legal right of EU citizenship, millions of EU citizens who live outside their country of nationality have been denied this right. This is due to 28 different sets of national rules governing who can sign an ECI and what personal data they must give. In some countries it is based on nationality, in others on residence. Susanne Kendler of the ECI Let me Vote, whose target audience is expatriated EU citizens, noted that this lack of consistency has severely hindered their campaign.

In addition, some suggested that all EU citizens should be allowed to support an ECI starting at age 16, which now is only possible in Austria. Furthermore, technical problems have made it impossible for many people with disabilities to support an ECI.

Redesign the online signature collection system (OCS)

Significant and persistent online signature collection system (OCS) glitches have led to the loss of months of signature collection time, tens of thousands of signatures of support and limited campaign funds for many ECI campaign. It was perhaps the single greatest problem cited consistently by every ECI campaign present.

According to Ana Del Pino, problems with online signature collection led the ECI One of Us to rely on paper signature collection. Due to their unusually extensive and committed volunteer networks, they were able to collect more than 1.2 million signatures on paper. Most other campaigns have lacked the significant human or financial resources necessary to do this and have been forced to rely instead on the deeply flawed EU online signature collection system.

Xavier Dutoit, the IT expert behind the successful ECI Right2Water, said that the current OCS is so defective that it needs to be scrapped and rebuilt from scratch. Despite two years of repeated requests from ECI campaigns to the Commission to make it more user-friendly, such as modifying the restrictive “captcha”, improvements have been minimal.

Collect e-mail address within ECI support form

Every campaign insisted on the need to collect supporters’ contact information, especially email addresses, in order to inform them of their ECI’s progress. For practical reasons, this must be done within the ECI support statement. Eli Daphi noted that when the ECI Act 4 Growth collected email addresses on their campaign website, people thought they had supported the ECI and never actually filled out the official ECI support form! Significantly, Right2Water collected 1.8 million signatures of support for their ECI, but only 20,000 emails of supporters. Despite Commission claims that it cannot legally collect email addresses, IT expert Xavier Dutoit insists that this is technically possible while also respecting data protection rules.

Lengthen the signature collection time to 18 months

Although the ECI Right2Water did manage to collect over one million signatures in 12 months, its head Jan Willem Goudrian insisted that this time period was far too short for most ECIs and recommended lengthening it to at least 18 months. A longer collection period would also allow small organisations to sponsor ECIs and encourage ECIs on important topics that are not yet widely known. ECIs on complex or nuanced topics, such as 30 km/h – Making Streets Liveable, Fraternité 2020 and High Quality European Education for All, found they needed more time than other ECIs just to explain their goals. However, once understood, their messages were well-received.

In addition, all campaigns had to take time to explain what the ECI tool itself was, in addition to the topic of their ECI. This is because awareness of the ECI among both the public and mainstream media is still practically non-existent.

Give ECI organisers time after registration to prepare their campaigns

Right now, the 12 month signature collection period begins the day an ECI is registered. According to Stanislas Jourdan from ECI for a Unconditional Basic Income, organisers need much more time between when their ECI is registered and the start of signature collection to prepare their campaigns. The official launch day for an ECI is a key day for attracting media coverage and mobilising supporters and must be carefully planned.

Heike Aghte from ECI 30kmh – making streets liveable! described their registration/launch day this way:

“(In one single day) We had to wait for the EC admission message first, and then we got access to the software and had to immediately inform all partners about the EC admission, get the OCS up and running (without any opportunity for test runs), finalise 27 different forms for people who wish to sign on print-outs and upload them on our website (with 13 sub-sites in different language versions), register additional language versions of the ECI text in order to get them validated by the EC, publish media release, answer journalists and start social media work.”

Provide a support infrastructure for ECIs – legal advice, translation, funding

Takis Anastopoulos from ECI Don’t count Education as part of the Deficit reports how challenging it was to formulate their ECI proposal. An official ECI support infrastructure offering practical and legal advice, as well as translation services for ECI texts, would have been helpful.

Lorenzo Massili from the ECI for Media Pluralism explains that the ECI, as a democratic tool, is a public good requiring public financial support — just like European Parliament elections. Partial reimbursement of the costs for ECIs should therefore be provided. This is the case for national citizens’ initiatives in countries such as Italy. He also appealed to European foundations to contribute to ECI campaigns.

Provide an EU legal status for ECI citizens’ committees

An ECI can only be launched by seven individual EU citizens. However, this structure creates multiple problems for both raising funds and personal liability. Leticia Biendo-Becerra of the ECI Fraternité 2020 noted that their citizen committee members were horrified to discover they were each personally legally liable for the campaign’s actions. Citizens’ committees lack a legal basis for even doing something as simple as opening a bank account.

Revisit the first legal admissibility check

Nearly 40% of ECIs that have tried to register have been refused, all for being “manifestly outside the Commission’s competence”. James Organ, University of Liverpool, examined these ECI’s rejection letters and found admissibility decisions to be inconsistent and in some cases unreasonably restrictive. Furthermore, rejected ECIs have not been provided any legal guidance to reformulate their requests, as should be the case.

Mr. Organ also considers that the Commission has interpreted article 48.2 (TEU), which allows the Commission to submit a proposal for treaty revision to the Council, too strictly. If the Commission can do this on its own, it is logical that citizens should be able to ask the Commission to do so via an ECI. The ECI Let me Vote, which was accepted for registration, is de-facto asking for a treaty revision by extending the rights of EU citizenship to voting in national elections. Why not others?

Importantly, Mr. Organ noted that the ECIs’ two legal checks (first at registration and again after signatures have been verified) are weakening the ECI both as an instrument of public debate and a tool for legal impact. If the ECI is to function effectively as an agenda-setting and public debate tool, he suggested considering eliminating the first legal check.

EU Institutions’ first reactions were open and positive

EU officials present seemed very open to and potentially supportive of many of the proposals of ECI organizers. Olivia De Lasteyrie, assistant to MEP Alain Lamassoure, stated that the European Parliament will listen carefully to ECI organisers’ experiences. The Parliament has, in fact, already begun to discuss the subject. Furthermore, 75 MEPs have asked the Commission and member states to urgently improve the ECI.

Mario Tenreiro from the European Commissions’ General Secretariat understood many of the problems raised by the ECI organisers. He indicated that there are several things that can be done immediately by member states, such as giving citizens now unable to support ECIs (i.e., EU citizens living outside their country of nationality) the chance to sign. This has happened in Luxembourg and the Netherlands. He also agreed on the need for extra time between registration and start of signature collection. However, this can only be fixed via a joint Council-Parliament decision on the regulation in 2015.

Next steps for ECI reform

It was heartening to observe ECI organisers who have nearly completed their own ECI campaigns continue to care about and actively contribute to the development of this new democratic instrument. Clearly they believe not only in the topic of their own ECI, but also the importance of citizen involvement to the democratic future of the EU.

After identifying needed improvements to the ECI, many of which echoed earlier ECI Campaign proposals, participants briefly explored how to implement them. While some suggested changes can be made by administrative or national decision, most will require a revision of the ECI regulation, planned for early 2015. A few will need a treaty change to article 11.4. First steps in promoting reform of the ECI include contacting the European Ombudsman and sending an open letter to the presidents of the European Commission, Council and Parliament.

This workshop was, however, only the beginning. The ECI Campaign is currently compiling an extensive “An ECI That Works!” companion publication detailing the recommendations of ECI campaigns, EU officials and experts in EU law, online campaigning and democracy. It will be made available at the ECI Day on 15 April 2014 in Brussels organised by the European Economic and Social Committee: the most important large-scale ECI event in 2014. Our hope is that the guidance it contains will help EU and national decision-makers and democracy advocates together create an ECI that works for all EU citizens!

Photo: Prisca Merz. The red stickers at the wall are “problems”, yellow “opportunities”, green “helpful tools” and blue “required changes” – summary at end of the workshop “An ECI that Works!”.