What Future for the ECI in 2017?

January 29, 2017 News

2016 was a very difficult year for the ECI and democracy in Europe. By the end of 2016 we had reached a disappointing record low level of only two ongoing ECIs (see graph), both of which still have relatively low traction. For an our overview of all ECIs launched click here. For three years we haven’t seen any successful ECI. And until today no direct legislative proposal has followed after the three successful ECIs. At the same time the European Comission declared the ECI as a potential threat to the Euorpean project. What went wrong? Does this indicate the slow decline, or irrelevance of the ECI instrument – the world’s first element of transnational participatory and digital democracy? We should be alarmed. This short article by Carsten Berg explains the reasons for the low ECI usage and explores potential future developments.

For 2016 European citizens, and in particular future ECI organizers, had expected the European Commission to make the extremely burdensome and bureaucratic ECI rules user-friendly, in order to attract more initiatives. Many citizens had been waiting precisely for this to happen before launching such an enormously challenging enterprise as running a one-million ECI. In fact, we had been optimistic about reaching this goal in 2016, after having campaigned hard for this over several previous years. Our clear and evidence-based campaign call for reform raised high hopes for changes to Regulation 211/2011 implementing the ECI, in particular after we were able to convince the European Parliament – which had overwhelmingly approved a resolution asking the Commission to make the ECI more user-friendly.
Those hopes were disappointed in early 2016, however, during an ECI hearing at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), when a Commission representative made it clear that the ECI Regulation would not be revised in 2016. This came on the heels of the release of minutes of the College of Commissioners’ meeting, in which Commissioners described the ECI as a potentially dangerous tool which threatens European unity and needs to be restricted. We immediately addressed this in a public Euractive article which was broadly appreciated in the ECI community and beyond. We received equally full support from the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, who spoke at the “ECI DAY” event in April 2016. She declared the ECI to be in a dangerous “existential crisis” due to the European Commission’s unfair and non-supportive attitude towards citizen participation in Europe.

Over 2016 we increased public attention on this unresolved problem and co-organized a large petition to “Save the ECI”, with more than 40,875 supporters from across Europe, whose signatures were submitted directly to the Commission. As in past years, the Commission staffers remained very friendly (see the Secretariat General’s response to our petition here). But the political decision-maker primarily responsible, Commissioner Frans Timmermans, has remained completely silent on the ECI in public for nearly two years now, which makes the current situation so challenging and for many so desperate.

European citizens are in a difficult situation. While many citizens had been waiting for ECI reform, they now feel forced to use an unreformed ECI instrument simply because there is virtually no alternative to the ECI instrument at EU level – and because their many political issues can no longer wait. This means that we can expect more registered ECIs in 2017 than in 2016. In fact, many of them are currently looking into using our openECI online collection software.

How are we to proceed in 2017 in The ECI Campaign, the initiative to improve the ECI? It is worth remembering that the next official review “of the application of the ECI” will be conducted in 15 months’ time, by early 2018. The EC usually only revises implemented regulations after five years at the earliest, which explains in part its reluctance to act so far. It is therefore important to continue making our voices heard and to communicate our evidence-based reform proposals in 2017/18, as this review is likely to produce deeper consequences for ECI reform and development. Let’s continue our long marathon for a more democratic and participatory Europe!