Interview: German Authorities plan to apply fair methods for validating ECI signatures

2013-05-30 News

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) “Water is a human right” recently announced that it had succeeded in collecting more than 1.5 million “statements of support” from more than seven EU Member States, and in sufficient numbers per country. It is thus expected to become the first ever ECI in history that will meet the official criteria. It was against this background that we sought an interview with Mr. Minrath and Mr. Schmitz of the Federal Office of Administration (BVA), which is responsible in Germany for checking the statements of support. As the authorities have, in principle, a certain room for manoeuvre in terms of the severity of their checks, it seemed to us important to find out how ‘citizen-friendly’ the German authorities are in relation to the ECI.

ECI Campaign: Sirs, you will soon be faced with a quite special task in the context of the ECI procedure. In Germany alone, 1.2 million statements of support for the “Water is a human right” ECI were collected. Can you tell us exactly what you have to do with them?Mr. Minrath: Our main task arises from the EU Regulation and also from the German ECI law: coordinating the checking of the statements of support and issuing a certificate on the number of valid statements. In order to do so we must determine the percentage error i.e. the rate of invalid statements. So we check on possible errors, for example, whether anyone has given more than one statement or has signed on behalf of others without them knowing. Of course, this way of checking is not 100% reliable – but it is to a very high degree. At the end of the 90 day checking period we send the certificate to the initiative and finally destroy and delete the statements.

ECI Campaign: It’s important for ECI organisers to be able to estimate the number of signatures which are likely to be invalid. We recommend that they collect 15% more than the requirement, to compensate for any invalid signatures. Do you already have an estimate of the invalidity rate?

Mr. Minrath: No. The advice to the current ECIs – not to stick closely to the prescribed number of signatures, but to continue collecting beyond that, to be on the safe side – is good.

ECI Campaign: Do you compare the online and paper statements? Do you not expect the invalidity rates to differ?

Mr. Minrath: No.

ECI Campaign: With the online statements there isn’t the problem of illegibility or incompleteness ..

Mr. Minrath: In practice, we will take more trouble over the paper statements. But since our approach is a sympathetic one, we don’t expect any great differences here.

ECI Campaign: During the negotiations over the ECI implementation law in Germany we and our partners we argued strongly for a softening of excessively restrictive rules (see here). So it is our understanding that a statement is not automatically invalidated as soon as one piece of information is illegible or incomplete. How far does your goodwill extend in practice?

Mr. Minrath: Well, we are in principle accommodating – and it has even been agreed with the EU Commission and the Interior Ministry that where there is some doubt we would not apply excessively strict criteria, but rather somewhat gentler ones. If someone gives their postcode, but forgets to name their town – because they think that the postcode is sufficient – then we can live with that; just as we can live with someone forgetting to enter their house number – as long as we can positively identify the person by checking with the local residents’ registration offices.

ECI Campaign: ECI organisers are reporting that many citizens are forgetting to enter certain information in other boxes – like the place and date of birth. Can a person still be identified in such cases?

Mr. Minrath: Depending on the individual case, that’s still possible. On the other hand, we don’t really have the experience yet. At the moment, the organisational structure is as follows: we have a number of staff members who are involved in checking the statements. Several of them are responsible for inputting the data, and behind them is a person whose job it is to make a decision in those cases where there is doubt. Ultimately what we are dealing with here is a random sample. We’re bound in this by §4 of the German ECI law, which lists eight criteria for validity – such as the minimum age of 18 and the 12-month time allowance for collecting signatures.

Then we get into a grey area which puts us under greater pressure – such as when the statement is illegible or incomplete. In such cases we will be very open and try as much as possible not to reject the statement. Basically, we are trying to be as flexible as possible. On the other hand, we might reasonably expect a supporter of an ECI to take the trouble – and the small amount of time – to fill in the statement form fully and legibly. While it takes an individual supporter only a few minutes to fill in the form carefully, if there are problems with a lot of forms both we and the reporting authorities can incur a lot of staff time and expense. So in order to deal with an ECI from an organisational point of view our basically accommodating attitude needs to be matched by care on the part of the supporters.

ECI Campaign: Can signature collectors print data input boxes also on the back of the signature forms? And is it then sufficient just to have the ECI title and its registration number at the top of the page?

Mr. Minrath: Yes, that’s OK.

ECI Campaign: ECI organisers are reporting that they are receiving statements by email which have been scanned. Is that ok?

Mr. Minrath: Yes, we have to deal with those, even if we don’t like it.

ECI Campaign: We think the signature form is still overloaded. For example, the address field in the paper form asks signatories to state their country. But the country name is already included in the text at the top of the form. This confuses a lot of people. ECI organisers are telling us that many people are not entering the name of the country in the box. Does this make the signature invalid in your view?

Mr. Minrath: No.

ECI Campaign: How neat the signature has to be can’t be clearly defined. The main thing appears to be legibility – but that depends on who is reading it.

Mr. Minrath: Our appeal to the ECIs – for both our sakes – would be to complete the forms in as optically perfect a way as possible. It’s in everyone’s interest that we don’t have to take a magnifying glass to the form, or have to spend too much time thinking about it. We want to be finished within the legally allotted time frame.

Mr. Schmitz: You are familiar with Annex III and with the signature form proposed for Germany by the Commission. In our view, that proposal leads to problems in filling in the statements of support. In consultation with the Commission and the Federal Interior Ministry, therefore, we developed a form that incorporates the criteria of the Commission and the law, but which makes it easier to enter the data. In doing so, we were thinking of the future use of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) software, which can make it possible for our technical applications to read handwritten data and upload it.

ECI Campaign: Will it be possible for ECI organisers to see exactly how the validation process was carried out – i.e. to see the relevant signature lists with the notes and comments?

Mr. Minrath: That has not been planned.

ECI Campaign: What measures, in your view, should ECI organisers take to ensure that they lose as few signatures as possible on formal grounds?

Mr. Minrath: They can have a look at our website and we are always available to speak to if necessary. That’s why we have already let the current ECIs know that the BVA is the place to come if they have any queries.

ECI Campaign: What’s the situation in other countries? Do you exchange information on the checking procedure? It seems that other Member States are not yet ready to check signatures.

Mr. Minrath: Yes, we meet on an irregular basis every few months or so in Brussels to coordinate specific issues. Our last meeting was in March. At the beginning of January we had a meeting to which people from all the different countries were invited to the German Federal Office of Administration.

ECI Campaign: Is it true that you have developed specific software for checking the statements of support which can also be used in every other EU Member State?

Mr. Minrath: Yes.

ECI Campaign:  The main complaints at the moment from the ECIs have to do with the implementation of the online collection system and its software, which is not functioning properly. This also led to the Commission extending the time allowed for collection to the first ECIs. As your authority has already developed checking software that can be used EU-wide, couldn’t Germany also develop an efficient online collection system that could be made available for the whole EU?

Mr. Minrath: As far as we are aware, the initial problems have now been resolved and the online collection systems are now predominantly fault-free. In addition, the systems are being modified and improved by the Commission in line with the reports, recommendations and fault notifications which the Commission is receiving. So there doesn’t appear to be a need for a new system to be developed. And there are, of course, also economic reasons for not going down that road.

ECI Campaign: Has a procedure already been thought of for reforming the internal processes with the aim of providing a new and improved basis for the legislation?

Mr. Minrath: Yes, but we haven’t begun it yet, because we first have to gain experience of the current system. But in the light of this experience, consideration will be given – in 2015 – as to how we can simplify the procedures and improve them. The ECI Regulation provides for the Commission to report to the European Parliament and the Council on the way the Regulation has been applied.

ECI Campaign: In connection with the signature check, the ECI organisers – in an extreme case – have to contact up to 27 different national authorities to get a certificate on the number of valid signatures. That costs ECI organisers an enormous amount of time and money – which deprives them of valuable resources. In Thuringia, a move has been made to make things easier for the citizens’ initiative organizers by making it possible for them to send their collected statements of support to a single central collection point, which then coordinates the checking by the various local authorities. Would it not be possible to propose such a simplified collection and checking procedure for the entire EU?

Mr. Schmitz: That’s definitely not within the powers of the BVA.

ECI Campaign: Sure, but we mean in principle – from a technical-administrative perspective – on the assumption that the political will for such a move would be there. Are there any insurmountable obstacles to implementing such a system?

Mr. Schmitz: I will have to enquire. Are you thinking of a single EU centre to which all ECIs would send their statements?

ECI Campaign: I think it’s an illusory idea at the moment – but it would be an option.

Mr. Minrath: At the moment the EU Regulation and national law specify that the checks have to take place in the relevant Member States. That makes sense, because the data required to carry out the checks exists only in the individual Member States – though in a great variety of different places and in relation to differing procedures. For that reason I find the suggestion rather far-fetched – at the moment.

ECI Campaign: But if it was only a matter of central coordination, for example? The reporting system in Germany is enormously decentralised, with around 5,200 reporting centres (population registries). It might be sufficient to have one coordination centre – such as in Thuringia – which then passed the statements on to the relevant local reporting centres.

Mr. Schmitz: We are doing that at the federal level in Germany as part of the processing of ECIs.

ECI Campaign: That’s great. Would it not make sense from the point of view of the ECIs to have an analogous procedure at the EU level – without necessarily having a central reporting authority as the German case shows?

Mr. Schmitz: That’s not up for debate at the moment.

ECI Campaign: ECI organisers have to carryout the collection process based on 27 different sets of legal provisions (for validation and appeals), which in the extreme case would have to be decided upon by 27 different court systems. Can you understand that this is very confusing for ECIs?

Mr. Schmitz: Yes, we can appreciate that – but we can’t change it.

ECI Campaign: Do you see any chance of the different legal provisions being simplified?

Mr. Schmitz: That isn’t relevant at this point for us in the BVA. It’s not our job. I think it would be important here for the initiatives to join forces and make a clear statement of the problems as they see them. But ultimately the issue can only be resolved at the EU level by the bodies which are responsible for it.

ECI Campaign: What about the need to simplify the signature form?

Mr. Schmitz: We can appreciate that many people see this signature form as a rather unwieldy instrument. We have to continue to communicate at national and EU levels and – in the light of the experience which have still to gain – clarify what is redundant and can be dispensed with. We have the opportunity – from now till 2015 – to identify and collate the issues and then consider redesigning the procedure.

ECI Campaign: Do you think that the ECI checking procedure could be relevant in the future also for direct-democratic procedures in Germany i.e. initiative rights which can trigger a referendum? (In Brandenburg, for example, there is a debate about introducing online procedures as well).

Mr. Minrath: If federal citizens’ initiatives become possible, and if a similar verification process were to be chosen, the software developed by the BVA could be used. But the system developed by the Commission could also be used for a possible future online collection system. The question of who would be responsible for the cost of any upgrades and who would operate (host) the collection system would of course need to be resolved.

ECI Campaign: Is there anything else you would like to say in relation to the short term?

Mr. Minrath: The bottom line would be that it’s important to say in conclusion: Firstly, we’re very much oriented towards the citizens here and we want to use our discretionary room for manoeuvre. Secondly, because we are citizen-centred and service-oriented, we are very interested in making contact with ECIs. We are proud of having developed the checking software in a very short time and that we managed to prepare ourselves – also in a very short time in organisational terms – for the great flood of support statements. We will cope with that in the 3-month period granted us – there’s no question about that – and the topic has high priority for the BVA. And as our authority is positioning itself increasingly internationally i.e. especially in relation to the EU – it’s a core concern of the BVA to tackle this issue well, sensibly and professionally.

ECI Campaign: Many thanks for talking to us.

The ECI Campaign was represented by Carsten Berg and Elias Bühring in the direct meeting and by Paul Carline who has translated the interview into English. Further information about the ECI can be found on the BVA website.