Rays of Hope at ECI Day 2015

2015-04-14 News

ECI advocates wishing to build momentum for deep and meaningful reform of the ECI were disappointed by the conservative tone of ECI Day 2015 held on 13 April 2015 at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels. Discussion focused on providing better legal guidance to ECI organisers, more practical support and improved public communication. There were nonetheless a few bright spots and promising ideas – most notably the EESC’s pledge to provide free translation to ECI organisers of their texts into all 23 official EU languages.

EESC President Henri Malosse opened the conference on a hopeful note by committing to make the ECI a success. He stated that “the ECI is not a gadget” and is in fact a vital tool to strengthen the relationship between citizens and EU institutions. He said that the future of the European project is at stake and offered multiple suggestions to improve the ECI. One idea was for the EESC to provide an advisory opinion on an ECI’s demands, even for ECIs that collect less than one million signatures.

Commissioner Frans Timmermans said that “we can’t be satisfied with the ECI as it is today”. He reiterated technical challenges outlined in the Commission’s report on the ECI – e.g., legal personality for the citizens’ committee, timelines, OCS hosting, exclusion of expatriated EU citizens. He repeatedly emphasised the Commission’s role as “guardians of the treaties” and expressed regret that this limits the scope both of ECIs’ topics and the Commission’s response to successful ECIs. Although he said that modifying the ECI Regulation could be an option, he gave no indication of its likelihood.

Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly focused on the need for the Commission to take successful ECIs seriously and make registration decisions transparent. She emphasised the value of the ECI’s public debate and suggested including stakeholders both for and against an ECI. She also recommended better enforcement of disclosure of an ECI’s funding and sponsorship. She stopped short of suggesting reform of the ECI Regulation and instead concentrated on providing ECI organisers with better information on the scope of the EU’s powers.

Representatives of three ECI campaigns shared their experiences: Adriano Varrica of Stop Vivisection, Madi Sharma of Act 4 Growth and Chantal Cutajar of An End to Front Companies. They described the numerous problems faced by all ECI users – e.g., citizens’ reluctance to share ID numbers, challenges of EU-wide campaigning, minimal public awareness of the ECI and frustration with the ECI’s limited impact relative to the tremendous effort required to succeed. All three expressed their support for the open letter to the European Commission signed by 21 ECI campaigns calling for deep and meaningful ECI reform. It was presented to Commissioner Timmermans before the event and circulated among participants.

The Open letter signed by 21 ECIs calling for significant reforms of the ECI regulation.

The Open letter signed by 21 ECIs calling for significant reforms of the ECI regulation.

Government officials from Finland (Pauli Pekkanene) and Luxembourg (Lionel Atunes) from the ECI expert group expressed satisfaction with their countries’ implementation of the ECI’s OCS certification and signature verification procedures. Mr. Atunes recommended continuing the centralised hosting of ECIs on Commission servers in Luxembourg to reduce costs and maximise efficiency, as well as suggested letting campaigns choose their start date. Concerns expressed by ECI users about differences in personal data requirements by Member States were dismissed as “a recurrent problem in cross-border projects”. Since national ECI signature verification systems have been built to use current personal data requirements, it might be difficult to modify them.

ECI Rapporteur for the European Parliament’s AFCO committee, MEP György Schöpflin, expressed his belief in the ECI and its potential to mobilise citizens to action and link them to power. However, he cautioned that the ECI will take time and political will to work. He urged ECI advocates to “share input now”, as important decisions on the ECI are already being made. ECI Rapporteur for the PETI committee, MEP Beatriz Becerra, urged ECI advocates “not to give up” and expressed her support for reforms such as harmonising personal data requirements and allowing ECIs to propose treaty amendments.

Speaking on behalf of the Council, Latvia’s Inga Reine emphasised the ECI’s newness and need for time to develop. Although the Council is considering a possible revision of the Regulation, she dismissed calls to fundamentally redesign the ECI. “The ECI is not as bad as one would think” she said. She also expressed doubt that the age of ECI support could be lowered to 16.

Madara Peipina from Mana Balss, an independent NGO that runs an online government petitions platform in Latvia, shared keys to their success that could be applied to the ECI, such as the government’s commitment to act on successful petitions, a focus on results, user-friendly design, practical support to organisers and inclusion of youth from age 16.

Speaking for the EESC’s ECI ad hoc group, Andris Gobins emphasised that the ECI must lead to concrete results in agenda-setting, not simply debate. For the Committee of the Regions, Christophe Rouillon suggested raising public awareness of the ECI and simplifying procedures. Assya Karvakova of the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) described their resources to provide legal advice and raise public awareness of the ECI. She suggested appointing an ECI officer in the Commission, similar to that used for competition law, to make decisions on legal admissibility at registration. Gabriel de Vinzelles of Click ‘n Sign said their user-friendly proxy software tripled signatures over the Commission’s OCS alone, but did not conform to the current ECI Regulation’s requirements.

In the afternoon, participants self-organised into workshops using the Open Space Technology “marketplace” format and then reconvened to vote on ECI recommendations.