RESTORING CITIZENS’ CONFIDENCE AND TRUST IN THE EUROPEAN PROJECT European Parliament Speech by Carsten Berg, Director of The ECI Campaign

June 29, 2017 News, Opinion

On June 22nd the European Parliament has invited us, The ECI Campaign, to give a presentation on how to restore trust and confidence into the European project. Read the speech given in the European Parliament by Carsten Berg, Director of The ECI Campaign.

I. Introduction

Ladies and Gentlemen, members of the Petitions committee, thank you for organising this hearing and inviting me to speak.

I feel honoured to represent here the The ECI Campaign which, for over 15 years, has worked for an effective European citizens’ initiative (ECI) right.

I am particularly glad to be here in this house as the Parliament is the institution that has been committed the most to making the ECI a working democratic instrument. We recognise and thank the Petitions Committee who supported the ECI a) at the 2003 Constitutional Convention on the Future of Europe, b) when it came to negotiate the ECI Regulation in 2010 and c) when you voted in favour of ECI reform and revision with a overwhelming majority in plenary already in 2015.

As you know the ECI provides 1 million European citizens with the same power to propose new laws to the Commission as the EP’s and Council’s right of legislative initiative (Art. 225 and Art. 241 TFEU). It is the world’s first element of transnational participatory and digital democracy. And it is the only genuinely European democratic instrument (while EP elections are always based on national party lists).
It is exactly made for the purpose which you have formulated in your program for this hearing. The ECI is there to: create opportunities to “facilitate public debate and engage Europeans” and help to “RESTORE CITIZENS’ CONFIDENCE AND TRUST IN THE EUROPEAN PROJECT”.

However, looking at the first five years of implementation the ECI has not fulfilled its promise yet. Citizens and ECI campaigners all tell us that the current ECI Regulation is fatally flawed, making them deeply frustrated when they try to use the ECI. The regulation requires ECI organisers to comply with unnecessary, burdensome and massively bureaucratic procedures.

There is no political culture yet in the EU that would appreciate the benefits of participatory democracy. The Commission’s College even described the ECI as “dangerous” and a “potential threat for the EU project”, which reflects deep distrust in the EU institutions towards citizens’ participation and debate. However, if the EU does not trust citizens, citizens won’t trust the EU!

The European Court had to annul and reverse the Commission’s too restrictive decisions that declared ECIs inadmissible in an illegal way (ECI Stop TTIP and Minority Save Pack). The learning processes went too slow to properly adapt the instrument to citizens needs. In consequence the instrument had “fallen into an existential crisis” as Emily O’Reilly stated at our 2015 conference.

Only two months ago, Commissioner Timmermans finally admitted the problem and announced the ECI revision process – so there is a huge window of opportunity to change things now!

In this presentation I will first explore how to best reform the ECI regulation and look specifically at what the EP can do to fully exploit the ECI’s potential to actually facilitate public debate and engage Europeans in a meaningful way.

In a second step I will give a perspective on the “future of Europe debate” and the need for a Treaty Change /a new Constitutional Convention. In my view this is the most important, but also the most difficult debate in front of us.

II. So where are we with the ECI and how should it be reformed?

The ECI now stands at a dangerous crossroads. The ECI started off strong in 2012, peaked in 2013, then crashed in 2014 and hasn’t recovered since then. So far 62 ECIs were submitted, 42 registered, three succeeded.

All in all: 7.8 million signatures were collected, which has led to hundreds of events + debates and thousands of conversations across Europe.

BUT: none led to a legislative proposal or any meaningful new action.

So the first and most important change to the application of the ECI in our view is that:

1) Successful ECIs must result in a serious follow-up action by EU institutions (and that means there must be a public vote on the proposed ECI issue). Campaigners and citizens will only make wide use of the ECI if they have a fair chance of impacting policy. Otherwise the whole purpose and meaning of the ECI is undermined.

We suggest, therefore, that in future the Commission should commit itself to acting and always respond to successful ECIs with a legislative proposal which will be sent to the EP and Council for a public vote. (This does not mean that a successful ECI would automatically lead to the implementation of the ECI proposal).

If the Commission refuses to act in any legislative way, we suggest that you the EP commit yourselves to voting on the proposal of every successful ECI. This idea of voting in plenary is backed by best practices and experiences with Citizens’ Initiatives (CI) in Member States which shows that: if, and only if, the citizens have a real chance to impact and change policy will they continue to make wide use of these initiatives.

It is very telling when we compare the ECI with CI rights that were introduced at the national level – like in Finland and Latvia – nearly at the same time as the ECI.

In Finland since 2012 571 CI have been launched, 16 were successful iand all but one of these were voted on in a plenary session of Parliament and one citizens initiative was actually implemented. Polls show that Finnish citizens are aware of the instrument and think that it has improved democracy in Finland.

Even more impressive is Latvia: since 2012, 800x proposals were submitted, 17 were successful and eight of them were actually voted on + approved by parliament. More than one third of the population has visited the online platform which is one of Europe’s most famous and successful projects of public participation.

The Finnish MPs explicitly mentioned what we need to avoid by all means – that a CI is “buried in committee” instead of being properly addressed in plenary.

The EP could act in the same way. And there is past experience and precedent for the EP to commit itself when it comes to citizens participation. Just recall how the Petitions Committee of the EP came into existence in 1981. There was no legal ground for petitions in the Treaties but the EP committed itself to allow petitions based on the “internal procedures” rule.

In the same way the EP should commit itself to vote on a successful ECI in plenary. Only then would citizens be given a genuine incentive to make use of the ECI.

The second proposal relates to making the ECI more useable by exploiting the digital dimension of the ECI – and again there is a lot to learn from Finland and Latvia. We request:

2. Fully exploit “Digital Technology” for Making European Democracy Work by providing a Digital Public Participation Platform that includes a Support Infrastructure for Citizens’ Participation

Here it is essential to remember that online platforms are the most important innovation in the history of civic engagement as they make online campaigning scalable and rapid and enormously increase the outreach (one of the biggest challenges in the EU given its size and diversity).

“Scalable” here means that once a platform has been created, it does not matter if you reach out to 100, 1000, or 10,000 citizens – it costs very little to reproduce its services. It is thus very much worthwhile to sufficiently invest in a platform and maximise the potential of the “digital revolution” for the purpose of democracy and restoring trust in the EU project.

The best example of a successful Digital Public Participation Platform is once again the case of Latvia, where there is not only a user-friendly online participation platform but also a support infrastructure for outreach to citizens: a team that helps citizens to prepare and formulate a citizens’ initiative and provides legal and campaign advice.

To create synergies it should include and become accessible for the EP’s petition instrument, and existing national and civil society e-petition tools. Thanks to widgets and other technologies this is relatively easily to install while maintaining security and data protection standards. As in Latvia this Public Participation Platform should be co-created by EU institutions together with civil society organizations and provide for legal + campaigning advice and also for translation and funding.

III Outlook: How to Generate and Facilitate the Future of Europe Debate?

The ECI is important, but the ECI alone is not sufficient to restore trust in the European project. Given the difficult situation in Europe, we need additional and stronger instruments of participation and debate. Only then can we restore trust.

What is striking is that for many years now EU leaders have been carefully avoiding any reference to “democracy” or to modern forms of citizen participation as a way to address the European crisis. However, Europe’s “existential crisis” – as Juncker described it – makes the “Future of Europe Debate” necessary. It is necessary to devote sufficient time to debating fundamental questions: How do we ensure that the European project reclaims its original promise of peace, democracy and solidarity? How can Europe work with, by and for its people?

More and more people agree that systemic change within the EU must happen; the crucial question now is how? Given that the fundamental questions at stake are of a constitutional character we are firmly convinced that they should be addressed in a European constitutional assembly process that would seek to change the fundamental legal basis of the EU: the EU Treaties.

However, EU leaders are reluctant to take the first step in this direction, as they know that they will ultimately have to win the consent of European citizens in a referendum in at least some member states (where a public vote is required for treaty ratification). But this “ratification shadow” is what leaders fear the most and want to avoid by all means – especially as European citizens are increasingly critical about the EU and trust is not restored.

This is the dangerous trap in which the European project is caught and which has so far blocked any fundamental democratic renewal in the past. It leads to a vicious circle where EU leaders distrust and fear citizens and the less they provide channels for participation and public debate about the future of Europe the greater is the skepticism and anger among citizens about the European project. The solution in our view can only be: trust citizens, and citizens will trust the EU. For this we need to develop an open process of democratic participation which allows for rational and emotional ownership.

Traditionally Heads of State have been responsible for the process of fundamental Treaty Changes. But they increasingly seem to be the wrong actors to initiate such a process. They have lost credibility in this regard. However you the EP, according to the Lisbon Treaty, have a new right to propose a Treaty Change and a new Convention as well. We think citizens and their representatives in the EP should closely work together in this constitutional debate and co-create a road-map for such a constitutional assembly process. This should include elements of indirect, direct, participatory, deliberative (sortition) and digitally facilitated democracy.

The ideal start would be if we – citizens in all member states together with their representatives in the EP – were to unite for the democratization of the European Union and call for a European constitutional convention (Art. 48 TEU). The best instrument at hand to start such a process remains a reformed European Citizens’ Initiative right – which could be used to launch an ECI for holding a referendum in the entire EU, i.e. all member states, on the question: “Do we want to start a process to draft a new constitution for the EU?” The important difference to the past and failed approaches is that such a referendum takes place BEFORE a new constiution is being developed. This way we can ensure a genuinely open debate and make citizens the framers of the European project. It could be the start of a democratic constitutional assembly process in which we, the citizens, can explicitly elaborate the kind of future for Europe that is needed – which will highly increase the likelihood of acceptance in the end when it comes to a ratification referendum. It will help to take away the fear and turn the “shadow of ratification” into a real “light of ratification.”

To conclude I want to underline again the importance of citizens becoming co-law-makers in the political system of the European Union. A key argument to be identified is that denying participation now out of the fear of populism is only making the situation worse, increasing people’s anger at being ignored – and driving them into the arms of the populists.

We can only overcome the anxiety about the future that we fear if we develop a wise constitutional road map and ideas of what we really want. It is the responsibility of all of us, citizens, to do so by up-dating and making use of democracy.