Timmermans, embrace the public hearing and forget the formalities

2015-02-24 News

In the spirit of promoting open debate on how to reform the ECI, The ECI Campaign will occasionally share guest blogs from participatory democracy thinkers. Here’s our first, from Reinder Rustema, creator of the Dutch public policy petitions website petities.nl. He advocates a novel way to eliminate intrusive personal data requirements from ECI supporters.

Frans Timmermans is in the position to make the European Citizens’ Initiative work, finally. After years of struggle and even decades of work to get it into the Lisbon Treaty of 2009, we might finally get this instrument working. First, we need to take a step back to see the monster that has been created. Unfortunately, most of us are thinking about repairing it. Instead, we should admit it is broken beyond repair and therefore should be fundamentally reconsidered. This is something Timmermans can and should do considering his deregulation ambition. Before telling other commissioners how they should deregulate, deregulate the ECI first! This is the low hanging fruit for Timmermans to pick, with remarkable gains.

Currently we have an ECI designed to frustrate millions of Europeans, instead of an instrument to help a European demos, a people, arise. Any citizen who supports an ECI or intends to start one wastes precious time and money at all kinds of levels. The anti-climax after at least a year of campaigning is an invitation to the initiators to come to a room with a low ceiling in Brussels. There you listen for a few hours to a motivated ‘no, we are sorry’ in misty wording from the Commission. I do not argue that the Commission should have answered differently, but with more hearings the chances that something surprising increases.

If Timmermans throws the requirements away we can expect more initiatives and campaigns. This is good, because more citizens will get to know this currently unknown instrument. Once familiar with the instrument, it is more likely they eventually support an initiative and become an active European, even if they do not like to see themselves as such. After all, the first step to become part of a European demos is to act as a European. Since voting or paying taxes as a European is not happening anytime soon, supporting an ECI could be the least.

The weight in the ECI process should radically shift from the requirements to the public hearing. The continuous flow of initiatives should not be answered in the dungeons of the European technocracy, but in the spotlights, with a written invitation to all those who signed the initiative to be present. A truly public and open event where people can be present physically or remotely through television or internet. After all, there is an audience of at least one million Europeans to invite. Do not neglect this and use this to organise a big, news worthy media event. It makes more sense to let the Commission come to a location chosen by the organisers than the other way round.

The answer from authorities to national or local citizens’ initiatives is usually negative. For the European Commission level such a response is even more likely because of the political nature of the admissibility of the initiative. In other words, the Commission is held back by the member states. The task is to find a positive, constructive ‘yes, if only’ wording which does justice to the institutional and political constraints. Like this, each ECI serves as an instructive case to learn about the EU. The hearing can even be organised in a summit setting to include the role of the member states.

Lastly, how to deal with article 11 in the Lisbon Treaty? The procedures and conditions for the one million citizens can be left in the hands of the organisers. Let them collect a million ‘signs of life’ in whatever way they see fit. Citizens should even be allowed to ‘sign’ with a pseudonym without revealing their identity, as long as they leave a way to contact them. They then supply their identity if they end up in the verification sample. For the verification a sample of the signatories receive a message from the local authority with the option to deny being a supporter of the initiative. The percentage of denials by telephone, e-mail, letter or visit to the local authority should stay below a statistically reasonable threshold. Like this, it will be pointless to grab a million names from the internet or the telephone directory. Too many of those will dispute being associated to the initiative if they receive a message that they are counted as supporter of the ECI at hand. It will be difficult for organisers to ‘buy’ support from a million because such a fraud will inevitably be revealed. We can safely assume that it is too difficult or expensive to discipline one million. If it incidentally happens, nothing is lost. It only costs a public hearing.

Reinder Rustema – founder and manager of the national Dutch petitioning website petities.nl.