Workshop on European Citizens’ Initiative shows the instrument is at the crossroads

2014-10-22 News

On 14 October 2014, together with End Ecocide, we organised a half-day event entitled “An ECI For the Next Generation”, held at Mundo B, Brussels. The aim of the event was to answer our main concern: what can be done to ensure that the ECI will work for young and future organizers using the world’s first tool of participatory, transnational and digital democracy?

Carsten Berg reminded participants that at its launch in 2012, EU leaders publicly lauded the ECI as a powerful democratic innovation to give citizens more say in the EU. It was used to convince Irish citizens to approve the Treaty of Lisbon and has been cited as proof of the EU’s democratic vitality. In practice, however, its rules and procedures have been so burdensome and its legal impact so limited that few new ECIs are being registered and over 20 ECI campaigns have complained of massive flaws in the rules. “This new participatory tool is therefore under threat, and it needs urgent changes when it comes to the official review of the ECI rules in 2015”, said Carsten Berg in his initial statement.

After the introduction by the conference organizers, some representatives of the first finalized and still ongoing ECIs shared their experiences, including Heike Aghte from “30 km/h”, Xavier Dutoit from “Right2Water”, Stanislas Jourdan from “Basic Income”, Giovanni Melogli from “Media Pluralism”, and Lilia Tamamdzhieva from “End Ecocide in Europe”. Two newer ECIs were also   presented: Philippe D. Grosjean described the ECI “New Deal 4 Europe” and Michael Efler spoke about the rejected and now unofficially continuing “Stop TTIP” initiative.

The next step was to discuss different issues in five working groups, which gave participants the chance to explore specific points in more detail. Two groups focused on youth participation in the ECI instrument, discussing the involvement of young people in ECIs as organisers and getting young people to sign them. Both working groups agreed, among other things, that the age limit for signatories should be lowered to 16 and that motivating young people to be more active in the life of the Union is crucial.

The other three groups focused on practical issues regarding the improvement of the ECI tool i.e. improvements to the ECI legislation with a view to the upcoming reform, particular challenges faced by volunteer-led ECIs and challenges concerning the usage of social media and online campaigning. A number of reform proposals and improvements were discussed, with particular attention to data requirement issues, the involvement of European institutions in the ECI, transparency, online and offline campaign and much more.

After a short presentation of each workshop’s findings, Prisca Merz and Carsten Berg opened a panel debate.

Tina Nilsson from the European Ombudsman’s office noted that the office has started its own initiative on the ECI. Through this process, Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly would like to identify what the Commission has done to implement the ECI and will make recommendations to increase the effectiveness of the process, if necessary. What was underlined by Ms. Nilsson is the fact that the Ombudsman’s office cannot intervene in the Commission’s decision once an ECI has referred a rejection to the European Court of Justice. She noted also that for the institution she represents how something is said is more important that what is being said. In conclusion, Ms. Nilsson stated that the European Ombudsman’s office has an important role to play in the development of the ECI. It will publish its position paper as early as October 2014. Ms. Nilsson also mentioned that the Ombudsman’s office has launched a Public Consultation on the TTIP process; comments are invited from all EU citizens, to be received at the latest by 31 October.

The second speaker, Sylvia-Yvonne Kaufmann, Member of the European Parliament, focused on prioritising ECI reform proposals. She explained that because we already have some experience, we don’t have to look at the ECI from a theoretical point of view. She supported lowering the voting threshold to 16 years and stressed that the translation of ECI proposals and legal advice should become guaranteed services for all future ECIs.

The final presentation was made by Michael Efler, spokesperson of Mehr Demokratie and the self-organised ECI “STOP-TTIP”. Mr. Efler warned that the ECI tool is in a deep crisis, as only two new ECIs have been registered this year and the rejection rate for proposed ECIs is currently almost 50%. He pointed out that “the biggest problem with the ECI is the ECI itself”, because of the lack of real power it gives to citizens. He further stated that Europe needs more binding instruments for citizen participation, including citizen-initiated votes (European referendums, for example). He believes that the EU needs a democratic re-design: the European Parliament should have its own right of initiative, for example. Asked how this change could be feasibly implemented, he said that this would require a constitutional process for which he would be ready to co-initiate a Europe-wide self-organized ECI once the ECI “Stop-TTIP” is concluded.

A lively discussion concluded the debate, and, among other things, further issues to do with transparency, technical problems and campaigning were revealed.