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The European Citizens' Initiative: a New Way to Shape up Debates?

BY Antonella Napolitano | Thursday, March 15 2012

The deliver of the petition against ACTA. Photo European Parliament /Flickr

“The Internet can mobilize in short period of time quite a lot of people. Democracy will have to adapt to that.”

This declaration came from European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht during a BBC program focused on the debate around ACTA, two weeks ago.

The grassroots movement against the treaty, that built momentum in the past two months, is the latest - and probably the most significant - example of the attention that European citizens are starting to pay to their institutions and the action they are willing to take to have their say on issues that matter to them.

Starting next April 1st, European citizens will have another tool to be part of a public debate in a more substantial way, thanks to the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), a form of petition that will allow them to propose legislation to the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union.

Aimed at increasing participation and direct democracy, the ECI was introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon, a 2007 international agreement that forms part of the constitutional basis of the European Union.

It requires the collection of one million signatures (0.2% of the EU population) from at least 7 EU countries in one year: the petition have to be initiated by a committee of at least 7 EU citizens resident in different countries. While organizations cannot start an ECI, they can join it and campaign for it. The European Commission will have three months to examinate the initiative, meeting with the organisers (that will be able to present their proposal to the European Parliament).

This may be a high hurdle to clear, as has been lamented by activists in the past, but there are already examples of big organizations that have met the target of one million signatures, most notably a Greenpeace petition against the introduction of genetically modified crops in Europe. Greenpeace worked with and delivered the signatures to Commissioner of Health and Consumer Policy John Dalli at the end of 2010 (while the two organizations claimed that this was the first ECI, their proposal cannot be considered as such, as the official process is set to start next April 1st.)
Other initiatives that have been announced include a ban of shops opening on Sundays and an increase of money in the EU budget for exchange programs.

As the first challenge seems to be to carry pan-European campaigns, it is easy to imagine that big international organizations will be the first to be strong partners and supporters of ECIs, says public affairs consultant Laurence Modrego in an email interview. “At the EU level, I would imagine ECIs would be launched on the hottest policy issues in the tech sector such as copyright online, piracy and data protection. These ECIs could be launched by digitally-savvy citizens and Internet corporations,” wrote Modrego, who works at Brussels-based firm Fleishman-Hillard*.

In the aftermath of grassroots movements built around issues like copyright and Internet freedom, the ECI could then become a tool to turn a protest like that against ACTA, for instance, which has been mobilizing thousands of people, into a proposal to show a movement’s constructive approach to relevant issues.

But is “vox populi” becoming actually part of the legislative process? Not exactly: there is no obligation on behalf of the European Commission to turn the content of an ECI into a law, or to even discussi it in the Parliament. The Commission is only committed to issue a formal response, regardless of the adoption of the proposal.

Direct democracy might sound appealing to citizens, especially in time of a low level of public trust in governments and politicians. The ECI, though, does not seem bound to have a strong impact on EU policies. Does it bring the even bigger risk of triggering movements of discontent as we saw happening with ACTA?

Modrego, a longtime inside observer the EU affairs, thinks that ECI could be a good start to change mindsets by building bridges among citizens and engaging them on issues that unite them: “The ECI will certainly help build out trans-European campaigning capacities and create new relationships between the citizens of different European countries, who would otherwise never meet. I look forward to being in two years from now when we’ll be able to assess the impact the ECI has had on the EU decision-making system,” she says.

The ECI then appears to be another way to create awareness around an issue, or buzz, if you prefer. Will it be effective in fostering a constructive public debate?

Another issue to consider is also how representative democracy will relate to these mega-petitions. While some might argue that this kind of direct democracy could make elected officials more accuntable, the claim sounds too optimistic, though The Economist did not seem convinced: “Politicians may be getting keener on public support for new laws. But few want to allow voters to write them: that would be not so much democracy, they say, as ochlocracy—mob rule.”
Politicians may not like these forms of direct democracy, but may also be willing to “adapt”, to use the words of Commissioner De Gucht: Earlier this week, Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann declared that these new petitions could be used in order to convince the European Union to abandon nuclear power, Reuters reported. (Austria banned atomic plants in 1974). Faymann said that he expects anti-nuclear activists to gain support and the petition drive on that issue to start next fall.

And citizens should be also be careful about other factors when it comes to petitions. Writing about’s online petitions, Information Diet author Clay Johnson recently declared: “Petitions are a big business. Multi-million dollar businesses are set up to create petitions, collect lists and raise funds. [...] they are the best way to lure an internet user into handing over their personal information, so that you can receive additional messages asking you for funds. It's lead-gen for social change.”

While the impact of their own proposals in the legislative process and in the public debate will be the first thing to explore and work on, European citizens willing to engage on relevant issues by using such a tool will probably have to take into account the risk of becoming targets, instead of actors, of their own initiatives.

*Fleishman-Hillard was a sponsor and in charge of press outreach of PdF Europe conference in 2010.

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