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ECI – the first step towards trans-European e-democracy

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The European agenda has been overshadowed in recent years by the  impact of the  current crisis and by the need to take unprecedented measures to overcome it, many of which have often been poorly received by citizens. The solution to the problems raised by the crisis must be ‘more Europe’ – it is the obvious way to proceed given the increasing pressure from globalisation and the shared future of EU Member States through the single currency and the single market. Yet ‘more Europe’ raises concerns about loss of national sovereignty, identity or democratic oversight, and genuine political debate on the issue is complicated because of the growing Euroscepticism that leads to criticism or ridicule of anything branded with the EU mark. 

This is why I am happier than ever to see positive messages about Europe. In this context I was delighted to see that Fraternité 2020, the first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) using the Commission’s servers to host its online collection platform, recently began collecting signatures of support for its ECI, which aims to improve exchanges such as Erasmus within the EU. 

Why do I consider this such an important step? Well, I have always underlined the vital importance of ECIs – created by the Lisbon Treaty to give citizens from across Europe a more direct role in policy-making – and my services have worked extremely hard to make it as easy as possible to set up and manage initiatives. But despite our best efforts – which include providing all the necessary software for setting up an online collection system for ECIs – it has become obvious that the whole process of installation and certification (designed to ensure the protection of personal data) is more complicated than we would have liked. Part of the problem is that the conditions for the certification of online collection systems vary from one country to another – and in some of them they are not yet in place at all! 

That’s why the Commission decided to help the first ECIs to be formally registered following the launch of the ECI in April this year by offering its servers to host online collection systems. As the Commission’s data centre is based in Luxembourg, we have worked closely with the Luxemburgish authorities to get the necessary certification, and I hope that more ECIs will soon be able to join Fraternité 2020 in launching online collection via the Commission’s own servers. 

The most positive reactions to this approach have come from outside Europe. In a recent article, Californian journalist Joe Mathews praised the Commission for its rapid response to the difficulties surrounding the launch of the ECI, calling Europe “a continent which takes direct democracy seriously”. At the same time, he noted that this kind of support from the executive would be impossible in California. 

Unfortunately, the response from within the EU itself has been more negative – but not entirely so. I was delighted with the positive response from the members of the citizens’ committee behind the Fraternité 2020 ECI, whom I met recently as they launched their online collection, and reaction has also been good from many Member States, who have suggested using this system in the future in a  much broader context. In fact, the reaction to ECIs from some Member States shows that not all of them are aware of the real potential of ECI, which I consider to be the first step towards a new era of trans-European e-democracy. 

Deeper integration in the future will require closer cooperation between the European Parliament and national parliaments and the closer involvement of citizens in the European decision-making process. Traditional representative democracy will be complemented by participative democracy. And of course, today’s digital generation will expect digital solutions. 

The trend is clear we are moving towards a digital Europe of e-government, electronic identity cards (eIDs) and e-signatures. In some countries, such as Estonia, this is already very much the reality, and I expect that in a few years consultation with European citizens on various topics or initiatives via e-democracy tools will become commonplace. In this respect, the ECI is very much a first step on the road to e-democracy. The more we learn from it, and the more experience we accumulate, the better we will be able to respond to the demand from today’s younger generation – the first to grow up in the truly digital era – to be able to participate in the democratic life of the EU using digital tools.

ECI – the first step towards trans-European e-democracy, 3.4 out of 5 based on 10 ratings

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