The thing that struck me the most at last week’s conference on the European Citizens’ Initiative that I hosted in Brussels was the sheer enthusiasm shared by so many of the speakers and delegates about the democratic possibilities that the ECI will bring.
For those of you who don’t know, the ECI was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009 and for the very first time offers a new form of participatory democracy for Europe. Citizens from seven different member states who collect one million signatures in support of their particular cause will have the right to have their initiative examined by the European Commission and potentially turned into EU law.
I was truly thrilled to open the conference and address the audience, not only the 400 or so participants in the room but also the many others following proceedings via Facebook, Twitter and the live webstreaming. It seemed to me that this could be the start of a new democratic era for Europe: an era where citizens will be able to speak directly to the executive; an era where a new form of dynamic interaction will change the shape and style of democratic debate.
The conference brought together representatives from the European Commission, the European Parliament, social media and organisations with a wealth of experience in running national citizens’ initiatives to discuss the final preparations for the launch of the ECI, which will officially start on 1 April.
What was clear from all of the speakers, and many of the delegates as well, was that the ECI has real potential to change the way in which the EU is run, to help overcome the so-called ‘democratic deficit’ where ‘Brussels’ is seen as some far-distant land with no understanding of the reality of day-to-day life, and where ‘ordinary’ citizens of Europe have no chance of being heard.
As was said several times during the conference, a million people’s voices cannot be ignored and demand some form of political response, and even if not every initiative that wins a million supporters will be accepted, this does not mean that nothing will happen.
National governments may choose to take up a cause, or the European Parliament’s petitions committee, or it may lead to similar initiatives that are eventually accepted – and in any case, it will bring millions of people from across the EU together to discuss a shared issue for the first time in the history of Europe.
Social media will undoubtedly play a central role in this process – it would be almost impossible to mobilise interest across the continent behind a particular initiative without such platforms. Interest in the ECI is high among many social media users, and there was even more discussion about it via the live blog (which can be replayed here for a while) and Twitter chatter (hashtag #ECI) than there was in the conference room.
While we tried to answer some of the questions posted via social media networks, there were many more that remained unanswered on the day, and I’d like to use this blog to address some of those questions – in particular to focus on those that were not so enthusiastic about the ECI, who remained sceptical about its organisation and likely impact.
There were several Tweets along the line of these from @foeeurope:
@MarosSefcovic new EU citizens’ initiative could be abused by big business lobbies, how will you avoid this?
This is clearly one area where many people – not just NGOs – remain unconvinced that the ECI will truly be a tool for citizens and not lobbyists. To expand on what I said briefly at the conference, I do not agree that the ECI will be hijacked by lobbyists or PR companies working for ‘corporates’. Garnering a million signatures is not an easy task, and European citizens will not simply sign up for anything that is put in front of them – the cause will have to be right, as it would have to be were it proposed by an individual, an NGO or anyone else.
Lobbyists and single interest groups trying to pull the wool over the eyes of citizens (by pretending their cause is other than it is) or the EU institutions (by for example using an ECI to circumvent regulations on lobbying) are unlikely, in my opinion, to get very far. The scrutiny of any initiative is such that it would be extremely unlikely that any attempt to distort the rules would be spotted easily and dismissed – assuming it was even capable of garnering enough support from outside its own narrow interest group. As one Twitter reply (from @daveoleary) said:
Greenpeace set to be 1st #ECI – surely their ‘clients’ are concerned citizens? Maybe I’m being naive…
As for the issue of social media, there were some criticisms of the Commission’s new software for setting up ECIs and collecting signatures, like this one from @eucampaign:
This is also related to the question of whether the Commission endorses some social media over others (for example, those who were invited to participate in the conference). The Commission does not, as you might imagine, endorse any particular platform – and ECI users are free to use whatever means they wish to collect the signatures of support that they need. The new software we have created is open source, and open to modification and adaptation by any user – and we positively welcome all comments and input on how to make this the most cost-effective and user-friendly tool (comments can be made via the same page for downloading the software).
As I mentioned in my remarks during the conference, I also hope to see the system become even simpler and easier to use with time, and for it to be expanded to different platforms as well. For example, it would be great to see the first smart phone application that would allow citizens to sign up for initiatives.
Another theme running through the various Tweets and posts was that of public awareness of the ECI. With just two months to go until the first ECIs can be registered, there are still a number of issues to overcome, including the fact that many Member States are not yet ready, as I pointed out in my speech. Publicising the ECI is certainly one of those issues and I was particularly pleased to hear Nicolai Wammen, representing the EU Presidency, underline that Denmark would do all it could to ensure that Member States were ready for the start of the ECI on 1 April and that they had strategies in place to promote it properly.
Realistically, we know that it will take time for word to spread on ECIs – and that they may not become an intrinsic part of EU democratic life for many years. We also know that for them to be seen as a real tool for citizens to make a difference, they have to be credible and seen to work – which means making sure that citizens understand what they can and cannot expect.
I think it’s clear that we will have to get through a difficult period at first, where many of the initiatives put forward are based on single issues with too narrow a focus or against the general European interest – support from a million citizens might seem like sufficient endorsement for an initiative, but not if it is ultimately against the interests of the other 499 million Europeans!
Let’s not forget that the generation now leading the democratic debate is the ‘digital generation’ for whom social media and online communication is a natural as watching TV was for mine. I am glad that we have already taken our first step towards engaging more effectively with this new generation through the ECI.
Last week’s conference was just the start – there will be more buzz, I hope, about the ECI in the run up to the 1 April launch, and around the first registrations soon afterwards. But the real test, I know, will be how quickly and effectively the ECI can become a tool to help Europe develop for the good of all its citizens, complementing and – why not – improving the work of the European Commission. That may take some time, but I am convinced that we will get there in the end.
Reactions and comments on the ECI are welcome, via Twitter (@MarosSefcovic, using #ECI) or on my Facebook page.