European Citizens’ Initiative: first step towards Europe 2.0

Whether we like it or not, Europe is becoming increasingly important. For that very reason, new tools are needed to increase the quality of european democracy. The European Citizens’ Initiative is a first step..

Matt Poelmans. Member of the Board, Foundation

Democratic deficit
If anything, the euro crisis has made it clear that we can not escape european cooperation. The alternative, the disintegration of the European Union (EU), has more disadvantages or brings even greater consequences and costs. In his recent book “The Hound of Tiลกma, What if Europe collapsed?” the Dutch historian Geert Mak notes that postponing decisions tends to makethe final solution even more difficult.

Whether the euro will be a failure or a success, does not depend so much on what happened in the past, but rather what is awaiting us. Both supporters and opponents are right. The single currency in recent years has obscured the need for adjustments. But the euro now forces action that otherwise would also have been necessary because of diverging economic developments. The 20th century has shown how drastic and uncontrolled this can work out. The 21st century should reveal whether the awareness will rise that a better outcome can be reached through consultation. Greece is the test case.

Anyway, when Europe gets more to say, the democratic deficit is increasingly a barrier. The EU political system is democratic in intent, but in practice people do not experience this. Hence the Euro scepticism is understandable. But instead of waiting until this changes for the better, we might as well seize the opportunity to create the requirements for further integration.

European Citizens’ Initiative
So there is every reason to look for tools that further integration. One is the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) that the Lisbon Treaty has made possible. The ECI enables 1 million EU citizens from at least 7 countries to call on the European Commission (EC) to propose legislation on matters where the union is competent. That goes beyond a petition, which is unbinding.

The EBI procedure consists of several steps. The organisers of an initiative first have to form a citizens’ committee composed of 7 EU citizens living in at least 7 countries. Then they must register their idea with the EC which will published the initiative. Before the collection of statements of support can begin, the system for online collection must be certified by the Member States, to ensure that it meets the requirements of security and reliability. The Member States should also check the database and validate the outcome. If a sufficient number valid endorsements is reached, the citizens’ committee can submit the initiative to the EC and the European Parliament.

The regulation comes into force 1 April 2012 and it remains to be seen whether or not al matters will be dealt with in time. The EC launched a special website last month, where open source software for online collection of signatures is available. However, most countries are still busy with their assigned duties. They must provide their citizens the opportunity to have an online collection system certified (the initiators may use their own system) and to have the outcome validated (stating if sufficient valid endorsements are collected).

In the Netherlands the Ministry of Finance will probably be designated as the competent authority to certify the system for the collection of support, and the municipality of The Hague for the validation of the endorsements.

Despite these provisions, the initiators face quite some organizational and technical obstacles. They should have a website up and running and must check with various authorities, and that in several countries. The foundation, which has experience in helping citizens and government bodies with petitions and citizens’ initiatives, is ready to support Dutch citizens with the ECI. The foundation works together with similar NGOs in other EU countries.

Social media
For petitions and citizens’ initiatives not only the collection of signatures matters, but also the campaign before and the debate after. Social media come in handy and it is therefore expected that the ECI is an incentive to cross-border civil awareness and political mobilization.

The ECI is an example of “agenda setting”, i.e. an element of participatory democracy that complements representative democracy. Actually it is just a modest step towards Government 2.0 on a European scale, which must ultimately derive its legitimacy from web 2.0 tools like open data, crowd sourcing, co-production, and more.

This first step is badly needed for the EU to become more democratic in decision-making and more interactive in public service delivery. Let’s hope that the requirements for an ECI will prove not to be too high. That there are different expectations is already shown by the official translation of what the ECI aims to be. Whereas the Dutch text (“U bepaalt de agenda”) is identical to the German one (“Sie bestimmen die Tagesordnung”), the English is a bit more careful (“You can set the agenda”) and the Italian is even less conclusive (“Il tuo contributo al proccesso legislativo europeo “).


Also published in Dutch at Volkskrant Opinie