Bursting the Bubble

European Citizens Initiative – The Cinderella of Citizen Government Relations

16 April 2014 | by

Naturally, we strive for the ideal, the utopia, the fairy tale. The European Citizens Initiative, in its ideal essence, is a wonderful tool to funnel the voices of citizens to politicians who serve them at the European level. Many spin it as proof that the European Union is striving to be as close to citizens’ concerns as possible. The ECI platform was initially portrayed as a theoretical fairy tale for citizen government interactions. But as reality strikes, the fairy tale is shattered with the stroke of midnight announcing the day of implementation. In the reality of implementation, there are myriad flaws intrinsic in the set-up of the ECI platform, making its reality the bestowing of influential powers on a small group, setting of unrealistic expectations and requiring resources that have doubtful existence in true citizens groups. It really is a Cinderella story, where citizens are the Cinderella barely scraping by with the hope of someday equating to the influential power of industry professionals, and the majority of the time coming up short. The famous story of Cinderella ends with a happy ever after, but that required a fairy godmother. The European Citizen’s Initiative’s Cinderella story has not yet played out in full, and the fairy godmother that makes all the difference will be reforms of the current process. Without reforms, the citizens currently struggling to be given equal opportunity for influence at the EU level, may continue to struggle.

Set forth in Regulation 211 of 2011, there are high standards for an ECI to be successful. Of course we do not want low standards for a group to have a guarantee Commission audience, and the ability to invite the Commission to propose legislation. However, the standards are so high that realistically it is only ventures with large resources (manpower & monetary) that will be able to meet these requirements, and such ventures are…generally industry led, supported, or influenced.

EC Open DayThese high requirements are not just in the number of signatures, though these alone may be unrealistically high looking at the wide range of support statements numbers acquired by formal initiatives, and substantial amount of initiatives with low numbers. One of the most troubling requirements is for the steering committee to have a certified online signature acquisition system, which must, at all times, abide by EU data protection laws. Despite the desire to strengthen data protection, current EU policies are quite stringent, and to maintain compliance, the technology side of accumulating a million statements of support has quite a hefty price tag. In order for the fairy tale of the ECI to flourish, all citizens must have equal opportunity for success without disenfranchisement, which the fairy godmother of reform should address. To implement ECI policy, the EU currently invests in evaluating legal admissibility, reviewing signatures after submission for validation, as well as certifying the legality of external collection systems. One could contend that a better long term investment, particularly in order to equalize opportunity, would be to have an established collection portal which streamlines the process, and puts all types of steering committees on equal standing.

When an ECI is successful, the Commission is required to officially entertain the Citizens Committee in charge. However, given the exclusivity of the first public hearing after a successful ECI, and the inability for experts or stakeholders to truly get involved, the Commission has perhaps unconsciously cast a smoky hue on the process. Will the Commission ever truly entertain the proposal of an ECI beyond a mere handshake for the cameras, and pat on the back of organizers? Cinderella may end up being able to go to the ball of her dreams, but does it matter if no one really cares? Politically positivity lies in the belief that people can make a difference, and the hope of being able to be a part of it all. The organization of an official European Citizens Initiative is itself a triumph, running a successful ECI is something which most cannot accomplish. In order to keep the fairy tale believable, it cannot have a smoky hue, and should be taken seriously as a political process by all involved. This will require reform, not necessarily of the 29 pages establishing the process, but the general approach to how an ECI is regarded after having acquired one million signatures. Discussions that occur after this success should not be limited in duration so as to save the time of the, usually, sole commissioner present. Experts should be brought in and serious discussions should abound on the topic. It should not be forgotten that Cinderella has worked through endless grim to get to that ball. The end goal of an ECI is not merely reaching one million signatures, but in having the Commission hear the proposal and being given the chance to truly discuss the change that you believe in.

There have been 49 attempts of citizen formed committees to establish a European Citizens Initiative in the past two years. Only three have reached the required number of support statements; one has received a communication from the commission, while two have been submitted and await their communication. Of these three, one is commonly known to have been professionally run. A successful Citizens’ initiative being run by professionals makes me question whether the ECI platform, as it currently stands, is a transparent and realistic venue for citizens to be heard. It is a sign that the design of the ECI process may be unrealistic for true citizens’ groups.

If the goal of the commission is to enable citizens’ groups to be heard, then the experiences of the past two years pinpoint the needed areas of reforms. Reforms must be done in order for the European Citizens Initiative to reach the idealistic, fairy tale goal of improving citizen involvement in government. It needs to be decided whether the European Citizens Initiative will be improved as a genuine political process, or if it shall forever remain a whimsical fairy tale of citizen government relations.

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2 Comments

  1. Most people believe that citizens groups will – somehow – be able to get funding. Though that funding usually will have some sort of slant, and generally is not enough to run something as extensive as a ECI campaign which realistically last for over a year with all the preparatory work. The only way to get enough funds is to have an industry ‘sponsor’ at least. Though it is supposedly 1/3 that passed which were professionally ‘run’ I bet that the other two were heavily funded by industry – – which ultimately defies the purpose and just gives another foot hold to the industry voice, not the ordinary people.

    Also, from the ECI stories that I have heard, many of the main workers on initiatives tend to be young Europeans who currently are out of work or perpetual unpaid interns. Which contributes to the youth unemployment that is the cause of the new youth guarantee. It also helps answer some politicians questions…. they are sitting right under your nose, not getting paid & doing this work because they love it – which ultimately will be the best kind of politician for EU to have, those who really are doing it for the right reasons.

    • Natasha Marie Levanti

      Youth involved in European politics are definitely around (look at the team of this site). Your point regarding the difficulty of breaking into the field is most assuredly true – internships are rampant .

      The expectation of citizen groups to obtain funding for the running of an ECI without being somehow reliant upon large businesses or other organizations is, as you say, unrealistic. That is why the EU should strive to reform the ECI platform to put true Citizens group on equal standing.

What do you think?