Mathew Lowry

Last week MEP Martin Kastler (EPP-CSU) launched the first European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI). Is this a slow-motion train wreck, or the dawn of a new era of democracy?

Two things immediately caught my eye when I checked out “Mum and dad belong to us on Sunday” (via @Kosmopolit via @andrewjburgess. Update: Kosmopolito blogged on this just as I was finalising this post).

The first I noticed was that, apparently:

Recently, the European Commission finished the consultation process concerning the implementation details of the European Citizens’ Initiative.

I thought, huh, really? According to the EC’s site, they published a Green Paper and got something like 200+ submissions by the 31 January deadline. They’re holding a Stakeholder Hearing, for those who submitted something, on 22 Feb (put it in your diary if you like because you’ll be able to watch live).

As the Green Paper points out, the Treaty is pretty vague on the details, so all of this will lead to a Regulation which will actually set out the rules of an ECI.

So what if Kastler couldn’t wait for some pesky bureaucratic regulation? After all, like most people, I saw the ECI as something worth salvaging from the debris of the Constitution – bringing the EU closer to its citizens, etc etc. etc. Bring it on!

High stakes …

But nobody seems to be asking what will happen if the first ECI gets screwed up. What happens if a lot of people make a huge effort to get the first ECI up, and nothing comes of it simply because it was ill-conceived – for example, because it asks for something that the EC simply can’t legislate on? The Green Paper, for example, points out that the Commission:

does not consider that it would be appropriate for the Commission to verify the formal admissibility of proposed initiatives before any signatures have yet been collected.

So it’s perfectly possible that huge efforts will be made to put forward a proposal that the EU is legally unable to act on. But it won’t be seen as the organisers’ fault, of course. The only thing that will be enhanced will be the EU’s reputation as a remote bureaucratic nightmare – wrongly, this time.

… little preparation?

So the stakes are actually quite high. This must be done right. How is the first ECI looking?

Well, Kastler’s crew probably have a better idea than I do of the contents of the upcoming Regulation, but it seems to me that everyone who has already signed up to their ECI online will have to re-sign up again later. For one thing, they’ll have to provide a little more proof that they exist, and that they are European, than simply providing a postcode in the above online form. Last time I checked, you needed to do more than that if you wanted to vote on something. It’s only a law that could affect half a billion people, after all.

But let’s assume – probably safely – that they don’t mind being contacted again for a more official signature once the requirements are known [Aside: this looks like a nightmare if it’s not standardised – why should some nationals’ voices be easier to hear than others? – and difficult to standardise. The Devil’s in his usual place].

So they get their signatures, and crank the legislative handle. The proposal gets into the EU system, and someone checks whether the whole idea is something the EU can actually legislate on.

Well, let’s hope it is, because if not, it’s for the bin. Oops, sorry everyone!

And then, of course, even if it is, there’s no guarantee that it will result in anything at all. Or that, if it does, it passes the EP and the Council.

Go on, convince me

By now you’re probably thinking that I’m against the proposal, or ECIs. Neither is true.

For starters, I’m not against the idea itself. I am, after all, a parent. But I’m also a self-employed atheist who doesn’t particularly like someone telling me what I can and can’t do with my time. So I’m not sure.

But then I’m not an expert in social market regulations in Europe. So I am prepared to be convinced that there’s a case for this at the European level – that the EU adds value in some way here.

The problem I have is the other thing that caught my eye – the complete lack of a case for EU-level action, bar some vague reference to the European Social Model and European cultural heritage. So I’ve asked via their Facebook page and will summarise feedback via comments here.

Huge opportunity, and risk?

All of this chimes in with the overwhelming impression I’ve gathered from citizens’ consultations for EU action – that organisations turn to the EU when they can’t get their way nationally. Whether it makes sense to do something at the EU level seems secondary. Quite often, the question doesn’t even appear in the debate. And that’s because of poor EU communications over literally generations of time.

The ECIs are therefore a huge opportunity to redress that, stimulate the emergence of the European online public space and explain, once and for all, what the EU is for – how it does and can add value.

But this also means explaining what it is not for. The subsidiarity principle has to cut both ways, and power doesn’t always have to move upwards (cf a nice discussion chez Nosemonkey).

To not explain the EU added value of the proposed ECI on their campaign website is, from this perspective, a wasted opportunity, could disappoint (at least) a million people, and risks giving the whole process, and the EU, an even worse reputation for untrustworthiness than it already has.

Probably not what was intended. I hope I’m wrong. What do you think?

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Comments

  1. My impression of the campaign: Nobody will talk about it anymore in a couple of weeks (or days). It took a week until 2 bloggers wrote about it, the mainstream media ignored it. But then again, every aspect of the campaign seems quite amateurish as I argued in my blog:

    http://www.kosmopolito.org/the-first-european-citizens-initiative-is-here

    The first professional campaign will be interesting to watch and it will show whether ECI is a useful thing… but I doubt whether it is already that one.

  2. Sorry for not mentioning your blog, but I missed it – you must have published it an hour or two before mine. It’s interesting that we find broadly similar faults.

    But what do you think will happen if the first few ECIs are done this badly, in terms of reputational damage to the EU? Most signatories, after all, are likely to blame the failure of an ECI on the EU, and the organisers are unlikely to tell them otherwise.

    Let’s hope something professionally done gets underway sooner rather than later.

  3. No problem – funny coincidence that we blogged about the same topic simultaneously ūüėČ

    You are right, there is a huge danger that the first campaign discredits the ECI – but only if the campaign is hugely successful and manages to travel across the Bavarian border.

  4. relax. ci is primarily a fire axe, for use when the pollies won’t or can’t act, or get completely out of line.

    the existence of ci is most important, it reminds the pollies they are not masters of the universe.

    if mistakes are made in use of ci, console yourself that politician rule has been a long history of corruption and incompetence, partly due to human character, and partly due o the exigencies of getting elected. ci is sure to improve on that sorry record.

  5. Thanks for dropping by, Al. My point is that the first ECIs may waste the signatories’ time, making the EU look remote and indifferent, even though the screwup is actually the organisers’ fault. Another example of the law of unintended consequences.

  6. Postscript: two weeks after my query to the Facebook page, there’s no answer from the ECI organisers, at least not as far as I can see (I don’t speak German).

    In fact, the only comment not in German is from an anti-abortion, anti-contraception activist, who’s spraying it with YouTube videos.

    Not a lot of community management there, then…

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