Mathew Lowry

I’ve decided to be a grouch until Spring fully arrives, which is why I am going to do the unthinkable and criticise the European Citizens Initiative against poverty.

Like my previous post on the first ECI, my criticism is not about the content at all – who could criticise any initiative to reduce poverty?

My basic worry is that a rash of ECIs like these will appear over the next few months, well before the ECI Regulation, which will set out how these things are supposed to work. As a result, at least some of these ECIs will be a complete waste of time, for any number of reasons. The first ECI, for example, looks like it’s heading that way, but if it does fail does anyone seeing the MEP behind it admitting that it’s his fault?

No, the more likely outcome is that the ECI organisers will blame the EU, which will end up – unfairly – looking even more remote and closed than ever. And the reputation of the ECI may be damaged even before they become possible.

So is the ECI Against Poverty cut from the same cloth?

[Update: according to comments received, zeropoverty’s petition is not an ECI. Serves me right to believe everything I read on Twitter! I wonder how many other people think it is? The points, above, about half-cocked ECI’s stand, but the points below need to be reconsidered from the point of view of an ECI, although I think most of them are still valid anyway.]

First glance

At first glance, no. The website, which is definitely worth a look, appears well financed, and the ECI itself is the centrepiece of a wider campaign – the European Year for Combating Poverty and Social Exclusion.

Critics might point out that this may mean that the EC is funding this ECI – as the Commission’s own Green Paper says:

“it is not foreseen that any specific public funding would be provided for citizens’ initiatives. This is also in the interest of preserving the independence and citizen-driven nature of initiatives.”

However, I think such criticism would be misplaced, given the way EU social policy funding operates. I saw no mention of the ECI on the European Year website or their Facebook Fan Page, so it looks like the ECI is being run by Caritas Europa as part of their work within the Year. This isn’t my areas of expertise, so feel free to correct me.

So where’s the problem?

Implementation Niggles

Well, there many be problems of implementation, given that you can sign it in about 30 seconds, providing your name, country and email address. Remembering that the petition could result in laws affecting 500 million people, this appears a little light in terms of democratic legitimacy, as the Green Paper points out:

“In order to guarantee the legitimacy and credibility of citizens’ initiatives, provisions will need to be made so as to ensure adequate verification and authentication of signatures, in line with the relevant national, European and international legislation …”

The Regulation will figure out the details, but an email address submitted online clearly can’t do – otherwise (say) US, Brazilian and Chinese business interests could easily push a petition into EU law. Hence all petition-signers will have to be recontacted and asked to sign it again, properly this time, once everyone knows what ‘properly’ means. And we all know what happens when people are asked to donate repeatedly. Ask Chile.

Given that this ECI had to take place this Year, and that the Regulation is not expected until late 2010, I guess the organisers didn’t have much choice. Besides, it’s not the end of the world. No, the real problem may be the content of the petition itself.

Great Expectations

Let me stress again, I’d just love Europe to achieve the petition’s goals for 2015:

  • halving the number of children living in families below the poverty line
  • ensuring that social protection systems guarantee a decent living standard to all
  • ensuring equal access for all to quality social and healthcare services … (including) increasing by 50% the availability of social housing in Europe
  • reducing unemployment to below 5%

Well, who could argue against that?

Well, in the end, some sort of legal text has to result from an ECI. And that could be a problem for these targets, which are as laudable as they are wideranging. So wideranging, in fact, that I wonder whether they could be translated into EU legal texts for consideration by Parliament and Council.

So I asked Ralf Grahn, a Euroblogger focused on EU law and politics. He tells me that it’s doubtful that there is even an EU competence here (a basic condition of an ECI), while there will be difficulties in legislating at national level, given budget constraints.

So what? Well, the only possible destination left for a petition like this is to then be translated into some sort of non-binding Declaration, which are meaningless (Lisbon Targets, anyone?). And that will disappoint everyone who signed the petition.

Guess who’ll they blame in 2015?

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  1. I have been saying that earlier, Mathew, and I know that you’re completely aware of that. But for the sake of clarity I’d like to reiterate at this point that this is in fact not a ECI.

    Sure it’s a petition, it’s collecting signature .. for a noble cause that is .. still it’s not a ECI as outlined in the Lisbon treaty. It only presents itself after collecting to the institutions without them having to care at all (by law).

    There have been several others of those petitions e.g. for a single seat of the European Parliament, for a European referendum on a European Constitution and what not. So I don’t share your fear that the ECI might be damaged in public opinion. (which there isn’t about the ECI at the moment)

    I believe that makes it very clear that they’re only acting as regards to the European year. I couldn’t find a single remarks so far that even states the ECI. So I guess we’re okay. ūüėČ

  2. Thanks for the clarification, Martin, I stand corrected.

    However, I really did think this was an ECI. After all, I first heard about it when EuropeanPlanet tweeted it as an ECI, calling for 1,000,000 signatures, and I definitely got the impression it was from the zeropoverty website, although you’re right that they don’t use the term as such.

    So if I was caritas, I’d probably add a short clarification somewhere on the site – the meme that it is an ECI is out there, so they still risk disappointing their signatories.

    PS When did you tell me otherwise? I must have missed it.

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