ECIT attends the 2022 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy

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ECIT's introduction to the workshop on ECIs at the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy (22 September 2022, Luzern)

It is a pleasure and an honour to have been invited to attend this event, which is particularly inspiring for anyone who has worked with the EU’s transnational participatory democracy instrument called a European Citizens’ Initiative or ECI. A group of EU citizens can put forward a demand for a European law which, if accepted by the European Commission as within its legal competence, can then be launched and has to collect 1 million signatures within a year, whilst meeting thresholds in at least 7 of the 27 Member States to trigger a response by that Institution and a hearing in the European Parliament. This is an agenda-setting instrument which does not put an obligation on the Commission to propose legislation, and therefore not an instrument of direct democracy of the type familiar to Swiss citizens. It does though have more force than a simple petition and is subject to more formal procedures.

Why is this forum so inspiring?
The main reason is that speaker after speaker puts the emphasis on the need to bring the instruments of participatory and representative democracy together, and that not only are there dangers and drawbacks in seeing them in isolation from each other, but that they must reinforce each other and come together to be effective. Each process should be seen as part of the historic struggle to expand the franchise. This approach is needed for the reform of ECIs as proposed in the 9-point plan below.

First though, an explanation of the origins of this plan in a specific ECI demanding full political rights for mobile EU citizens. Voters Without Borders (VWB) is the name given to a taskforce of Erasmus students which campaigned for this ECI. The aims remain to reform the existing rights of 13.7 million mobile voters in local and European elections and extend them to regional and national elections, as well as to referendums, whilst taking into account the interests of 23.7 million third-country nationals, thus working towards universal suffrage. The ECI failed on signature collection, but succeeded in other ways, such as in output and advocacy work. The fact that only 8,762 signatures were collected despite intense efforts, particularly on social media, shows that unfortunately it is not possible for a group of young people to collect 1 million signatures, even though the aim of ECIs is to give citizens a stronger voice in a Europe of well-organised stakeholders and lobbies. Only 7% of attempted ECIs have reached the threshold. The real cost is in the region of 1 euro per signature. To be successful, full-time professional coordination and access to multimedia marketing are essential. Even that is not enough. There has to be an extensive and dedicated network to campaign nationally and which is lacking on voting rights — a curious blind spot in funding and civil society engagement. Collecting 1 million signatures out of a population of 447 million sounds easy, but not all ECIs have the emotional appeal to reach the whole population. But should there not on the contrary be a means for minority forces to join forces across and make their voice heard at European level? An analysis was carried out by the Commission into the signatures of the VWB ECI which showed that its client-base was not the whole population, but primarily the 5 % which have spent some time living abroad in the EU.

Against this background, reform of this instrument is necessary. The ECI is celebrating its 10th anniversary. First reforms were introduced in 2020 to encourage less red tape, make the Commission’s offer of a free server for signature collection permanent and set up a forum to provide support to organisers (Regulation (EU) 2019/788). The reforms have encouraged more ECIs to get off the ground, and do make some difference but not a fundamental one. For that, further changes to simplify the regulation are necessary but also reforms in the spirit of this forum to stop seeing the ECI in isolation and link it to other democratic instruments.

Here is a 9-point plan which we hope will encourage further debate (click on each point to find out more):

In 2021, the ECIT Foundation joined a coalition of organisers led by EUMANS and wrote to the Commission to express concern that the general awareness of ECIs was disastrously low. VWB had certainly expected a more high-profile ECI portal to encourage signatures. The Europa website and all the Institutions should highlight the instrument. It is difficult for organisers to explain both what ECIs are and get their particular message across. The coalition commissioned an opinion poll which showed that in a selection of Member States only 2.4% of the population had heard of ECIs. This led the European Parliament to vote for an experimental awareness-raising budget. More though is needed from the EU Institutions, national governments and public service broadcasters.

The offer to host the secure online signature collection by the Commission represents a considerable saving for organisers by comparison with commissioning their own system which in future they will not be allowed to do. Having a monopoly should place a public service obligation on the Institution to make signature collection as easy as possible and work with organisers. Whilst the process should be more formal than for a simple petition, it should not be too burdensome bearing in mind that the Commission is not obliged to act on a successful ECI. A statement of support, as opposed to a vote, should not require an ID number — name, place of residence and signature being sufficient. The list of requirements has been reduced over the last 10 years, but not enough to make a difference.

In the revision of the regulation, the Commission fought for lowering the age from 18 to 16 but this was resisted by the Council of Ministers, although individual countries are moving in this direction. In Austria and Malta for instance the minimum voting age is 16, in Greece 17. It should be recognised that organising, discussing and supporting an ECI is an act of active European Citizenship for young people. A number of EU resolutions and the citizen-led Conference on the Future of Europe have emphasised the need for more European citizenship education. For the VWB ECI, a big drawback was that 23.7 million third-country nationals living in the EU could not sign. Resident non-citizens are just as affected by EU law as citizens. Furthermore, EU law has a spill over effect on neighbouring countries. Is more Europe-wide thinking necessary?

If it’s not possible for a group of young people to collect 1 million signatures, clearly something is wrong as it should be! This should be the slogan of the forum set up by the Commission to help organisers. The quality of advice from the forum about the legal basis of the ECI, fundraising, coalition building and promotion is excellent, and the Commission department responsible for registering and managing ECIs is also helpful. ECI organisers do though need to reach a sufficient level of professional organisation to have the time and capacity to benefit fully from the support of the forum and other EU services. Often, support can depend as much on luck of finding the right contacts at the right time as a more formal training session with the forum. What is needed is a change of administrative culture in the Commission to allow the forum to provide more hands-on tailor-made support and to be more proactive rather than waiting for inquiries. This could make a difference, but not enough on its own to achieve the above aim. A possible performance indicator for the forum would be to double the very low score of the large number of least-well performing ECIs, for example.

There is a danger that ECIs, like other instruments of democracy, can be captured by powerful interests which already have a voice and influence in the EU legislative process. The danger can be counter-acted and a more level playing field established by a joint effort by the Commission and leading European foundations to set up a special fund to which organisers could apply before they launch the ECI. The problem in the absence of such a fund is an acute disparity in the availability of resources as the declarations by organisers on the ECI portal show. Funders are naturally cautious and wary of instruments such as ECIs which are ambitious but do not guarantee results. There is therefore a tendency in the absence of a dedicated common fund where risks can be shared for individual funders to support specific ECIs, but often at a late stage when they have already proved their worth. Risks can be reduced by means-testing applications and applying criteria such as the public interest in the ECI and the chances of success.

The ECIT Foundation has raised this issue with the coalition of ECI organisers. The 94% of ECIs which do not achieve one million signatures do create shared knowledge, involvement with the EU and wider coalition-building across Europe — assets which will disappear after signature collection finishes, so that a considerable effort and investment of people’s time can be lost. There is no single answer to this question which depends on individual organisers. One possibility would be to turn the citizens' committee and coalition of organisations set up for the ECI into a permanent legal structure to pursue the aims and for which a European association statute would be a useful instrument. The EU Institutions can encourage such processes. For example, the European Parliament’s Petitions Committee invited VWB to put forward its case after signature collection and decided to refer the issue of voting rights to the Committee on Constitutional Affairs. There is therefore a chance that the ECI will be taken up by the European Parliament as its own legislative initiative.

This is the most important of our recommendations. It is also the most difficult to achieve. The process by which reforms to make the EU more accessible to citizens, transparent and democratic has been largely piecemeal – a step-by-step approach. The follow-up to the Conference on the Future of Europe may bring about a more holistic approach with the online participation forum for the conference becoming permanent and bringing together different points of information, advice, problem-solving and participation in a one-stop-shop. The Conference also showed that citizens’ assemblies can work at the European level with six assemblies of 200 randomly selected citizens producing wide-ranging recommendations. This approach could also become more permanent and linked to the topics of specific ECIs to give them a more deliberative character and test out their demands. When ECIs were first designed, many expected that they could be a tool to gain support from political parties in the run-up to the European elections – this could still happen and would be a desirable way to bring participatory democracy and voting in elections closer together. ECIT is developing a practical example of a new ECI on European citizenship education to show that initiatives, making complaints, petitions, access to documents or contributing to consultations are all inter-related tools which can be used in the pursuit of the same ends.

The ECI regulation is a rare instance where ownership of a process is shared by organisers and the Commission as guardian of EU standards. ECI organisers are beginning to come together and the sharing of experience is particularly valuable not just on technical issues but also for promoting each other’s initiatives to increase signatures. Many ECIs are similar, demanding a greener Europe closer to citizens’ concerns with better guarantees to minimum income and access to health and other public services, whilst being more respectful of minorities and the rights of human beings and all living creatures. The ECI organisers and a wider community come together at least twice a year in forums organised by the European Commission and the Economic and Social Committee. Between such meetings there should be regular opportunities for sharing best practice and engagement with EU interlocutors.

Finally, ECIT has pioneered the concept of a Statute on European Citizenship which has the support of both the European Parliament and the Conference on the Future of Europe. This 30-article proposal contains the idea of making Europe Day on 9 May a public holiday, on which the message should not only be what has Europe done for us but what we can do for a better Europe. We are certainly not the only ones to make such a proposal which has also come forcefully from the Conference as well. As part of awareness raising under 1., this could become the special day for volunteering to support a European cause and sign as many ECIs, petitions to the European Parliament and other appeals as possible. In this way, more ECIs would be boosted towards their one million target.