Spread the word about this EU push for citizen participation

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Most people probably won’t have even heard of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), introduced on the 1st April last week. Hailed as the first transnational instrument of participatory democracy in world history, it allows members of the public to call for new European laws on issues of their choice, provided they have a million supporting signatures from at least seven member states. But despite its alleged aim of bringing the EU closer to its citizens, it hasn’t aroused much interest outside of the so-called ‘Brussels Bubble’. Instead, it seems to have primarily got the attention of lobbyists eager to use it to their advantage. If the initiative is to succeed in actually giving a voice to everyday citizens rather than special interest groups, it is crucial that more people are made aware of it and how they can become involved.

The EU has long suffered from a perceived democratic deficit, exacerbated by the financial crisis and the rise to power of unelected technocrats in Italy and Greece. Therefore it is understandable that many critics see the ECI as nothing but a PR gimmick designed to boost the EU’s democratic legitimacy, with UKIP MEP Roger Helmer describing it as “mere window dressing”. Perhaps it doesn’t help that the new initiative stems from the Lisbon Treaty, which many people feel was unfairly rammed down their throats.

Yet the ECI does represent a small but significant step towards greater participatory democracy in the EU. Though the Commission won’t be compelled to introduce legislation in response to the proposed initiatives, it has to give them ‘serious consideration,’ including a public hearing in the European Parliament where it must explain its actions to the initiative’s organisers. That makes sense, after all a million signatures represents just 0.2% of the EU’s population, so automatically adopting proposed laws would risk creating a tyranny of the minority.

Instead, the ECI will serve as a way of creating more of a public debate about the direction of European politics, and will allow citizens to directly influence the policy agenda. There is also talk of building on the initiative to create more powerful forms of public participation. Former Vice-President of the European Parliament Diana Wallis described the ECI as a “toe in the water of direct democracy,” adding that if it worked well it could be expanded to allow citizens to suggest treaty changes or European wide referendums in certain areas.

However, some civil society groups are concerned that getting the required transnational support and overcoming the burdensome administrative process of filing an initiative will be beyond the reach of individual citizens or small organisations, especially within the current one year time limit. Many fear that well-organised and financed corporate lobbies, already a disproportionate force in EU politics, will hijack the process to pursue their own economic interests. Lobbying firm Bell Pottinger has already claimed that the ECI “provides an exciting opportunity for businesses,” and pointed out that due to the stringent requirements only petitions backed by “substantial resources” are likely to succeed.  For this reason, some have started disparagingly referring to the ECI as the European Lobbyist Initiative.

Large multinational organisations will also probably find it relatively easy to gather sufficient support. Back in 2010 Greenpeace had already collected 1 million signatures for an initiative to ban genetically modified crops until an independent scientific body is established to assess their impact. Meanwhile the Vatican has launched an initiative on ‘protecting the right to life.’ While some people will certainly support these causes, they are hardly the sort of grassroots, volunteer-led campaigns which truly empower individual citizens.

However, some initiatives are being initiated by ambitious individuals and smaller organisations at a more local level. One aims to legalise gay marriage in all EU countries. Another wants to ensure universal access to water and sanitation throughout the EU and prevent the liberalisation of water services. A group of social movements including Occupy are calling for a guaranteed unconditional basic income to be given to all citizens, in order to eradicate poverty and overcome social divisions. Of particular relevance in light of the government’s latest surveillance plans are several initiatives aiming to promote greater internet freedom and repeal the controversial EU directive on data retention.

The ECI is still in its experimental stages, and it will be some time before we know whether it can really improve political participation in the EU. But in order for these grassroots initiatives to stand a chance of succeeding, the EU needs to relax the prohibitively strict conditions on signature collection and increase the time limit from the current 12 months, as well as providing more support to ECI organisers. Social networking can also play a significant role in mobilising political support, as demonstrated by the Kony 2012 phenomenon or the protests against ACTA, the controversial international anti-counterfeiting treaty whose ratification by the EU has now been put on hold.  But most of all it is essential for citizens to be aware about the new process so they can choose to participate, and in this it is national governments and the media who have a major responsibility.

Published in the Guardian, 9 April 2012

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