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Experts on EU democracy: Direct democracy in Europe still has a long way to go!

Date

07 May 2012

Meeting at the now-traditional Salzburg experts’ conference “European Citizens’ Initiative Summit”, participants took stock of the state of the new European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) right. Since April 1, this new right enables European citizens to propose European law if they manage to gather one million signatures for it. Nevertheless, it is still far from sure, whether or not the new initiative right can measure up to expectations because bureaucratic and financial hurdles might prove too high.

The conference took place on invitation by the Austrian Institute for European Law and Policy situated in Salzburg. It brought together representatives of the first registered Citizens’ Initiatives, scientists and officials from the EU and member states. They discussed the positive expectations put in the new right and the hurdles that stand to risk its success.

A wide range of topics 

According to European Commission officials, the first European Citizens‘ Initiatives may already be opened for signing as early as next week. Amongst other topics, there will be campaigns for an EU-wide nuclear phase-out, a ban on shops opening on Sundays or strengthening the European exchange programs. Hopes are high that such campaigns will kick-start political discussions that transcend borders. This way, the ECI could just happen to be the first step towards the European public sphere and mark a huge step forward for European democracy.

Hurdles remain

However, the assembled experts also heard that the financial situation of European Citizens’ Initiatives is proving to be a big issue. According to researchers, the collection of one million signatures may end up costing more than 700 000 Euro. Such costs may be hard to cope with, as experiences from national and regional level have shown that most citizens’ initiatives do not manage to cover their costs by way of private donations.

Furthermore, the rules for collecting signatures differ between member states. For example, while some states only ask for limited personal information, some others like Austria even demand ID numbers. On the other hand, the minimum age for signing an ECI is only 16 in Austria while the citizens of other EU states have to be at least 18 years old.

The internet as a political arena

One distinctive feature of the European Citizens‘ Initiative is the ability to sign online. But on the technical details, a lot remains to be desired: “Sadly, the EU and some governments did not listen to our advice to keep the technical and bureaucratic hurdles low. The online signing for example is far from safe. If done wrongly, there is a risk that personal data can be stolen or wrong information can be entered. At least the EU offers free software to initiators. Together with the Economic and Social Committee, we hope to be able to offer more concrete support for new initiatives in the next months”, Prof. Pichler of the Austrian Institute for European Law and Policy stated.

 
 
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