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European Citizens’ Initiatives: Stalled at the Starting Line?

Date

02 Jul 2012

How can the citizen have more of a voice in European affairs? This was the question considered at a conference organised by Toute l’Europe in cooperation with ECAS on 29 June in Paris and attended by 100 participants (program of the conference).

The theme was European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECIs) whereby a million citizens from a minimum of 7 Members States can demand a legislative proposal from the European Commission. Participants showed strong support for this new transnational agenda setting right and belief in its potential over time to bring citizens closer to Europe.

It was recognised however that the collection of over 1 million signatures with this formal system is not the same as an instant petition on social media. The conference therefore provided for the strategic European citizen, expert advice and recommendations on communication, coalition and fundraising.

Contrary to some expectations, this new instrument is not being captured by organised lobbies. The conference heard from citizens’ committees for genuine grassroots initiatives. Advocates for causes such as allowing more people to benefit from EU exchange programmes and find jobs in other Member States or to be allowed to vote there in national elections were arguing in favour of more European citizenship as one answer to the economic and political crisis.

ECI organisers expressed however their anger and frustration due to the fact that three months after the start of ECIs on 1 April 2012, it is impossible for them to start collecting signatures due to the absence of a secure online system. The free software provided by the Commission is neither user-friendly nor complete. To remedy this situation, the preparatory and technical work to create the platform, carry out the risk assessment and the storage of data on a secure server represents start-up and on-going maintenance costs beyond what the grass-root citizen can afford.

In order to solve the problem, ECAS has invested its own funds and with the support and pro-bono contribution of Gov2U and Deloitte has done the preliminary work to set up the platform and carry out the risk assessment. In order to be able to offer this facility free of charge to organisers, ECAS has written to the Commission proposing an immediate practical solution whereby the latter would complete this initiative by providing and maintaining a secure server for signature storage. In this way civil society organisations would be responsible to help individual ECIs, maintaining their independence and the Commission for the general supportive infrastructure.

As stressed in Paris, the Commission and the other EU Institutions and bodies can do more than provide just a contact point for organisers. The conference recommended for example support for preliminary investigations and networking, translation costs and ways to encourage cross-border tax relief for support to ECIs. At the same time, not everything can or should be done by the EU Institutions. Civil society must develop its own multi-disciplinary help-desk, an objective that is bringing together a wide range of organisations. Such a practical partnership approach should be tested now to solve the problem of providing a secure server and allow motivated European citizens to get started. 

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