Revising the ECI: How to make it ‘fit for purpose’

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ECIs have so far proved ineffective. [Stop TTIP/ Flickr]

Following the high hopes for the European Citizens’ Initiative as a new instrument of participatory democracy, it has proven to be ineffective, largely unknown to citizens and neither user-friendly nor cost-effective, writes Assya Kavrakova.

Assya Kavrakova is the director of the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS).

Five years since the European Citizens’ Initiative came into effect, only three ECIs have managed to collect the 1 million signatures required for a Commission response. Only one has led to a follow-up proposal.

European Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans’ plans to revise and improve the ECI Regulation later this year, announced at the annual ECI Day on 11 April, are long overdue and come after numerous requests by civil society organisations, including ECAS, to make it ‘fit for purpose’.

As part of its mission to empower citizens to exercise their rights in the EU and using its participation in the stakeholder group of the REFIT platform for Better Regulation, ECAS submitted an evidence-based opinion that was adopted by the REFIT platform in June 2016 and called for a thorough revision of the ECI Regulation.

Here are seven proposals on how to best make it fit for purpose:

Legal admissibility test of ECIs as a prerequisite for their registration

The first hurdle encountered by ECI organisers is getting their proposed initiative registered by the Commission. All the initiatives that have been refused registration so far have been identified to fall “manifestly outside” the Commission’s powers.

The practice suggests, however, that in a number of cases the legal admissibility test was too narrowly applied, the decision to refuse registration was arbitrary (e.g. because initiatives with similar characteristics were treated differently) and/or the reasons given for rejection were incomplete.

We recommend:

  • Define the remit of the “legal act” and/or of the political actions that the European Commission can initiate or undertake;
  • Provide a definition of what it means to be ‘“manifestly outside” the Commission’s powers;
  • Clarify the procedure for the legal admissibility test and increase the transparency of the decision-making process;
  • Secure adequate legal advice for ECI organisers with regard to the legal basis of their initiative.

Numerous and different data requirements

Different personal data requirements for the verification of an ECI lead to the use of different forms for the collection of statements of support in the different member states, which is burdensome. In addition, some EU citizens residing outside their Member State of nationality, estimated to number 11 million, are not able to sign.

We recommend revising Article 6 and Annex III and IV of Regulation 211/2011 to establish a simplified single statement of support form (preferred option) and adopt a unified approach based on either nationality or residence to allow all EU citizens to sign.

Citizens’ committee and the liability of organisers

At present, the (at least) seven European citizens who initiate a citizens’ committee are personally liable for each step of the ECI process, including the work of all volunteers across Europe. The fear of the risks linked to personal liability is one of the reasons why potential organisers do not launch ECIs.

We recommend providing ECI organisers with the possibility to establish their citizens’ committees as legal entities.

The start of the 12-month collection period

ECI organisers have one year to collect signatures. The starting date coincides with the registration of the specific ECI by the Commission but organisers can only start collecting online signatures once the competent national authorities have certified the system.

In cases where the certification is finalised after the registration of the ECI by the Commission, the organisers are losing precious time for the collection of statements of support. Stakeholders also consider the one year deadline too short.

We recommend”

  • Streamlining and simplifying the ECI process – permanent free server, one single centralised system (OCS), simplified single statement of support form (preferred option), or;
  • Extending the collection period to 18 months, or;
  • Modifying the various steps for launching the ECI as follows: registration of an ECI and OCS certification, then the start of the collection of signatures.

Online collection of signatures – system, features

Setting up and running an ECI is costly and burdensome. The overall cost of an initiative makes the ECI easy to hijack by interest groups who typically have more resources than single EU citizens across Europe. Organisers who have used private servers have indicated the cost of the certification process to be about €30,000.

We recommend making available a permanent free server as a right of ECI organisers with a single centralised system that should be redesigned to address the current shortcomings.

ECI awareness raising campaigns

In addition to promoting their specific ECI, organisers need to inform EU citizens and raise awareness about the ECI, which poses an additional burden on their limited campaigning resources.

We recommend carrying out awareness raising campaigns at all levels (local, regional, national and European) to promote the existence of the ECI as a tool for transnational agenda setting in the EU.

Follow up successful ECIs

The ECI leaves citizens frustrated due to its lack of impact. Moreover it is not cost-effective, considering the great efforts to organise it and the low certainty of impact due to the non-binding follow up.

We recommend the European Commission be bound to follow up a successful ECI. This does not necessarily mean a direct change to EU legislation. The follow-up could be in the form of an inter-institutional debate on the ECI results for example.

After five years of frustration for ECI organisers, and a rise in populism and Euroscepticism across the EU, an ECI that is ‘fit for purpose’ could reinvigorate European citizenship and restore trust in the European project.

The Commission needs to act now to improve the ECI and give EU citizens a voice on the issues that matter to them.