While there are high hopes that the petitions will help address the European Union’s 'democratic deficit', not all member states have implemented the legislation and some fear the procedure will be too bureaucratic to live up to its ambitions.
The ECI, made possible by the Lisbon Treaty, allows citizens from at least seven member states to suggest legislation to the Commission should they receive a minimum 1 million signatures in support.
Speaking at a conference presenting the registration website, Danish Minister for European Affairs Nicolai Wammen said the initiative would help address the "distrust" that "has been increased by the crisis that the EU finds itself in at present."
Registration itself appears to be relatively easy, requiring submission of an initiative by a committee of seven citizens, each from a different member state. EU officials stressed that they would only be rejected at this stage if they were "manifestly" frivolous, opposed to European values (such as "human dignity, freedom, equality, the rule of law") or fell out of the Commission's legislative powers.
National systems unready
A great deal of the implementation is at national level. National authorities must validate signatures and certify that organisers' computer systems adequately protect the signers' personal data.
Maroš Šefčovič, Commission Vice-president in charge of Interinstitutional Affairs and Administration, warned that many countries were not prepared. "I cannot hide my concerns that they will not all be ready on 1 April. Over one-third of member states have yet to designate the competent authorities for carrying out the checks and only a handful already have the relevant procedures in place," he said.
EU officials said that citizens could register initiatives by 1 April regardless of whether all 27 countries had implemented the ECI procedures.
The necessary information for signatures validation will differ according to each nation's legislation, which could include an individual's identification document number or address.
Nine countries do not require individual identification numbers (Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia and the United Kingdom). Other member states will require personal identification numbers, from such documents as passports, ID cards or driving licences, although this also varies according to the country.
Some NGOs and internet activists are critical of the Commission's implementation of the ECI, saying that the procedure is too bureaucratic and closed to social media.
Olivier Hoedemann, research and campaign coordinator with the Corporate Europe Observatory, a political watchdog, fears that this will make it difficult for poorly funded, grassroots groups to pass initiatives.
"Collecting one million signatories in a short period of time is never a simple exercise, but the rules for the ECI add bureaucratic hurdles that will be hard to handle for anyone but large well-funded organisations," he said.
Those launching an initiative are required to disclose sources of funding from sponsors that exceed €500 per year.
Šefčovič said he expected social media to play a major role in gathering signatures, allowing the citizens’ initiative to bring “real changes” to EU democracy, citing the Arab Spring as an example of citizen action through such networks.
However, some say the EU data protection rules will hamper the use of social media. Xavier Dutoit, chief technology officer with Tech to the People, an IT services provider for NGOs and political groups, was critical. “The European Commission requires that you encrypt the data collected and you decrypt them only to send them to the national authorities, so we can’t really use them for viral marketing or social network buzz."
“So for instance if you sign my petition, I can't display your name in the ‘who just signed’ even if you accept, nor can I send you a newsletter in two weeks,” he said.
For his part, Hoedemann believes full use of online networks in the citizens’ initiative would make it more democratic. "Allowing easy use of social media for signature collection would lower the hurdles and give grassroots citizens groups a better chance, but it remains unclear whether this will be fully permitted,” he said. [EurActiv will publish a story on the role of social media in the European Citizens' Initiative on Monday]