The internet will be crucial for ordinary citizens wanting to launch an initiative and willing to gather one million signatures across at least seven countries.
“Social networks can be the partners to facilitate the match between the political world, this initiative and the internet,” said Erika Mann, former MEP and current Facebook managing director for EU affairs, told the 26 January conference.
However, citizens should not expect that social networks will create tailored platforms for each initiative. “Initiators should be platform-agnostic if they want to reach out to one million people,” argued Google’s director for public policy, Simon Hampton.
The major test is not the platform per se, but whether citizens feel really committed to push the initiative forward.
“Outside of Europe citizens, actions have changed things. It is up to the European Commission and the citizens of Europe to change things here,” Hampton said, referring to the Arab spring and how citizens empowered themselves to make a drastic change in their political system using the internet and social networks as tools.
Internet experts, however, made the point that online marketing of ideas will be crucial in order to spread the buzz about initiatives in the making.
If the initiatives gather a critical mass of virtual supporters, then a real campaign can shape up and organisers will be able to collect hundreds of signatures. “A citizen needs to be convinced before he is willing to give his ID number and sign the petition,” said Tony Venables from the European Citizens Action Service.
Spreading the buzz cannot be limited to the internet, though. A multimedia approach to galvanise the interest, the trust and the commitment of people in the new democratic tool will be needed. “If you don’t raise the awareness of people out there, you create a fertile ground for initiatives that will be hostile and Eurosceptic,” noted Venables.
Not enough information
The perception among civil society organisations is that neither the European Commission nor member states are doing enough to inform people on this new European collective right.
Green MEP Gerald Häfner suggested that “ECI must be made a big thing.” He proposed that the three European presidents in charge, José Manuel Barroso, Herman Van Rompuy and Martin Schulz come together to tell people that 2012 will be the start of a new era for European citizens and that they should actively take part in it.
A European Citizens’ Initiative could prove quite cryptic for ordinary citizens as it is an invitation to the European Commission to propose a law in a field where it has the power to do so, such as environmental or public health, or agricultural policies. The legal advice is then essential, considering that not many people are aware of what the EU does.
“We need to provide a sort of checklist to allow citizens to verify whether the initiative fulfils all the criteria,” noted Mercedes Bresso, the president of the Committee of the Regions, adding that a repository of all the initiatives should also be provided so that citizens can learn from other campaigns.
Carving listening skills
Citizens also will expect to be listened to if they embark in such campaigns. The European Commission is expected to present its formal response after a careful examination and a public hearing in the European Parliament.
Hampton recalled that public protests and citizens’ campaign can change legislation. He highlighted as an example the protests in the United States that pushed Congress to reconsider the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). “The petition led to influence the US government and the ECI will put the Commission under scrutiny, but citizens will expect a response,” he said.
Alain Lamassoure, one of the leading MEPs involved in the design of the EU participatory tool, insisted that responses should be given to all initiatives, even those that will not succeed.
“The objective is to have enough initiatives so that we can make an assessment in due time,” he said.
And the Parliament needs to be closely associated, even if the Commission remains in the lead, MEPs stressed.
The leaflet produced by the Commission indeed fails to highlight the role played by the European Parliament. Hungarian socialist MEP Zita Gurmai has scolded the Commission for not having been inclusive enough.
“We have to be realistic. We have a crisis and it is not the best time to start an ECI, but we have the great opportunity to listen to citizens and the European Parliament public hearing are essential,” she said.
The European Citizens’ Initiative puts the citizens on an equal footing with the Council and European Parliament when it comes to proposing legislation, even though the power remains in the hands of the Commission.