European Citizens’ Initiative: One year of challenges

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

A year of pushing for the first-ever European Citizens’ Initiative to get a million signatures has taught the organisers some lessons: e-democracy is a wonderful tool to close the gap between EU citizens and institutions, but technical barriers and a lack of trust have hindered its use, writes Simona Pronckuté.

Simona Pronckuté is a member of citizens’ committee of  the European Citizens’ Initiative “Fraternité 2020”.

Fraternité 2020 was the very first European Citizens’ Initiative, started with great enthusiasm by 50 citizens from all EU Member States without funds or affiliations to political parties. The beginning was a struggle with major problems with the online collection system (OCS), but later with the help of the European Commission, the first supporting MEPs and youth organizations, we started collecting signatures. The first signatures, the first interviews, the first invitations to international conferences – at that time everything looked very prominent – the organized group of European citizens, running the first ever European Citizens´ Initiative.

After one year experience with ECI, a few points came to my attention. Firstly, even if signing e-petitions and taking part in the European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECI) does not in general require many resources or much time commitment, better educated citizens have more time, money, and access to information, in order to become politically involved. Theoretically, the Internet facilitates the ability of European citizens to gather information about current European affairs e.g. on-going European Citizens Initiatives, mobilize communities via social networks, create diverse coalitions around policy problems, and lobby elected representatives which leads citizens’ participation in democratic governance. Secondly, a major barrier for the development of active e-participation in new  Member States is mistrust between governments and their citizens, for example, levels of trust as measured by Eurobarometer, Estonia: 10%, Croatia 13%, Hungary 14% – compared to e.g. 61% in Denmark.

The first ECI “Fraternité 2020“ had very limited funds (only few thousand euro), we had limited opportunities to organise events in different EU member states, limited access to participate in conferences and motivate civil society alongside, NGOs and universities in particular. The Treaty of Lisbon has marked a major step in the European integration process. On ther other hand, many European citizens had never heard about the ECI as a democratic tool introduced with the Treaty of Lisbon. This is a crucial point: in many EU member states citizens should provide their ID number or equivalent in order to sign an ECI. Estonia is the leader in e-democracy and e-voting but under current national rule, besides the “sensitive” data (ID number), another  requirement is to provide home address. As a result, only a handful of citizens were willing to do so. According to ECAS survey, EU citizens would accept to provide their name and place of birth. It is not sufficient for three minutes of online activism?

In one year ECI “Fraternité 2020“ has collected over 71 000 signatures. You might thinks that 71,000 signatures is not a lot, I would say that spending free time and weekends volunteering with on-line collection, dealing with all sort of questions and e-mails, this is a big contribution to the European civil society. In one year Erasmus related issues were debated couple of times at European level. This is a small success but shows that even a small group of well organized citizens can make a change at the highest level. All big achievements first start with small steps. Without having one million signatures, the organisers of Fraternité 2020 should feel proud of themselves – they were the pioneers. The European Citizens’ Initiatives might be a very successful democratic tool to bridge the gap between the EU institutions and civil society. In this way civic activism can empower citizens and shift politics toward greater participatory democracy. However, democracy is changing and developing. E-participation, e-democracy and citizens initiatives will play an increasingly important role in the modern civil society. We should look into the benefits of e-participation and successful ECIs across the EU such as“Right2Water”, “One of us” and “Stop vivisection” or alternative online petitions for citizens, decision-makers, and civil society. The organizers of an ECI are important partners for decision-makers, as they are best placed to know population’s needs.

Finally, Fraternité 2020 was the only ECI with a clear European vocation and prepared to take one uphill battle for united Europe at a time when due to the economic and financial crisis many people resort to nationalistic instincts and seem to favor erecting new walls, rather than tearing down existing barriers. Being an ECI foot soldier and the first to go into battle, we may not have succeeded with our first aim, but in this process, we have achieved much and helped remove obstacles.

This OpEd was first published here.

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