Citizens’ Initiative: Trust collective wisdom

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

The European Union will soon launch the European Citizens' Initiative, a new tool to enhance participatory democracy and dialogue between the EU institutions and citizens. Staffan Nilsson, president of the European Economic and Social Committee, is confident that the instrument will empower Europeans to deliver collective wisdom.

"To our normal awareness, a room filled with people is just a crowd. But arrange those people in the right way, with the right processes, and they can generate wisdom. I believe in the collective wisdom of European citizens emerging from the new democratic participatory practice – the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI).  

With the ECI coming into force on 1 April, the EU is exploring uncharted territory. We have Article 11.4 provision regulations set and into force from 1 April, national systems for collective signatures almost ready to go, guides have been published, plus a series of conferences and seminars having scrutinised all the political facets and mechanics of this unique European participatory democracy tool.

The European Economic and Social Committee has been closely following the public debate on the ECI so far. We have happily stepped in the circle of institutions, organisations and experts, all around the EU's first direct democracy baby which is just about to get on its feet and walk.

However, in this public debate I have often sensed reserves, concerns and fears. Then I wonder why is it that we are not patient and curious enough to learn what might collective wisdom and mobilisation from the grassroots look like? Why shouldn't we trust collective intelligence? A major activity of a democratic community such as the EU is to develop the attitudes, skills, supporting processes and institutions needed for people to engage and discover together creative consensus over an issue which is important to them and which probably has been neglected long time by their leaders and politicians.

And beyond this trust, to calm down certain critics who raise the concerns about initiatives which might go against fundamental rights or values of the Union: the ECI regulation is well drafted and 'water proof' with a strong role for the Commission in the registration process to deny registration for initiatives clearly outside of the EU's fundamental values, or outside of the EU's competences. The Committee therefore does not share these fears but welcomes the ECI as a valuable democratic tool to strengthen the role of citizens in setting the Union's agenda.

In our opinions, we have made specific proposals on the politics and mechanics of the citizens' initiative. On a general note and on our role, we see the EESC mainly contributing as communicator, facilitator and, when needed, as an institutional mentor.

Besides our EESC members' work of ambassadors and spokespersons of the EU at national and local level, spreading the word about the ECI among grassroots associations and groups of citizens, we at the EESC will of course do what we have always done for civil society organisations in Europe – facilitate dialogue and participation. We can enable initiators of emerging or ongoing initiatives to network, hold debates and possibly meet within our premises in Brussels. Others are doing it virtually and I welcome and encourage this too. The EESC is one of the houses of civil society and for civil society. The Committee will host debates and doesn't intend to take a stand on the content of an initiative at its emerging stage. We will enable communities to be created and grow around an initiative in order to generate collective wisdom and mobilisation. So we can and we will play a role as a platform for dialogue and networking.

We will also keep our core function – advising the Commission, Parliament and Council – so the Committee can offer timely advice by issuing opinions on the substance of an initiative.

The EESC may want to evaluate the ECI process and its effectiveness. Through its contacts on the ground, we can gather testimonies from organisers and citizens and feed them into the revision process. We may want to look at the ECI practicability, at its accessibility for ordinary citizens which are not necessarily under an umbrella association; at the outreach the ECI has to engage citizens with the EU; at which additional supportive measures are needed in the future; and at which bureaucratic hurdles or unexpected practical problems exist in the process, for example in the online collection process, the certifications or the requirements of ID cards in certain member states.

It is important to invest in our citizens; to communicate in an efficient and timely manner; and to ensure that processes are simple and that all involved institutions meet the organisational challenges in a transparent way, which is not clouded by other political agendas so that the goal set will be reached in full scale."

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