Europe meets superdemocracy

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

With two month to go before the first European Citizens' Initiative is registered, governments must invest in a proper participative infrastructure that would make people aware of their rights and build trust in the new forms of empowerment, writes Bruno Kaufmann.

Bruno Kaufmann heads the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe.

"Trust is a very limited commodity in our modern world. A poll carried out last year in five European countries revealed that less than 1 in 10 believe politicians act with honesty and integrity. It’s easier for most people to say what they don’t like and don’t want – the negatives. Many easily identify their own particular ‘bad guys’ – the other team, a different religion, a certain political party, or even a very specific international network.

This makes the formation of trustworthy political institutions a very, very difficult task, especially at the transnational level, where the markets, the big money, the “one percent” are the current rulers, while even heads of state  and of course the people – the 99% – seem to be just be bystanders.

But there have been attempts to go the other way: to establish common political institutions by legal convention and political assembly alike. Unfortunately, many of those developments which evolved over the last hundred years or so have remained out of reach of ‘normal’ people. This is also true of the European Union, probably the most successful transnational political body to date.

This lack of a participatory dimension is, however, about to change. In a few weeks the European Citizens’ Initiative will begin to become operational.

In concrete terms: from 1 April it will be possible to register citizens’ initiatives designed to set the agenda of the EU. That’s really a huge step. Never before eligible citizens have had a legal possibility to develop, register and validate their own transnational policy initiatives.

To do this you will need a committee of seven EU citizens, a lot of strategic and legal competence and then the strength to convince not less than a million fellow EU citizens of the merits of your case. To be sure, the European Citizens’ Initiative can and will be used in a negative way, as a ‘no’-tool. But the new procedure is primarily designed to be a proactive instrument, for use by people with new ideas, concepts and concrete proposals. That’s good, because we need such new ways of generating positive energy in Europe – by the people, for the people.

A critical environment

But whether or not the new citizens’ initiative will become a success and a democratic milestone also depends on the whole environment within which the first transnational direct-democratic tool will operate. This is where the Chinese Propaganda Department and the Finnish Parliament come into the picture.

What both of them show is that it is not enough merely for instruments to be available to the people to make their voices heard. Something more than that is needed – people must trust themselves. In China more than half a billion citizens now have access to the internet. They use it in such a way that today information are well known long before the government body in charge of disseminating information (more accurately propaganda) has done its work.

Like Twitter and Facebook in the “Arab Spring”, microblogs like Weibo offer new channels of communication within China and beyond. This is civic empowerment, officially welcomed by the government but in reality deeply questioned, as the Chinese Propaganda Department is now working on legislation to make individual registration of each microblogger in his or her real name mandatory – so that the communist government and others in the future will be able to trace critical opinions.

In Finland, which is praised as a safe haven for democrats, things look somewhat different: here the parliament has been encouraged by the forthcoming introduction of the European Citizens’ Initiative to introduce a national equivalent which on the surface appears to be even more accessible than the ECI, because Finns are basically free to propose whatever they would like to see at the national level. The Finnish system also introduces e-collection of signatures at the national level: a first in Europe.

However, the downside is that the Finnish parliament has introduced a clause which says that the names of all the signatories of successful initiatives (50,000 signatures have to be gathered within six months) will be fully disclosed after the signatures have been submitted to the parliament – another killer-provision which makes signature-gathering much more difficult, since everyone will know that their names may be published at a later stage and perhaps be used by party-political or other statisticians to track people’s preferences.

Now what has that to do with the ECI? A lot, as it shows that we are operating in a context in which strong principles and citizen-friendly procedures are not enough, but where what is needed in addition is a lot of goodwill – to make people aware of their new right – and a lot of trust in the ability and willingness of all involved to use this new tool appropriately – not misuse it.

Information, implementation, go!

With two months to go before the first ECIs are registered with the new initiative registry it is still too early to make a prediction about the practical success of the new tool. Yes, there is a lot of goodwill, but also a lot of distrust.

What we now need is for governments at all levels to use their powers to launch an information campaign and to invest in a proper participative infrastructure.

At the same time half of all the EU member states have still not decided how and by whom their part of the ECI work (certification and verification) will be done, something which needs to be closely monitored in the coming months.

Nonetheless, we should certainly be proud to be part of a hitherto unseen development: the setting up of a participative citizens’ process at a continental level. Europe meets superdemocracy. It is time for them to merge – and for us to launch the very first European Citizens’ Initiatives."

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