European petitions in search for ‘helpdesk’ anchored in civil society

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The new European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) will be launched on 1 April 2012, beginning a new era for participative democracy in Europe. At a conference on 20 March, several challenging questions were raised to EU Institutions: Are member states ready? Is there enough communication? Are ECIs relevant to the 2014 elections? Could there be a neutral civil society helpdesk to assist initiators?

The Conference on ‘European Citizens’ Initiatives: on the starting line’ was organised by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), a civil society group, and Democracy International.

In a keynote speech, Maroš Šef?ovi?, vice president of the European Commission in charge of ECI, stressed that it will “change the game of EU policy-making”.

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The first challenge is the degree of readiness of member states in light of the official launch, including certifying the number of signatures. Besides technical and legal issues, the commitment of member states is variable. Moreover, said Šef?ovi?, “it is important to raise awareness amongst Europeans, including promotional campaigns at national level”.

According to Lucy Swan of the European Commission, the certification process at country level is not an issue, since most member states have either implemented the regulation into national law or have a certification process in place anyway.

A comparative study undertaken by the Open Society Institute amongst the EU27 shows that most of them are lagging behind. For Swan, “member states should take a very pragmatic approach to the collection of support and exchange good practices amongst them”.

The second challenge is the need for a neutral civil society helpdesk to assist future initiators, in terms of legal, communication and translation support. Meglena Kuneva, former EU Commissioner and honorary president of ECAS said: “There is a limit to what the Institutions can do as they have to be impartial. The helpdesk should be provided by civil society organisations, which are neutral.”

The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) and The Committee of the Regions (CoR) are also exploring how they could support such services.

In January, the Commission launched an ECI official registration website and will use Europe Direct’s 400 generalist contact points to provide informal advice to initiators “not to prejudice the process”, as said Swan. For German MEP Gerald Häfner (Greens), one of the originators of the ECI, a helpdesk “needs to be a separate organisation from the institutions supported by public funds and bringing together civil society experts.” This is essential for small NGOs, lacking resources to run such a demanding process.

A few support projects have emerged such as, using social media tools to federate initiators during the pre-registration phase, or individual NGOs like ECAS and Democracy International are ready to assist. However, funding is lacking to unleash the ECI potential as a game changer in EU policy-making.

Many questions remain. Are all institutions ready? Are social media and e-participation the answer to Europe’s democratic deficit? Will Europe be a Europe of the citizens? The ECI is a first step in this journey toward a European participatory democracy.

“We are establishing the first transnational instrument of participative democracy: it’s a premiere!” said Bruno Kaufmann, President of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe.

To be launched by the European Commission, Council and Parliament on 1 April 2012, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is opening up the European Union policy process to its citizens and civil society. The ECI is the first transnational instrument of participatory democracy in the world.

The ECI (2012) as well as political parties’ debates (2013) and campaigns could play a key role in the running up to 2014 European elections.

This second annual conference co-organised by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) and Democracy International took place on the eve of the registration of the firsts ECIs. It was a follow up to 26 January conference, “Warming up for the Citizens' Initiative”, hosted by Commission Vice President Maroš Šef?ovi? who is in charge of ECI. It aimed to be a response of civil society to the Institutions.

Organising and running an ECI is a huge task and the cost of launching a cross-border campaign is estimated at €1 million, according to ECAS and Democracy International.

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