Šef?ovi?: Citizens’ Initiative will bring Europe closer together

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European Commission Vice President Maroš Šef?ovi? is confident that the European Citizens’ Initiative, one of the new democratic tools pushed forward by the Lisbon Treaty and to be launched on 1 April, will contribute to bringing Europe closer to its citizens and create a "genuine European public space".

Maroš Šef?ovi?, a former ambassador of Slovakia to the EU, is European Commission vice president responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration. Šef?ovi? spoke to EURACTIV Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti.

Time has come for the final countdown towards the launch of the first real European Citizens’ Initiative. Will we have an orderly process?

Yes! The Commission is ready for the first European Citizens' Initiative, once it is legally possible to launch them after 1 April 2012. We have developed a state-of-the-art and user-friendly website, which will be available in all 23 official languages of the European Union. The website will provide clear information on the rules and procedures, guiding potential signatories and organisers through the different steps of the process. It will also serve as the official register for the Citizens' Initiative, enabling citizens to find information on ongoing initiatives and allowing organisers to launch their initiatives. The website will be launched this week [26 January] at a conference I am hosting on the Citizens' Initiative.

In addition to the website, a comprehensive guide to the Citizens' Initiative has been published and will be distributed widely across the Union.

We have also developed open-source software to help organisers to collect signatures online, which will be available for download free of charge.

Finally, we have been working hand-in-hand with the member states in order to ensure that all the necessary measures are in place at national level by 1 April.

Pan-European campaigning directed at ordinary citizens is something brand new, so only a few understand it's often underestimated challenge. What would be your advice to an ordinary citizen wanting to launch an ECI?

I think pan-European campaigning will not be as difficult as one might think. In my view what we underestimate is the extent to which EU citizens from different countries and different walks of life have common ideas and concerns. Therefore, what I strongly recommend to any citizen wanting to launch an ECI is to get out there and make their idea known. Nowadays they don't need to rent a bus and tour every town, city and village in at least seven EU countries. Thanks to social media, they can build support for their cause with just a few clicks of the mouse.

What is important before launching an initiative is to be well prepared. A Citizens' Initiative needs to respect certain conditions – for example, it must concern a policy area where the European Commission is able to propose legislation. Therefore I strongly recommend that citizens consult the Commission's website and read the guide before getting started.

EU member states are currently preparing the juridical and practical implementation of the ECI at the national level. This includes the certification of online collection systems and the verification procedure for signatures and statements of support. From a first assessment do you reckon these are simple enough across the EU so that citizens are not puzzled?

Member states may use different internal procedures in order to certify online collection systems and verify statements of support. For example, some member states may use random sampling in order to verify statements of support whereas others may choose to check every single statement.

However, the procedure for the organisers of initiatives to request these verifications and certification will be the same regardless of the member state in question, since this is set out in the Regulation.

Beyond the 26 January launch conference, how do you see information and help desk support until the April 1 deadline?

In addition to the comprehensive website and guide that I have already mentioned, the Commission has a central point of contact for all questions on the ECI. This is provided by the Europe Direct central information service.

How many ECIs do you anticipate will be successful in 2012? One million signatures is not that much from a continent with half a billion people, and people could vote online for many petitions: Is there a risk that the EU could be flooded by too many initiatives?

Many citizens and stakeholders have been gearing up for this new right and already have initiatives in the pipeline. I look forward to the many interesting ideas that will be put on the table. I am confident that we will be able to deal with whatever comes to us.

Given the novelty of the process and the low registration threshold of seven citizens, numerous ECI attempts might be turned down for lack of a legal basis or poor fit with 'EU values'. Could a high 'kill rate' damage the reputation of the ECI process or even of the Commission?

The criteria for rejecting an ECI at the registration stage are fairly restrictive – i.e., if it is manifestly outside the Commission's competence, manifestly abusive or frivolous or manifestly against EU values – and are clearly explained in our guide. Therefore I do not think there is a risk of damage to the reputation of the ECI or the Commission. 

Direct democracy experts say that ECI is too weak to bridge the democratic gap (see Andreas Gross Interview). Do you really think this tool can advance European democracy and create an EU public space?

Yes, I am convinced that the ECI will contribute to bringing Europe closer to its citizens and creating a genuine European public space, not only because it provides a direct gateway for citizens to make their voices heard in Brussels but also because it will foster a real cross-border debate about EU issues.

You and your predecessor Siim Kallas, as well as some leading MEPs, have worked both on ECI and also on the European Transparency Initiative (ETI). This led to the joint register of the Commission and Parliament for interest groups, now operational. While ETI is more Brussels-centered and ECI more legislative, both processes aim to modernise the EU system and enhance trust of citizens. And both are supposed to have great media impact. What is your communication policy for both of them?

The European Transparency Initiative has led to a number of new and innovative transparency instruments. One is the Transparency Register, set up together with the Parliament to provide information on organisations involved in activities aimed at influencing the EU decision-making process, including lobbying. Another is the Financial Transparency System which provides information on the beneficiaries of EU funding. Thanks to these initiatives, citizens now have access to a wide range of information never before available to them, even in most of our member states. The Commission intends to promote these new sources of information through the media, our website and also through a number of dedicated information seminars and publications in the coming months.

Some commentators hope that ECIs from 2012 will enrich the 2013 debates on party electoral platforms, and support more lively elections in 2014, hopefully with more voters. What do you think of this scenario? Do you expect ECIs to influence the democratic mandate that the 2014-2019 Commission will receive from the Parliament?

I certainly believe that the cross-border debates generated by ECIs can only have a positive effect on party electoral platforms and on the way the 2014 election campaigns will be run.

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