The European Citizens’ Initiative is struggling to gain momentum a year after being launched, bogged down by technical and bureaucratic hurdles that have prevented a single petition from meeting all the requirements, civic activists say.
ECIs are a form of petition created under the 2009 Lisbon Treaty to encourage grassroots involvement in European lawmaking.
Of the nearly 30 proposed ECIs only 14 have successfully registered and just one – focusing on water rights – has gathered the required one million signatures. But the latter falls short of requirements because the signatures come only from five EU states, two short of the minimum needed.
Civil society advocates who met in Brussels for 'ECI Day' on 9 April said campaigns are failing because they lack the technical support needed to meet the requirements.
Carsten Berg, director of ECI Campaign and deputy chairman of Democracy International, said: “It’s not so easy to get one million signatures. Everyone said it would be easy, but actually it wasn’t at all. Only one ECI collected a million, while three collected more than 200,000.”
Big international NGOs like Greenpeace or Amnesty International have snubbed ECIs because of the bureaucratic hurdles imposed and doubts over the promise that they would trigger a legislative proposal from Brussels.
“Regulations should spell out that institutions have responsibilities which should be clarified. That should be to help citizens. Only an independent help desk can do that,” said Tony Venables, director of the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS).
One problem singled out by Venables is that each national data protection authority has to examine whether the petition is in conformity with privacy rules. Because a minimum number of seven countries is required, this makes the system too burdensome, he says.
“Instead of a public-private decentralised system for online signature collection, we should be more centralised. Working towards European solutions, instead of having to clear everything with seven or eight [national] data protection services. Only one would be better,” said Venables.
In addition, some countries have required people to provide their identities for their signature to be accepted.
“ID requirements should also be dropped. Major simplification and lower costs remain important. Last time around, many people couldn’t vote because of ID requirements,” he said.
Carsten agreed. “Tear down restrictions, like data requirements, tear down this wall of barriers. We have to be careful not to lose momentum and extend the time period in which we can collect signatures to 24 months, not 18. On data requirements, nine member states have allowed not to require ID numbers. If they can do it, everyone can.”
Reducing bureaucracy considered as 'vital'
As a result, current attempts at collecting signatures across Europe for ECIs are struggling to take off. They are facing the problem of lacking coordination throughout campaigns, as well as insufficient assistance from independent organisations, as a civil society-led helpdesk does not yet exist.
“Alliance building and less bureaucracy is vital. We need big NGOs and a large number of citizens with a proper helpdesk,” said Christophe Leclercq, co-founder of Initiative.eu and founder of EURACTIV.
“Without budgets, communication, and lacking support, there is no point. It’s not anymore about the legal basis,” he said.
The revision of regulations should not only be reserved for bureaucrats, as civil society should equally be involved in the decision making process, said German MEP Gerald Häfner (Greens).
“We must prepare these things with the citizens, can’t be done alone. Both sides need to work together to get things done. Regular discussion between users, citizens and ultimate decision makers, including technical aspects, are essential. How often in the past have we failed to establish this connection,” Häfner said.