December 17, 2010
Erope’s political elite from Council to Parliament through Commission cannot have enough from congratulating itself for establishing the European Citizens’ Imitative, even though few countries actually have such an institution and it is little known what it is used for. If we do not want to end up in such dysfunctional political debates like many American states we must stop a lot of such initiatives very early. And it will be harder than starting them.
Hungary is one of the EU countries that has citizen initiatives in its constitution. The most successful Hungarian citizen imitative (and the only one I can recall in 20 years) criminalized cruel behavior against animals that are lucky to have a spine. The initiative collected 350,000 signatures (21 times more than expected from Hungary in the new EU regime) and made the parliament approve it unanimously
Did it make Hungarian democracy or animal welfare better? Firstly it makes very nasty behavior legally unacceptable and a lot of people think that the Hungarian justice system is improved a tiny bit. Secondly, in some outrageous cases it serves justice. Thirdly, it engaged hundreds of thousands of citizens in political activity for a few months. However, it failed to increase animal welfare in the country and it did not increase political engagement at all.
The dog lovers are easy to mobilize as they will sign such a petition when they shop for dog food or go to their vet, but they will not follow politics after leaving the shop. Their participation in democracy did not increase a lot. (Only the Netherlands could so far give birth to a permanent permanent animal rights party in parliament through a proportional election system and a unique political culture). Torturing animals (with a spine) became a criminal act in Hungary and every year it leads to a few convictions. However, the latency of cruel treatment against animals remains high as the law enforcement apparatus of the country remained specialized in policing human misbehavior and has very little appetite for collecting testimonies and evidence in cases where the victims cannot speak and write a human language. Despite the good effect that such human behavior can be penalized, for most badly treated animals this helps nothing. The policy and public prosecutors do not go after every dog-beating. People who torture dogs tend to torture human beings as well, but this is not an effective net to catch criminals. The cost of bringing people to court is no smaller than convicting burglars or people who abuse women or children.
And what about the other initiatives? Hungary’s political system is far simpler than the European, so most initiatives are just simply rejected by the legislation on the same day they are entering the floor of the parliament.
So what would I predict for Europe? First of all, there will be a lot of single issue politics, connected to lifestyle/hobby groups like hunting, bird watching or music downloading. Do you remember the Pirate Parties of Sweden, Germany and other countries? A million signatures to abolish copyrights will be no match for them. There will be also a lot of emotionally loaded political questions. Banning nukes, GMO agriculture products or bailing out Assange? I bet that you can collect a million signatures for such issues in Europe almost overnight.
Over years I can foresee a petition industry similar to the U.S. ballot industry. If you imagine the size of PR and lobby budgets in Brussels you can easily figure out that 10 million Euros is not a big money to put something on the political agenda. There are a lot of people in Europe who would happily collect signitures for 10 euros each. Or sign them.
But what happens after the initiative is taken?
Looking at today’s happiness for the new political tool I expect that the first initiative will be very difficult to kill because it will be the first act of the people. That will make the case for the second. Once we will have the logistics behind the system, we will end up with dozens of successful initiatives a year, not unlike many American states.Even though strictly legally speaking an initative looks very easy to kill, the political realities will be different. I do not expect that the Commission, the Parliament and the Council will as easily drop a controversial or politically not acceptable initiative as the Hungarian legislation. Europe is based on a fine institutionalized political process with almost 800 MEPs, DGs, and the 27 governments of the member states, plus a lot of other institutions, just to name the public ones. As long as an initiative will gain enough momentum to enter the system it will be very difficult to kill. Once 1 million European are lined up to a policy proposal there will be enough commissioners, MEPs or member states that will cling to it for one reason or another. I actually cannot recall any policy initiatives in the EU that somehow entered into this political ecosystem and than just died out. One or two directives, a few research programmes or a specialized agency is the minimum impact they leave behind once they set foot ashore.
Citizen initiatives are very easy to manipulate, subvert or just simply start and often they lead to a dead-end street as many Americans could tell us. (Just Google ‘silly ballot initiatives’). What if the Pirates collect 1,000,000 signatures to abolish European copyrights? I do not think that the EU will abolish them. But I can easily imagine 100,000 working hours put into different policy proposals on loosening the copyright policies of Europe here and there. Even though I do not believe that Europe actually has a very good copyright policy, I hardly see the merits of a simple citizen imitative in this field.
All in all, I do not want to make the case against citizen initiatives, because such a political instrument can make very useful shortcuts in immensely complex political process. I could even find out a few issues that are missing from the European political agenda and I would be happy if I saw them finding their way to the Council and Parliament. However, if the Commission will have no courage to shoot silly ones outright we will feed an already very complex and slow political system with a lot of good-intended policies that Europe will have no resources or real political will to implement.Author : Dániel Antal