Central Europe Activ

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.

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  1. Daniel, welcome back to blogging on this.
    Efficiency and democracy are not always in line (or efficiency and transparency, which is why EurActiv has both of them in its motto, and actually efficiency first). But both are necessary.

    Between the tough line of the Commission to set the admissibility hurdle at 300 000 – a lot – and the minimal 7 citizens of the EP, I wonder if a better compromise could not have been found…

    In any case, there will be a need to debate, compare and – where appropriate – federate smaller initaitives. I expect this very place, Blogactiv and – when initiatives become relevant – its big brother EurActiv, to play an important role on doing this. Bringing a tiny contribution of efficiency in a possibly messy but democratic process.


    Christophe Leclercq

  2. I am not sure what ECI will bring, but general idea is – more democracy into the EU. Eventually, this would also help to create a stronger “european public sphere” since citizens, organizations and medias would all connect, network and report about the very same issue which “concerns” Europeans and general public will closely watch the debate and response that different inititatives will have at EU institutions.

    On the other hand, I fully share your concerns, and there should be a way to save ECI as a valuable tool for really important issues, and not “abusing” it for various “hobbies and silly initiatives” as you mentioned.

    We will have to wait and see what happens… but I hope this tool will be used wisely.

  3. Daniel,

    An interesting post. I agree with your analysis of the kind of initiatives we are likely to get, but I am inclined to question whether once they get rolling they’re likely to lead to legislative change. As such, does it matter if we can’t stop them?

    The two ones I have seen (admittedly before Lisbon’s provisions took effect) that did get a million don’t appear to change a whole lot (One Seat, Disability Rights). The treaty also has a “may” rather than a “shall” consider measures from recollection. Long grass and kick come to mind. As such, I am less concerned about stopping them, more concerned that we may start to believe that getting the signatures are the end game rather than the beginning of the citizen participation we all seek.

    After all legislative change requires a proposal from the Commission and votes in our usual legislative process. Its importance could be in providing a focal point for campaigners to rally expressions of support on which you can build from. It’s the list building bit in effect.

    While it is clearly helpful to have a million signatures if you want the institutions to sit up and take notice of an issue, your ability to enact change on any issue will come when you take those one million expressions of support and turn them into 100,000 letters, 5,000 calls and 200 face to face meetings. All the surveys of the effectiveness of advocacy I’ve seen suggest that it’s the personal contact from relevant people that persuades policymakers the most. For anyone seeking to advance a cause they will need to think through how they take transactional support to fervent participation. As they do, they’ll lose numbers but gain intensity of activity. This is no mean feat by the way.

    From a democracy standpoint, I would have thought that this is also to be expected. We may all talk about issues (perceived as political or not), less of us vote and even less of us take action directed at the political process as citizens. The utility of the ECI is in hopefully making us all believe that the E.U. will listen to citizens. If it does that, it’s a success in my view. Making it listen will however take more than a signature on a website.


  4. Thank you for the feedback!

    I think that Chrisophe’s point is a good start. I think that a functional democracy must be also efficient. I think that a big part of our ‘democratic deficit’ is derived from the fact that in our complex political system it takes 4-5 years to make a change, and for most citizens this is not a timeframe that can be grasped, followed or understood. If the ECI will make shortcuts, it can have beneficial effects.

    However, I think that the threshold to start the ECI is extremely low. Hungary’s minimum quota is 16,500 – I think that even a few activists can collect that number for any cause within days. Worse still, there will be electronic signatures. Wikileaks managed to collect half a million overnight (not only in the EU, but still…). To raise to bar it will be politically very difficult.

    I agree with James that excessive use of ECI will not be an effective policy-shaping tool. I think that serious big business will not use it. However, in the U.S. it is marginal business and marginal groups that rely on it heavily.

    I can imagine that for a number of loaded issues, such as hunting, nuclear energy, copyrights there will very radical proposals ready in no time. Dealing with them will slow down the already very slow decision making process in less marginal issues.

    Worse still, the 300,000 initial phase for 7 member states is very low. I mean only Hungarian living in 7 member states can easily collect it for an issue that is Hungarian-only, and than proceed with the 1 million with relative ease.

    Anyway, I am sure that we will see a lot of interesting activism and I hope blogactiv will be an important forum for this.

  5. Great to see this new blog on the ECI!

    However, one thing people seem to have missed in the final ECI regulation is that it will be really, really DIFFICULT to collect 1 million verifiable signatures in 12 months. This is because in 2/3 of member states, people supporting the ECI will need to provide a lot of very sensitive personal data — including ID card numbers. This will dramatically reduce the number of people who will sign an ECI. These data will then have to be verified by national governments, a process which could eliminate up to 25% of collected signatures.

    NO informal ECI, not the One Seat, not the 1million4disability, not the GMOs has ever followed such STRICT signature collection and verification rules. Even the Avaaz-Greenpeace GMO campaign needed 9 months to collect 1 million signatures — under ideal conditions. They did not collect ID card numbers and their signatures were not verified by national governments.

    That it is relatively easy to launch an ECI really doesn’t change anything. Anyone can launch an ordinary petition and start a discussion on a policy topic now.

    The real difference between a petition and an ECI is that the Commission must react publicly. However, any legislation proposed must go through normal EU legislative procedures. The ECI is not an instrument of direct democracy. It is not a referendum. It has no direct effect on law.

    The real risk of the ECI is that it will be so difficult to use that it will simply create more frustration.

  6. @Janice Thomson,

    I bet that there will campaigns that will provide the one million within a week. In some member states, where such initiatives have no tradition, people may be reluctant to give their data, however, where this is a routine, why would not they? And especially for lifestyle groups such as animal lovers why would they bother about their data?

    Actually it is up to the member states to regulate this issue, but I guess it will not be very different from other voter registration schemes, so I see no problem here. Most states will apply exactly the same procedure as they do with elections or referendums (where applicable). And people are familiar with the process.

    Actually I see no other way to implement a citizens’ initiative, you have to some participate if you want to participate.

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