On 7th January 2009, Tom Steinberg (founder of MySociety in the UK – more about them in a moment) penned a blog entry entitled “Top 5 Internet Priorities for the Next Government (any next Government)“. The whole thing is worth a read yet it’s the first part of the first paragraph that strikes me as the most apt:

The most scary thing about the Internet for your government is not pedophiles, terrorists or viruses, whatever you may have read in the papers. It is the danger of your administration being silently obsoleted by the lightening pace at which the Internet changes expectations.

So why is the European Commission subject of my ire in this blog entry – in connection with Steinberg’s words about expectations?

I’m a little late to write something about it, but I’m on about the Commission’s proposal for the implementation of the European Citizens’ Initiative set out in the Treaty of Lisbon. The text of the Commission draft is here (PDF). I’ve tried to decipher the text together with a few EU nerds (we’re speaking about it on the second day of re:publica in Berlin) and frankly it’s hard to find words to describe how totally and utterly lousy the whole draft is. The contrast with MySociety’s 10 Downing Street petitions system could not be more stark.

I agree with the critiques raised by Eurosocialiste, Bit More Complicated and European Citizen – the system, as currently drafted, is totally unworkable and I cannot see how any organisation or individual could possibly manage to comply with all of the criteria and then get an initiative accepted. Let’s not forget – even if an initiative is declared valid the Commission only has to consider the thing, it’s not even obliged to act. So to set the bar so high right from the start, including requiring ID card or social security numbers from signatories, is utterly ludicrous. I also particular like Annex II of the draft that requires those submitting a petition to state what legal base their initiative has – how many European citizens even know what a legal base is?

The draft is stodgy, unimaginative, unhelpful, and allows the Commission to essentially wash its hands of responsibility for anything that might be produced by the initiative. It’s dire.

Euractiv asked a couple of MEPs for some bla-bla about the initiative (at the bottom here) – the EP will after all have to co-decide on the legislation (interesting to see who will be the rapporteur at least). Syed Kamall, Tory MEP and Vice Chair of the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, said:

This initiative should give power to the people, not to lobbyists and interest groups

Yes, too right Syed, although you might argue that’s a bit of a cheap comment coming from the European Parliament, the EU institution most reliant on lobbyists of all kinds…

If you wanted to have a major impact on EU legislation what are you going to do? Jump through 101 hoops to get a citizens’ initiative off the ground, or pay a PA company to lobby in the corridors of power? The latter will for sure remain easier.

So, in short, the internet gives citizens the power to network like never before, raises expectations as never before, and petitions with more than 1 million signatures have already been organised (see the excellent Oneseat.eu for example). Yet with scant grasp of everyday realities, and absolutely no intention to do anything profound for the cause of European democracy, the Commission’s draft for the European Citizens’ Initiative seems to make the thing obsolete before it has even started.

Photo: d ha rm e sh “CITY OF BLINDING LIGHTS” July 31, 2006 via Flickr, Creative Commons Attribution

11 Comments

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  3. Hi Jon,

    Thx for also taking up the restrictive draft ECI Regulation on your blog.

    JEF Europe prepared a 1-page Open Letter with different alternative proposals. It was uploaded on http://www.citizensinitiative.eu. Please feel warmly invited to spread the news in the blogosphere and forward the link via Facebook, Twitter or mail to any political representatives you are in touch with as this could trigger a lobby campaign that could hopefully incluence the decision-making…

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  5. We should have a petition about the citizen’s initiative to take away all the crap and make it really relevant to EU Democracy ourselves!

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  7. @jz – thanks for the comment!

    Yes, I agree that would be a danger, and having a binding citizens’ intiative is dangerous. But how many checks do you need? As it is currently you have a mass of checks to even get a petition selected, and then the Commission can decide not to act. That makes the whole thing toothless in my opinion. I would far prefer simpler, easier rules for an initiative and then the Commission would maintain the right to not initiate legislation.

  8. Hey Jon,

    I totally share your analysis and you frustration. Although, to play a bit of the devil’s advocate here, I have no argument against the following: if the citizen initiative was binding for the Commission, what if 1M signature was collected in order to re-establish death penalty, or ban minarets?

    You know like me that such populist measures could easily get 1M signatures… after all on a few hundred millions population, 1M is not that much…

  9. Henning

    looks like the people who own the domain citizensinitiative.eu could be convinced for such a project…

  10. Henning Meyer

    Hi Jon, I completely agree with your frustration! They make it so difficult it almost becomes meaningless. But if you add one procedural step one could basically do a similar thing regardless of what the Commission decides.

    The CI has always struck me as similar to an EP initiative report. Submitted to the Commission for legislative consideration but not necessarily triggering action. If one set up a well working online petition environment (like the No 10) one could simply take the one million target and submit a successful petition to the relevant EP Committee pushing them to produce an initiative report that would then go to the Commission.

    It adds an extra step but given that in most cases the EP will have to co-decide on an CI induced legislative proposal it does not make the acceptance of an idea less likely.

    The signatories could then also get involved in the consultation process of an EP initiative report which will also be another way to help shape the outcome.

  11. Agree!

    Only the EP’s petitions committee can be a bit of a headache as the folks from Oneseat.eu found… but maybe that’s because of the topic. For something else – on a policy issue for example – your approach would make some sense.

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