1 million European citizens for better animal welfare

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8hours is another example of a successful campaign of mobilisation of European citizens which can provide good tips for handling the new tool of European Citizens’ Initiative. After the European Citizens’ Initiative comes into operation on April 1st 2012, the European Commission will be forced to give consideration to any proposal that has gathered more than 1 million signatures, and if they decline to take action, they must give reasons.

As of February 8th 2012, 8hours have collected 1,084,574 signatures. 120 Members in the European Parliament expressed their support to the 8hours campaign and agreed to have their names published on the website. 232 MEPs have signed the Written Declaration 2011/49 on the establishment of a maximum 8-hour journey limit for animals transported in the European Union for the purpose of being slaughtered.

In 2002, the European Commission’s Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare published the report “The welfare of animals during transport” concluding that animal transport, as a ground rule, should be as short as possible. This recommendation is, however, not reflected in the current EU legislation. 8hours campaign, which can refer to hundreds of cases of severe suffering endured by transported animals, is one of the largest animal welfare campaigns ever conducted in Europe. The final goal of the campaign is the adaptation of the legislation that prohibits transportation of animals destined for slaughter for more than 8 hours.

The initiative was first started by a Danish Socialist MEP Dan Jorgensen. The website was launched, but it did not get much response. In early 2011 German international animal protection organisation Animals’ Angels joined the initiative. After twelve years of working with the issue, for the first time Animals’ Angels decided to engage in a big campaign. This previous experience was useful as the campaign could be supported by practical examples, studies, reports, documentations based on scientific evidence and empirical research. The campaign includes different initiatives. The first is the collection of signatures of EU citizens. The online petition is embedded into the 8hour website and can be signed by every adult EU citizen. The web-site is translated into 18 languages. Moreover, local animal welfare organisations as well as individual supporters organise the signature collection in the streets. Secondly, 8hours collect the signatures of European Parliamentarians to support the Written Declaration 2011/49 that was tabled at the end of November 2011 and which should be signed by half of the MEPs by 15 March.

A Written Declaration is a tool that may be used by interest groups that seek support of their key issues from the European Parliament. Thus, after being signed by a particular number of MEPs, the Declaration stands as the official position of the European Parliament, but it does not necessarily lead to change in the legislation.

Online and on the ground

The campaigners say that it is not enough to launch a website, set up a Facebook community and wait for the signatures to come pouring in, no matter how good the idea is. The first thing that Animals’ Angels did was to contact local animal welfare organisations in different countries. It was not enough to contact the organisation once. Campaign news has been sent regularly to the supporting organisations, and less frequently to supporters who left their email to receive updates. The organisations and individuals were reminded about their tasks and encouraged to promote the campaign in different ways: contact your MEPs, email your supporters, collect signatures on printed forms, put the link on your website, distribute the postcards and stickers, write about the campaign in your blog, invite other organisations to join.

Initially the campaign set a target for each country to collect the particular number of signatures based on the population in the country (160,000 in Germany, 18,700 in Sweden, 4,400 in Latvia etc). As a result, following notes have been included in the newsletter: there have been 100,000 signatures collected in your country, another 60,000 are needed! It gave an achievable aim for local supporters. Some countries reached their goal, some not, and some doubled the number planned. This success depended to a great extent on the local support of the initiative. In the countries with the strong animal welfare groups the number of signatures was much higher. Besides, a lot of help came from the individuals. On the website of the campaign you can find a volunteer button that encouraged people to sign up for helping.

In evaluating the success of the initiative, the help of the local organisations and individuals was crucial. Signatures were collected at the information tables and booths in the streets, the petitions were put in the offices, sport clubs, physicians’ waiting rooms. For example, German animal shelters were asked to distribute the lists at their regular events. In fact, the number of signatures that arrived by post was surprising.  Another element of success was the credibility of 8hours. All the information, pictures, messages from the campaign were supported by facts, numbers and reports that Animals’ Angels have been collecting for years.

Future plans

Gathering of the 1 million signatures is not the final step for 8hours. The main aim now is to get the Declaration signed by the parliamentarians, which will reflect the official position of the European Parliament. The process of contacting MEPs is long and time-consuming; however some local supporters give a hand in contacting the MEPs from their countries. When Declaration is signed by 378 parliamentarians, it will hopefully push the European Commission to propose the legislation. The campaigners say that more initiatives are planned for the coming weeks and months, to gather the necessary support of the Council and the Commission.

Hence, even if the signatures have been collected and the Declaration becomes an official position of the European Parliament, it is not legally binding. In this way, European Citizens’ Initiative will make the whole process of getting the voices of European Citizens heard easier. What is more, from the very beginning the organisers of the initiative will get assistance from the EU Institutions. The Commission shall provide the organisers with the information about the current and intended legislative proposals on matters raised by the initiative, support and guide during the process of registering and processing proposals. Finally, if the initiative is successful in gathering all the 1 million signatures and complies with all the required rules, the Commission is obliged to take action. If the Commission decides to decline to proceed with an initiative, the detailed reasons for that should be given. As a result, European citizens will get a more direct say in politics.

To learn more about European Citizens’ Initiative, check European Citizens’ Initiative Handbook  or the flyer “Ten steps to a successful European Citizens’ Initiative”  that have recently been published by GEF.

This article was written following an interview with Christine Hafner who works for Animal Angels as Head of Investigations Italy.

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