All ready for the European Citizens’ Initiative? Lessons from a campaign

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The European Citizens’ Initiative will come into operation on April 1st 2012, and will give 1 million European Citizens the right to demand that the European Commission consider introducing a specific legislative proposal. Already, a range of campaigning organisations are preparing to launch their own ECIs. Among these is a coalition of antinuclear and pro renewable energy campaign organisations, who are planning to launch an ECI which will call on the Commission to introduce measures to phase out nuclear energy in Europe.
We spoke to Daphne Rieder from GLOBAL 2000, one of the organisations behind this campaign, to see how their preparations are going, what obstacles they are facing, and what the hope is for their ECI. GLOBAL 2000 is an Austrian environmental NGO, and they are joined by a number of national Friends of the Earth Europe organisations in launching this campaign. Their experience is instructive as to the future success of this exciting new tool.

Networking and planning for a successful ECI

While the European Citizens’ Initiative is a tool that will ideally be powered by individuals, it will most likely be experienced and resourced organisations that will first be able to take advantage of the process. This is the opinion of Rieder, who believes it will be extremely difficult for individuals to launch their own ECIs, due to the technical complexity and the time consuming nature of such a campaign.
Any ECI needs to begin with a long period of discussion and networking. This has been an essential step in this campaign, as the organisers wanted to craft an initiative that would gather broad support and encourage many environmental organisations to join the campaign. This was not an easy step though, due to the different backgrounds and objectives that campaigners in the different Member States have. This is especially difficult as the ECI regulations require organisers to limit their objectives to 500 characters, so the proposal cannot be an omnibus of multiple ideas.
In this example, there was also a heavy focus on networking and finding suitable partner organisations who have the resources to contribute to this campaign and who can be persuaded to come on board with the idea.

New opportunities, but also new barriers

As the Campaign Handbook has highlighted in previous articles (link to other articles), many organisations have run successful ‘pilot ECIs’, where they gathered 1 million signatures before the ECI procedure has come into force. However, Rieder discusses two key differences with an ECI that might make it harder for organisers to reach the 1 million signature hurdle.
The first is the requirement to have a minimum number of signatures from a minimum number of Member States. As the Regulation states, this means in a minimum of seven Member States there must be a number of signatures equal to that Member States number of MEPs multiplied by 750. For the organisers of this campaign, this barrier can be overcome as they have organisations from across Europe involved in the campaign. However, this will be a serious difficulty for ECIs that do not have an organisational structure behind them.

A second challenge is the differing requirements in each Member State. A shortcoming in the Regulation, which the Greens have criticised, is that Member States are allowed to set the requirements for the information that those who sign must give. . Some Member states only require the declaration of the residency, while other Member States (such as Austria and the Czech Republic) require you to provide your ID number, which not everyone might be comfortable giving and also not everybody will carry the passport with them. While the stated objective is to minimise fraud, this will likely make it harder for organisers to gather the required number of signatures.
For the organisers of this anti-nuclear campaign, a key part of their strategy will be to target Member States where it is easier to gather signatures. This, however, requires shaping your strategy to fit the differing legal requirements, adding an extra layer of complexity. It also underscores the need to have a wide network of competent and informed organisers in the different Member States.

What resources are needed

Rieder predicts that fund-raising will be an on-going process. However, the campaign is relying on the different partner organisations providing a lot of the human resources necessary to run the campaign, in particular to oversee the gathering of signatures in the respective Member States. Resources are also needed for research, promotion and the necessary ‘behind the scenes’ aspect to the ECI. The organisers of this campaign consider coordination of the signature gathering itself to be a full-time job.

One tricky issue is the software that the European Commission has developed to assist organisers in gathering signatures online. While the software was supposed to be user- friendly, the organisers of this campaign found it very difficult to successfully implement it, and had to hire software engineers to implement it correctly.
However, the software is open-source, and the Commission is actively encouraging software engineers to find ways to improve the programme and make it more user-friendly. Rieder hopes that over time this will become a more useful resource for organisers.

Gathering signatures use every avenue available

Rieder does not believe they can rely on just sending out an email link to as many people as possible. What will be needed is to engage directly with individuals, not just online but in person, and to include them in a conversation about Europe’s energy future. The objective of the organisers isn’t just to gather 1 million signatures, but also to engage as many citizens as possible in a debate on EU energy policy.

The partner organisations therefore plan to ‘take to the streets’ in order to get the necessary signatures, and also plan to attend as many events as possible where potential signees might be.
Under the Regulation, there is a 12 month period to gather the necessary number of signatures, so it is crucial that the organisers use every means available to achieve this goal. That means mobilising as many supporters in as many countries to get behind the campaign. So the initiative will only succeed if it is a truly pan-European campaign.

Where to find resources for your ECI

How the ECI will operate is difficult to determine, as due to its transnational nature there is very little to compare it to. It is clear, however, that a lot of the organisers share a great enthusiasm for it and are willing to assist each other with ideas and support. The series of ‘pilot ECIs’ covered by the Campaign Handbook all contain useful tips for future ECI organisers. The European Commission has already organised one conference to bring together interested parties, and has launched a website containing all the necessary information.
However, the organisers of this anti-nuclear ECI have also relied heavily on the support and information provided by NGOs. For example, the European Citizen Action Service is organising a conference in late-March which will bring together experts and ECI organisers to discuss support for ECIs and information sharing.
GEF has launched a ‘Pocket Guide to the ECI’, which is available from the GEF website as a download or can be ordered from the GEF office.

For all this effort, is it worth it?

For all the effort discussed above, one has to ask, is it worth it? For Rieder, the answer is a very definitive ‘yes’. In her opinion, if you want to really change something, you have to put in the effort. The purpose of the ECI is to set the agenda and shape the debate in Europe, and this is certainly an achievable objective for this ECI.
Already, preparation for this ECI has put the organisers in contact with other, like minded activists from across Europe, and has resulted in increased debate and dialogue between these organisations. The benefits of this will likely last long after the ECI has been completed, regardless of the outcome.
Under the Regulations, ECIs which successfully gather over 1 million signatures will be entitled to a public hearing on their proposals. This will allow the voice of ordinary EU Citizens to be heard in the EU Institutions, when for too long that right has been the preserve of well-funded and well-connected lobbyists.

Time will tell how successful ECIs will be, but for campaigners such as this, the tool could open unprecedented opportunities for them and their fellow EU Citizens. If they succeed, the ECI will truly have caused a new revolution in European politics.

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