The Directive which gives power to the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) is not due to come into force until April 2012, but that didn’t stop the European Disability Forum (EDF) from taking full advantage of this Lisbon Treaty procedure as far back as 2007. Their experience, where they garnered over 1.3 million signatures, is a first hand example of the opportunities and difficulties presented by the ECI.
The EDF is the umbrella body of the European disability movement representing the interests of 80 million Europeans with disabilities and their families. From their perspective, disability law across Europe appeared to be disjointed and issue-specific. They therefore wanted to have an anti-discrimination Directive enacted, which would give the disabled community the benefit of having one single comprehensive European law which dealt with all aspects of a disabled person’s life. Such a campaign was also seen as a great way to mark the EDF’s 10th anniversary, and to demonstrate the strength of the movement.
Breaking new ground
The problem for the EDF is that they were largely in uncharted territory, with no other group having successfully carried out an ECI, so they had little experience to guide them. Preparation began in 2005, two years before the launch of the initiative. Their first step was to design their petition so that it would conform to EU Law. For this, they had a policy officer on their staff that was knowledgeable about EU law, especially issues such as the subsidiarity principle and the treaties. This was essential to give their initiative credibility in the eyes of the Commission.
The next step for the EDF was to become acquainted with the privacy laws surrounding the collection of signatures. This has been clarified under the new Directive, which will facilitate the procedure for future organisers. As an association registered in Belgium, they had to comply with Belgian privacy law. However this law had gaps relating to online signature gathering and petitions.
The signature gathering began on the 1st of January 2007, with the EDF setting itself an 8 month timeframe to gather the necessary 1,000,000 signatures from across Europe. They used both online and manual means, to maximise the reach of their campaign. Even with limited resources, they were able to have campaign material and the website sign page translated into all the official languages of the EU. For this they relied on the support of member organisations in different countries.
The signature gathering was intense, and faced different problems. One was technical difficulties in gathering signatures online, which may be resolved by special software for this purpose developed by the European Commission in 2011. Another was cultural difficulties, with some European countries being quite acquainted with the concept of signature gathering (Italy, for example) and others not so much (Sweden). Organisers trying to reach the minimum number of 1,000,000 signatures in 7 different countries, as required by the ECI Directive, might be advised to target countries which are used to such initiatives.
Thanks to a wide network of supporters, the EDF initiative succeeded in its target and actually managed to garner 1.3 million signatures! What was noticeable, however, was countries where the campaign had experienced, committed organisers who were able to lead the campaign at local and national level. In these places, the campaign was successful in gathering the most number of signatures. It was not possible to do all the coordinating and motivating from an office in Brussels!
One-sixth of all signatures were gathered online. However this was at the start of the explosion in social media and different means of online communications, so future ECI campaigns should be able to exceed this figure by far. The EDF emphasised the positive side of gathering signatures in person, which allowed the organisers to engage with the public and explain the reasons behind their campaign. An online campaign, while easier, may have its downsides.
The signatures were checked by a bailiff hired by the EDF and submitted to the Commission at a public event organised by EDF at the end of 2007. In future, organisers will have stronger rights when they submit an ECI. This will include meeting the relevant Commission officials and public hearings in the European Parliament. The organisers will also receive a response from the Commission, detailing the action it intends to take, if any, and its reasons for taking or not that taking action.
In evaluating the success of this initiative, there are grounds to be positive and negative. On the most obvious basis the campaign failed: the EU is yet to enact a comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation, and indications are that the medium term prospects aren’t great. As the EDF itself admits, if ECIs are constantly rejected, campaigners may lose faith in them as a democratic tool.
To actually succeed in turning a successful initiative into a law, the EDF recommended targeting member states. Without their support, or if it looks like they could block a legislative proposal, it is unlikely that the Commission will advance the proposal in the first place. This adds complexity to the process, but is essential if organisers are to succeed in their ultimate goal.
On the positive side, this signature gathering was a major boost to the European disability movement. Being able to gather over 1million signatures demonstrated that they were professional and had broad public support, which are crucial for political lobbying groups. It also brought together members of the movement from across Europe, and gave them an objective to work towards.
The EDF climbed a major mountain in being able to gather 1.3million signatures with little guidance on how to go about this process. The Directive when it comes into place will provide a lot of assistance to organisers – software and legal guidance being two examples. Organisers will also get a better platform, with hearings in the European Parliament and an obligation on the Commission to give reasons if it declines to proceed with an initiative. The big question that remains, however, is how the Commission will respond to future ECIs.
This article was written following an interview with Aurélien Daydé, EDF communication and media officer.The EDF is an independent NGO that represents the interests of 80 million Europeans with disabilities.