Water as a right: the latest European Citizens’ Initiative Campaign

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The European Citizens Initiative was launched on the 1st April 2012 giving European citizens the possibility to directly influence the agenda setting process of the EU. But gathering 1 million signatures in at least seven Member States is surely not an easy task especially since the ECI has not been tested before. GEF has published the ECI Pocked Guide with all the information on the process of the ECI, but we also want to know how it might work in practice. We talked to Pablo Sanchez of the “Water is a Human Right” – ECI, one of the first officially registered ECIs at the European Commission to ask him about his experiences with this new democratic tool so far.

Water is a Human Right
The right to have access to drinking water and sanitation is acknowledged by the UN. The provision of water and sanitation for everyone should therefore also be embedded in the EU legislation. That water is a public good and not a commodity is the core issue of this initiative.

Behind the ECI “Water is a Human Right” is the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) in cooperation with other European organisations such as the European Anti-Poverty Network, the European Environmental Bureau  and the European Public Health Organisation that organise the campaign on the European level. Building the European network wasn’t that difficult for EPSU, since many of these organisations already worked together on different issues. What is more difficult and also more important is to arrange a network and a structure on the national level, where many people are needed to get active and gather the signatures needed. If successful in this, the ECI gives a possibility to build stable alliances on important public issues which are necessary to follow-up on the legislation process following a successful ECI and make sure that the topics do not disappear from the national or European agenda.

For this ECI campaign the organising committee isn’t only focusing on gathering the signatures online, but gives a huge importance to the traditional method of collecting signatures on the street. Getting people involved and making them really think about an issue means talking to them in person – this will leave a more long-lasting impression than clicking a button on the Internet.

This means bringing the campaigns to the national levels which proved so far the most difficult part of campaigning for this ECI. Not only do you need all the material in the different languages, you also have to consider that your issue can be perceived differently in each country. In some of the Mediterranean countries, Italy for example, there is already a very active water movement and people know about these problems a lot more than in other European countries. The specific situation regarding water and regulation will differ as well.

This is why it is important to have active groups and a network in each country where signatures are collected, to get citizens involved to help with the campaign, to gather statements of support and get engaged. And this is what in the end will not only help to succeed with the ECI, but will also create a network ‘on the ground’ that will keep in touch and will keep the issue alive. In the end, getting a thousand people active on your issue in several countries around Europe is more important than gathering a high amount of signatures.

Currently, the “Water is a Human Right” ECI has been officially registered on the Commission’s ECI Registry, but there is still a maximum of 2 months period they have to wait for the approval of the Commission to launch the national campaign and events for getting the signatures. In the meanwhile, the campaign will be more internet based, on twitter and other platforms to get their issue known. The deadline of the Commissions’ answer is the 1st June, so this is when the campaign on the streets will start.

The aim of getting 1 million signatures in 12 months also makes it necessary to concentrate the campaign on those languages and those countries that reach the most people. It has to be considered how the initiative will be represented in the countries, how big the issue is in these countries and how big the country itself is. This also influences the selection of languages in which the ECI will be translated, since translation implies big costs. “Water is a Human Right” is translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Czech and Romanian.

EPSU has saved €100,000 for this ECI over one year, the national campaigns are organised and funded mostly by the national organisations. Since the budget is limited, “Water is a Human Right” counts mostly on the participation of citizens to promote their issue.

Apart from the mere financial part it is also very time consuming to plan a campaign that should cover all of Europe. This is one reason why Sanchez thinks that the name of the “European Citizens Initiative” is not quite fitting because the effort that stands behind an ECI could not be handled by citizens alone without having either an organisation and network behind them that is already working on similar issues or that has the financial resources to be able to afford such a campaign.

Since “Water is a Human Right” is one of the first ECIs ever to register with the Commission we wanted to know how the new framework benefitted the issue or where there proved to be difficulties.

The subject matter of the proposed ECI has to be formulated in only 200 characters and the objectives have to be explained in 500 characters. This is no space to make a truly sophisticated demand or to show the importance and different aspects of an issue. This brevity complicates the process and can lead to a formulation of the issue that is to too simplified and too vague. More space to clarify and give examples would be important to make sure that people understand what is meant.

Another problem that became obvious during the registration process is the limitation of the Citizens Committee (official heads of an ECI) to seven people from seven different countries. For “Water is a Human Right” they wanted at least one Committee member from every EU country but had to reduce the number drastically.

The software that is provided by the Commission is difficult to embed and to work with so far, but since their ECI is not officially approved by the Commission they didn’t have the possibility to fully test it in use yet.

The many different regulations by the Member States also constitutes a challenge. The signatures have to be verified by the countries themselves and not by the Commission, which means that in some countries giving your name and city of residence is enough to support the initiative, while in others you have to provide an ID number or other information one would be more hesitant to give or maybe not know or carry around all the time. This of course makes campaigning in some countries more difficult than in others. Sanchez argued that with this regulation the Commission missed a possibility to make the ECI something new and really ‘European’ but instead repeated the same problem of many other European projects.

The contact with the Commission has so far not been negative, but also not very helpful. Since only three people in the Commission are working on the ECI, the process is very slow. They do not provide or help with translations although this is one of the most crucial points of European cooperation and do not translate their own official answers to all of the languages of the ECI.

In general, the formal restrictions of the ECI have proved challenging for this campaign. Being one of the first ECIs launched so far has attracted media attention, not only by people interested in the issue of water but also those interested in the mechanism of the ECI.

Of course, this mechanism has also to be explained to the people that support the campaign and that give their signatures that don’t yet know what to expect from a European Citizens Initiative.

But despite all those problems and difficulties that have already shown, Pablo Sanchez was optimistic that the issue is important enough to get the support of at least 1 million European citizens. And when this is done the Commission will have to decide how they will act on it.

This article has been written based on an interview with Pablo Sanchez – Communication, Public Relations, Liaison with the European Parliament, and Youth Policy Officer at the European Federation of Public Service Unions.

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