This year’s theme of the ECI Day was Digital Voices. Based on this, the speakers focused on the question of what the digital dimension means to citizens’ initiatives and in how far the tool of the ECI could best combine digitalisation and democracy. In line with the closing of the revision process of the ECI in March, speakers and participants also assessed the scope and value of the decisions made by the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Council on the future of the ECI. Corresponding to the theme, a focus was put on the evaluation of the central Online Collection System (OCS) of the European Commission.
Bruno Kaufmann, board member of Democracy International and Global Democracy Correspondent for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, opened the floor and moderated the first half of the event. He gave the floor to Christophe Lefèvre, Chair of the ECI ad hoc Group of the EESC, who welcomed participants. Lefèvre highlighted the unifying dynamic of an ECI and how it allows citizens to set the agenda with what concerns them. He stressed the importance of Digital Voices in relation to citizens’ initiatives remarking that without it, we would be “denying the impact of a citizen’s online activity in the offline life”.
Following these introductory remarks, Laura Sullivan, Executive Director of WeMove, gave the keynote speech on activating people in the digital world. While underlining that other tools remain a complementary necessity to online activities, she emphasized the need to use online tools to lower barriers to participation. To enable the ECI to be such a tool, Sullivan also touched upon the assessment of the new central Online Collection System, voicing concerns about how new regulations make it harder for campaigners to obtain and preserve contacts.
First Vice President of the European Commission, Frans Timmermans provided the institutional perspective, and took time for an ensuing Question and Answer session. Timmermans especially delved into the outcomes of the revision process, expressing his regrets about campaigners losing the possibility to use their own signature collection systems and the failure to lower the authorised age for signing ECIs to 16. Despite these shortcomings, he still highlighted the power of the ECI in creating a political debate and that “we would not have certain legislative proposals without the ECI”.
Bruno Kaufmann then opened the Q&A session asking participants if, in general, they would evaluate the revised ECI as progress. Most of the activists confirmed his presumption, mirroring the mainly positive spirit and atmosphere of the event. The session then went on to participants raising several questions. First on the feeling of responsibility of the Commission following an ECI and how a political dialogue could be created for ECIs that didn’t overcome the threshold. They further inquired how to constructively include the deciding EU institutions in building the ECI and the OCS and how national parliaments could be included or notified. Some participants also expressed dissatisfaction about the disappearance of the individual online collection systems and shortcomings of the central alternative. The weak follow-up on successful ECIs, as well as the success of the ECI in general also came up as discussible issues.
Timmermans’ responses painted a mixed picture of the overall success of ECIs but with a positive balance, stating that “in a vibrant democracy you use tools such as the ECI to show what people’s feeling are” and to not underestimate the effect of mobilization. He further stressed the political and moral obligation of the Commission to respond to successful ECIs and that “regardless of whether it reaches the thresholds, politicians should take note”. Timmermans finally expressed his own ambition of co-creating the digital democratic sphere, to learn from each other and “to jointly show the member states that their fears are exaggerated”.
During the second half of the event several workshops took place, each one focusing on a specific aspect of the ECI. Addressing the negative reactions to scrapping the individual online collection systems and forcing campaigners to use the more rigid Commission Online Collection System, one of the workshops aimed at ‘co-creating the best possible online collection system’. After getting the chance to take a digital tour of the new system, improvement wishes revolved around the inclusion of campaigner expertise for better front-end solutions, website embedding options and campaign-relevant features as well as user-friendliness and an appealing modern design.
The other workshop aimed at learning from experiences with agenda-setting instruments at the national level with a focus on how to improve the ECI, again keeping in mind the new regulations. Following the examples of Latvia and Finland, it was suggested that the digital dimension is key in the further development of the instrument, aiming to develop a digital participation infrastructure that connects the various already existing European and national online petition platforms. Furthermore, it was suggested that the follow-up on successful initiatives is crucial, and that the newly introduced European Parliament debate on successful ECIs should be complemented with a stronger involvement of national parliaments and the introduction of a randomly-selected citizens’ initiative review panel.
All in all, the ECI Day 2019 showed that the revision of the ECI is being evaluated as a positive step towards increased citizens’ participation, despite some remaining shortcomings. It is also imperative to note that important challenges still remain. For the following year, the ECI will be faced with combining the different platforms for online engagement, continuing to raise awareness for the tool and trying to influence the follow-up process and increasing political recognition and a general political dialogue.
Article photo ©EU/2019