I would like to welcome you all to the second European Citizens' Initiative Day! This is a special day for the EESC - we have managed for the second time to join forces with strong partners to mark the first anniversary of the EU's new tool for transnational participatory democracy: the European Citizens' Initiative.
I would like to begin by naming our partners who have been helping to organise this event: the Committee of the Regions (CoR), the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), Democracy International, the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (IRI) and our media partner Euronews. This event is being webcast via our website as well as to a much larger audience on the Euronews website - hopefully to all the Europeans we want to reach and inform about their new right to set the agenda.
And last but not least, I would like to thank Commissioner Šefčovič for being here with us today, for his support all along the way and for marking this anniversary by meeting us here today. I thank the European Parliament and in particular Mr Häfner for being here with us. I am aware of his commitment to the ECI and I would like the EESC to work with the European Parliament and give the best possible support to this democratic tool.
I said last year that with the ECI coming into force on 1 April 2012, the EU was exploring uncharted territory. I said then and reiterate now that I have great faith in the collective wisdom of European citizens which could emerge from this exercise in participatory democracy. I would like to repeat something which I said last year to set a positive tone for the day: as we usually see it, a room filled with people is just a crowd - but arrange those people in the right way, with the right processes, and they can generate wisdom. Here today we have gathered to explore the "right" processes and the "right" ways to generate wisdom and the policies that people want, from the bottom up.
One year after the launch of the Citizens' Initiative, this is a good time to assess its first year, to hear the experiences of organisers, to draw conclusions from what they have experienced, to devise intermediate solutions and to start preparing for the 2015 revision of the regulation. I thank our civil society partners represented here by Bruno Kaufmann who have followed the ECIs very closely and already made an assessment of this first year. Bruno will be telling us more about their findings in a little while.
Reading our partners' and experts' assessments and reflecting on the findings and problems we hear about (online signature collection system, costly transnational campaigning, hurdles in the technical aspects of the regulation, potential legal issues which raise concerns), I cannot help thinking about the whole process of European integration. The further the EU moves towards integration, the easier such transnational initiatives will be. Some may say the opposite, but in my view more integration will make more democratic sense for the EU.
What the Committee has done so far mirrors our commitment to the European Citizens' Initiative. In our opinions, we have made specific proposals on the mechanics of the Citizens' Initiative. On a general note and regarding our role, we see the EESC mainly contributing as a communicator, facilitator and, when needed, as an institutional mentor.
As part of our consultative role, we have issued two opinions on the ECI, calling for an easy, transparent ECI process that will enable all citizens to launch an ECI, not only the big European associations. We represent organised civil society, but civil society remains the domain of citizens, so we encourage and respect any less organised civil society movements.
Regarding our role as communicators, EESC members have organised a number of local conferences and events to promote the ECI and reach out to stakeholders and disseminate information. Our ECI guide, published in all official languages, has become one of the most widely distributed of the Committee's publications! We know there is still room to do more as regards raising awareness.
The organisation of the annual ECI Day - which I hope will remain a landmark in years to come with more and more partners on board - is also clear proof of our commitment to initiate dialogue on this tool. Last year's event was only a small seminar to celebrate the launch of the ECI process, but it attracted many people.
We have also supported the ECI process by hosting technical working groups on the online signature collection software, bringing together IT experts and ECI organisers to see what can be improved on (participants will hear about the ongoing work during the afternoon's panel).
Some members have supported ECIs in other ways, hosting launch events and publicly signing and promoting the ECIs. However as a Committee we would like to facilitate and enable transnational dialogue between initiators, without ever favouring one initiative over another. We are a consultative EU body working on many economic and social issues, and we will issue an opinion on the content of successful initiatives. However, we are mainly here to facilitate the process for organisers as much as we can, to contribute to its evaluation and possible revision, and to support any kind of organiser, provided their initiative does not go against the fundamental rights and values of the Union.
So, the conference today is intended to take stock of immediate challenges and problems, and to see what works best. This first anniversary could be the starting point for preparations for the planned revision of the ECI regulation in 2015.
We all need to identify current problems and see which ones can be fixed immediately, without waiting for the revision; at the same time, we must think in the longer term and start creating the framework for the revision.
Civil society organisations, as well as our Committee in its opinion on the ECI (the rapporteur for which, Anne-Marie Sigmund, is here with us today), have been calling for an ECI helpdesk to help potential organisers to get more support on how to get themselves organised (in terms of technical, legal and communication aspects). We have come to realise that such a support structure should be both independently run and neutral. The Commission and the other institutions are the intended targets of ECIs, and so they cannot provide this structure. But we could all work on an innovative framework bringing together all the proposals put forward by stakeholders and so give future ECI organisers some practical help.
A great deal of information is being gathered by all stakeholders in preparation for the revision of the ECI regulation in 2015. A more organised approach channelling all this information may be needed. As a committee, our role is to build a bridge between civil society, the domain of citizens, and the EU institutions.
Therefore we can fulfil our role and we are ready, willing and able to facilitate the setting up of an independent supporting structure backed up by EU institutions, civil society stakeholders and experts. We could provide a platform, convene stakeholders, pool resources together in order to make this new tool work.
The presence and involvement of our members, Jane Morrice, the future communication president, and Maureen O'Neill, president-elect of the Committee's section dealing with citizenship issues, illustrate the Committee's commitment to the ECI and this proposal.
2013 will probably see the first successful initiative: the Committee is ready to engage with organisers, to issue a timely opinion on this particular ECI, and to cooperate with the European Parliament on the hearing that will be organised.
Despite the economic and social challenges Europe is going through at the moment, Europe's democracy is evolving with this tool for transnational participation. This will create a more cohesive European society and encourage more people to take an active role in the life of the EU.
Let's trust the collective wisdom of Europeans. Let's work together to allow the ECI to be a success. It is important to invest in our citizens; to communicate in an efficient and timely manner; to ensure that processes are simple and that all involved institutions meet the organisational challenges in a transparent way unclouded by other political agendas, so that we can achieve our goals.
Staffan Nilsson's concluding remarks (closing panel)
This event in itself is a democratic exercise for Europe. We have gathered today almost all stakeholders with a keen interest and responsibility in the European citizens' initiative. We have listened to civil society, citizens' initiatives organisers, experts, EU institutions representatives. We now know what works best, what works less, what can be improved. As I already mentioned, at the EESC, with the European citizens' initiative, we have committed to take on our role as communicators, facilitators and institutional mentor. The EESC could well facilitate a coordinated and coherent approach for the revision of the regulation.
Oftentimes it is more a matter of pooling resources rather than finding resources! So we believe in alliances and collective actions that could create and run an independent supporting structure such as a help-desk or a one stop shop or a contact point as suggested by Commissioner Sefcovic this morning.
Despite the economic and social challenges Europe is going through at the moment, Europe's democracy is evolving with this tool for transnational participation. Encouraging the use of citizens' initiatives and making it work develops more citizens' engagement in EU's life. And this is what we need at the moment.
What is also important for us is that with the citizens' initiatives registered, we see where the citizens' concerns and problems lie and where people believe we need to make reforms at EU level. Citizens (and media) are less interested in abstract processes and procedures and EU stuff, but people can learn by example: a successful ECI that changes something on EU level will have a learning effect and media attention: EU can get closer to people by the example of successful initiatives.
I hope the next president of the EESC will continue this tradition to organise this annual full-scale event bringing all stakeholders together. For me it is clear that greater cooperation between civil society organisations and our Committees and other institutions would only lead to a better support of citizens' initiative. As Commissioner Sefcovic mentioned this morning, the EESC is the best bridge between EU institutions and citizens and civil society, and we are willing to play this role in the context of the European citizens' initiative as well.
I thank you all for your participation, I thank all our partners: The Committee of the Regions (CoR) for their contribution in the organisation of this event including the lunch offered today to us all, the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), Democracy International, the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (IRI) for all their knowledge and rich expertise and reflections they brought to this event, and the our media partner Euronews, for helping us reach out to Europeans. I hope we continue working together to make the European Citizens' Initiative simply work well.