Five years after the launch of the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) and after around 50 initiatives that have had quite limited success, the Commission has finally acted on the European Economic and Social Committee's (EESC) proposal for a review of the ECI regulation. At the Committee's 4th ECI Day, Commissioner Timmermans announced that he would carry out a review of the instrument and that a proposal for the revised ECI regulation would be launched as early as autumn this year.
At the same event, EESC President Georges Dassis recalled the ancient Greeks, who said that citizens should "have an active role in everyday decisions". "The ECI Day is therefore a forum that shows that personal commitment can change things for the better, make citizens' lives more liveable, human and just", said Mr Dassis. "At the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, we must never forget that it is the European Union that has brought over 70 years of peace and prosperity. Therefore it is important not to lose trust in Europe", concluded Mr Dassis, calling on the Commission to ensure access to the ECI for all citizens, something which will facilitate EU policies that are in the interest of the European people.
The key-note speech was delivered by Alberto Alemanno, who illustrated his call for "citizens' lobbying" with the story of a young German student called Barbara who wanted to engage in Europe, but was not aware of the idea of "citizens' lobbying": "lobbying is no longer the prerogative of a few key players with considerable resources and contacts; it is a legitimate activity that consists of voicing your concerns to decision-makers, setting the agenda, holding decision-makers accountable and lodging complaints", explained Mr Alemanno. In his speech, he argued that the EU is more transparent and accountable than its Member States and provides many more opportunities to engage with the policy-making process, such as petitions to the European Parliament, public consultations, hearings, the EU Ombudsman, the ECI, etc. "The ECI is the first instrument of transnational democracy and has enormous potential to address a growing civic empowerment gap, but this tool has not only been abused by its parents –the EU institutions and the Member States – but also largely overlooked by its citizens" said Mr Alemanno. In his view, the future of our democracies lies in reconquering the space between decision-makers and citizens between elections.
In a witty speech in front of over 200 participants – including the proponents of the 6 current ECI's – First Vice-President Frans Timmermans agreed that the Union has changed: "We are no more a paternalistic society and we are also no longer an ideological but an idealistic society". As a result, these systems of voting every four or five years will not work properly anymore. The Commissioner argued that nowadays politicians need instead to prove on a daily basis that they deserve people's trust, and said that different forms of engagement will be needed in the future.
The Commissioner reminded participants that the EU is something "man-made" and not a "natural habitat", and therefore one should be aware that it could also easily be destroyed as a result of man's actions. It is important to engage people in Europe and to make them see that it is better and safer to be together in a big ship than in many little boats. In this context, the Commissioner announced the revision of the ECI and called on European leaders to stand up for Europe. Before the new proposal for the ECI regulation is launched in the autumn, the Commission will start the dialogue with the citizens by opening a public consultation to hear what they expect from a more efficient and an easier-to-handle ECI.
The workshops that were held in the course of the day made it clear that this public consultation is more than necessary.
Some speakers expressed disappointment that no legislation has been put forward by policy-makers (even within the three successful ECIs).They also criticised the technical and resource-based difficulties in putting forward a proposal, as well as the slowness of the process. The representative of the successful ECI Right2Water, which resulted only in a Commission communication, said: "We managed to set the agenda and we were expecting to take the issue further, but we ended up being just another lobby in Brussels".
On the other hand, speakers stressed the power of the ECIs to mobilise citizens and build coalitions to shake up public debate, especially thanks to the campaigning efforts and multiplying role of the media. Some ECI proponents agreed that while their campaigns ultimately failed, they managed to trigger a "very rare example of citizens' engagement in politics".
The announcement by Mr Timmermans on the upcoming review was welcomed by all participants, who believe it will create a "renewed political momentum for citizen participation".
At the event reception, EESC Vice-President Gonçalo Lobo Xavier launched the digital version of the European Passport to Active Citizenship saying that this modern tool should not only enable citizens but also motivate them towards active citizenship. "I call on European citizens: Get active in Europe as Europe is yours!"