I’ve been trying to spend some time this week looking at the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) in the context of the work I’m doing here at the University of Washington on the EU and digital engagement.
Colleagues responsible for the ECI in the Commission, as well as people outside the institutions who are working on some of the first Citizens’ Initiatives, have been kind enough to share their experiences with me. There are several academic analyses that have been published on the ECI, including Citizens Initiatives in Europe – Procedures and Consequences of Agenda-Setting by Citizens and a special issue of the Journal Perspectives on European Politics and Society. And I’ve found it interesting to begin comparing the ECI with citizens’ initiatives and petitions here in the USA.
European Citizens’ Initiative
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) has been described as “… the biggest democratic innovation in the EU since the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament back in 1979” (Bruno Kaufmann in “Citizens Initiatives in Europe – Procedures and Consequences of Agenda-Setting by Citizens”).
The ECI allows EU citizens to call on the European Commission to come forward with legal proposals. In order to do so, they need to gather signatures from at least one million fellow EU citizens, from at least 7 Member States and within a twelve month time period. The issue must fall in an area where the EU is competent to legislate.
The ECI is the world’s first example of transnational direct democracy. It relies heavily on the internet, and would probably not have been possible before the digital age.
The development of an online mechanism for the collection of signatures, including a certification system that takes account of different national practices with regard to proof of identity, has proved challenging. In an article entitled “Towards e-ECIs? European Participation by Online Pan-European Mobilization”, Stéphane Carrara from the Centre de Recherches Politiques de la Sorbonne has pointed to other potential obstacles to online mobilisation including language barriers, uneven internet literacy and the relatively stringent data collection requirements in the ECI Regulation.
Nevertheless, some fifteen European Citizens Initiatives have now been registered and begun the process of collecting signatures.
Fraternité 2020 was the very first ECI to be registered, in May 2012. The Initiative aims to boost EU funding for exchange programmes in order to increase opportunities for young peple. I spoke with a representative of Fraternité 2020 about their experiences so far with the ECI. They confirmed that digital media have been vitally important for their initiative. Online tools have helped them to put together a “Citizens’ Committee” that includes representatives from all EU countries plus Croatia. Fraternité 2020 are using social media, including a Facebook page and Twitter acccount, as well as traditional media to promote their initiative and encourage people to sign.
“We the people” – petitioning the White House
The right “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Obama Administration updated this right for the digital age by creating an online platform “We the People” in September 2011. If a petition obtains enough support, White House staff review it, ensure it is sent to the appropriate policy experts and issue an official response.
We the People has been so successful that the Administration has been obliged to raise the admissibility threshold twice, partly to avoid frivolous petitions and partly to keep the system manageable with the available resources. Petitions have attracted almost 10 million signatures since the platform was launched.
The White House Director of Digital Strategy, Macon Phillips, reported on the White House blog on 15 January that the threshold was being raised to 100,000 signatures. (This is still considerably below the 1 million signature threshold for the ECI.)
State level initiatives in the USA
Washington is one of 24 US States that allow for some form of direct democracy through citizens’ initiative or referendum. One of the most topical initiatives in this State in recent years is “Washington Initiative 502″, which led to a popular vote to legalize marijuana in November 2012. Although Washington State allows online voter registration (it was the first State to allow voter registration via a Facebook app in the run-up to the 2012 Presidential elections) there does not currently seem to be any system for online signature of initiatives.