Vice-President of the European Commission - Responsible for Interinstitutional Relations and Administration
A New Chapter in the Democratic Life of the EU: Warming Up for the Citizens' Initiative
Conference on European Citizens' Initiative
Brussels, 26 January 2012
Ladies and gentlemen
It is a great pleasure for me to be able to welcome you to this "warm-up" conference on the European citizens' initiative.
The ECI has been long in the making. When it becomes a reality on 1st April, almost 10 years will have passed since it was first suggested in the negotiations that eventually led to the Lisbon Treaty.
The world is a very different place now than it was back then: the rise in popularity of social media networks has helped give citizens from around the world a chance to air their views and share their concerns as never before. And as the Arab Spring clearly showed, citizen-led initiatives supported by social networks can drive real change on the ground as well.
Although of course not in the same way, the European Citizens' Initiative will I believe also lead to real changes in the democratic life of the EU. As well as providing a direct gateway through which citizens will be able to make their voices heard in Brussels, it will also foster a real cross-border debate about EU issues.
I want to stress the importance of those words: cross-border. As you probably know, citizens' initiatives will have to be proposed by a committee made up of citizens from at least 7 Member States – and supported by their fellow citizens through the EU – making the citizens' initiative, I would argue, the first opportunity for citizens from throughout the entire EU to rally behind a single pan-European cause. What better illustration is there of what the EU is all about?
But however impressive it looks on paper, the citizens' initiative will only deliver if it is implemented properly. The Commission has been working full-time to put all the mechanisms in place to facilitate the use of this new tool:
We have developed a new website and register, available in the 23 official EU languages, which will be the backbone of the citizens' initiative and which I am happy to be able to unveil to you for the first time in just a few minutes.
This site will be the first port of call for anyone wishing to launch an initiative, serving as a one-stop shop for all the necessary information on the procedures and conditions for the ECI, with everything there is to know about what the ECI is and is not, how it works, how to launch an initiative, collect signatures and submit an initiative to the Commission.
Citizens interested in setting up initiatives can also use the site to do just that, via the simple online form. Once the registration of their initiative has been confirmed by the Commission, organisers will have access to a secure account, through which they will be able to manage every aspect of their campaign, from downloading customised statement of support forms, to setting up their system for collecting signatures online and formally submitting their initiative to the Commission at the end of the process.
But as this site will also be the place where the Commission will register all the ECIs, it will also be the first port of call for anyone interested in signing up to initiatives. They will also be able to see all the past initiatives, and whether they were successful or not.
You will get a detailed demonstration of this impressive new site in the next session and you will be able to test it yourselves on the computers available outside the room.
The website is well-organised and extremely simple to use, but we have also provided a user-friendly guide for citizens on how to set up and manage ECIs. A number of copies are available outside the room and you are welcome to order additional copies of the guide, in any EU language, free of charge.
We have also set up a central point of contact to answer any questions relating to the ECI that cannot be answered on the website or in the guide.
One of the main concerns that I have heard about the ECI is that it will be too difficult for “ordinary” citizens to launch initiatives and collect a million signatures across the EU, and that therefore it will be 'hijacked' by powerful lobby groups and organisations. While I understand the reasons for this concern, it is not one that I share myself, however.
It is possible that lobby groups and organisations will indeed use the ECI to defend and promote their cause – but there is nothing intrinsically wrong with that, provided the cause is worthwhile and beneficial to everyone in the EU. In any case, any initiative, whoever puts it forward, will still need the support of 1 million signatures from across the EU, which I believe will severely restrict the opportunities for single-issue or country-specific initiatives to get off the ground.
I am convinced that the vast majority of initiatives will be well and truly led by citizens themselves: getting a million people together to support a common cause may seem like a daunting feat, but with the free software that the Commission has created, it couldn't be simpler to manage initiatives across all Member States and in variety of languages. The only real 'difficulty' for citizens then will be to find the right kind of cause for citizens to rally behind – and that should prove to be no difficulty at all!
You will be shown in the next session how this new open source software works and you will be able to test it yourselves during the break.
As I said at the start, the last decade has seen the rise and rise of social media, offering possibilities to connect with people from around the globe as never before, and it is obvious that social media will play an important role in fostering support for initiatives. Although they are by no means the only users of social media, it is fair to say that young people are among the most enthusiastic networkers, and I believe this bodes well for the success of the ECI – young people with a desire for change will now have a chance to make that desire a reality.
This is why I have invited the key social media players to this conference: we will explore the important role they can play during panel II this afternoon, and you will also be able to talk to them directly at their stands outside the meeting room.
I am personally committed, as is the entire Commission, to ensuring the smooth launch of the ECI on 1st April. However, the proper functioning of this mechanism doesn’t depend only upon us. The Member States have a crucial role to play as well:
They are responsible for certifying that online collection systems comply with all the relevant security requirements to make sure that citizens’ data will be properly protected. They are also in charge of verifying that statements of support collected by the organisers of an initiative are valid.
The Commission has been working hand-in-hand with the Member States to make sure that they are ready to fulfil their obligations. We have organised several meetings with the relevant authorities, including one just last week, and have tried to develop common procedures to assist them in making the required checks, and to ensure that organisers will not be faced with drastically different approaches in the different Member States.
Given the nature of the citizens’ initiative, we have insisted in particular that, as far as possible, citizens and organisers are given the benefit of the doubt when there are concerns as regards the validity of statements of support. Some cases will be obvious: Mickey Mouse living in Walt Disney Street can clearly be excluded. However there are likely to be many more cases, which might look invalid but which are not. To give one example: a citizen who has changed address between the time he or she signed up and the time when the authority verifies the data should clearly not be excluded. We have therefore urged Member States to leave a margin of error for such cases.
Despite all our efforts to engage with Member States, I cannot hide my concerns that they will not all be ready on 1st April. Over one third of Member States have yet to designate the competent authorities for carrying out the checks and only a handful already have the relevant procedures in place. So I would like to take this opportunity to urge them to speed up the process and avoid the risk of jeopardizing the successful launch of the ECI in just two months time.
The overwhelming interest in this event augurs well for the success of this new tool: we have over 400 participants here today and a whole online community will, I hope, also be following today's event and posting their comments and questions on various platforms, which you will be able to see outside. I hope that some of the questions for our panellists today will come from that online community.
I've focused on the technical and legal aspects of the ECI, but perhaps the more important and interesting questions it raises are rather more visionary. How will governments and citizens communicate in the future? How will new democratic tools such as e-government influence decision-making in Europe? Are we ready – both as citizens and institutions – for this new form of interaction? What are the likely positives and negatives of these new types of participatory democracy?
I am sure that our invited panellists will have something to say on these issues, but also that we are unlikely to get any definitive answers. What is important is that we start the debate on this new, modern democratic era, that we make use of the most sophisticated technology to help it develop, and that we are ready to use it to listen, engage and interact with European citizens as never before. And to hope, of course, that European citizens are prepared and interested to talk and listen to each other as well.
This new approach to European policy-making will, I believe, reinvigorate the European Union, strengthen European identity and give much-needed momentum to the European political arena. We are really at the start of something new and exciting, so let's ensure we make full use of this opportunity!
And now, back to the technology, and the official launch of the new website