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Vice-President of the European Commission
European Citizens' Initiative – one year on
ECI Day conference at the European Economic and Social Committee/Brussels
9 April 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen
The co-operation between the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on the European Citizens' Initiative has been always very close and intensive. This is why I am particularly glad that today, the ECI Day conference can be held again in the premises of the Committees to mark the first anniversary of the European Citizens' Initiative.
It’s a mark of the strong support for the ECI from both the Committees over the last year that we are here today – as indeed we were last year when the ECI was first launched – and I want to thank you once again for your commitment to making the European Citizens' Initiative a success. My thanks go also to the other partners, who have made this conference possible and have been a valuable supporter of the ECI instrument. All the efforts invested have been worth it, after all we are talking about an unprecedented transnational European e-democracy project.
And looking back over the last 12 months, I think it is indeed fair to call the ECI a success. Not an unqualified success, certainly, as there have been some well-documented teething problems – but a success nevertheless, both in terms of the number of initiatives registered and the scope of the issues covered.
Let me remind you of the state of play so far.
The Commission has received requests for the registration of 25 proposed citizens' initiatives, of which 16 initiatives were registered; two of these have since been withdrawn which means that we currently have 14 ongoing initiatives. The 8 initiatives that were refused did not meet the condition for registration in that they covered areas that fall outside the powers of the Commission. One request for registration is still under analysis.
Contrary to initial concerns, no – to speak with the language of the ECI Regulation – "abusive, frivolous or vexatious" ECIs have been submitted.
The range of policy areas covered by the 14 registered initiatives is also impressive: media pluralism, education, animal testing, climate change and energy, voting rights, roaming charges, speed limits and mobility are all covered. One ECI even concerns the future of the ECI itself, calling for a single online collection platform for all registered initiatives!
So far, just one initiative, Right2Water, has managed to reach the goal of one million signatures – and well within a year, clear indication that it can be achieved with the right support and marketing. They are still collecting signatures, however, because they still need to meet the geographical balance required by the ECI regulation, and I wish them well with also reaching this target in due course.
I believe it is entirely justified to consider 14 registered and ongoing initiatives as a successful first year for the ECI, and I hope that we will continue to see a steady increase in the number of registered initiatives over the course of the next twelve months as well.
But as I said before, the last year has not been without its difficulties as well, notably with the development and validation of online collection systems for the registered initiatives.
As you may recall, the Commission developed its own free-to-use software for the online collection systems ahead of the ECI launch in order to help give organisers a head start. Many of the registered initiatives took us up on that offer – although none of them was obliged to do so.
Sadly, many of them also had unexpected difficulties with using this software. Despite our best efforts to make it as easy as possible to install and use, it soon became clear that we had underestimated the capacities of many organisers. We therefore offered additional support from the Commission's IT service and of course will continue to do so as necessary.
But this was not the only issue faced by organisers in the early stage of the ECI; many of them also found that the cost of hosting these online collection systems was prohibitive. As a result, the Commission decided to help the organisers by exceptionally providing them with additional assistance, in particular with the hosting of their online collection systems on a platform in the EC Datacentre (based in Luxembourg) and in the preparation of the documentation required to get their systems certified.
I would like to express my gratitude to the Luxembourgish authorities, and in particular to the Centre des Technologies de l'Information de l'Etat, for having carried out the relevant verifications in a highly professional and constructive manner.
We also agreed to accept statements of support collected until the 1st November 2013 for the first registered initiatives that experienced significant delays in getting their online collection systems up and running.
So far 10 initiatives using the Commission's servers have got the certification of their system and started to collect online. The first one (Fraternité2020) started to collect online at the end of October 2012. Two others, Right2Water and 30km/h, have set up their systems with a private host provider and had them certified by the competent authority in Germany. They started to collect online early September and in November 2012, respectively.
In this context, I would like to praise the good work of the host provider and the German authorities, who proved that the online-collection system can work also well outside the platform offered by the Commission.
So we've undoubtedly seen some successes over the last 12 months, and while we have also experienced some teething problems, that is only to be expected with such an ambitious project. After all, a delicate balance between user friendliness, data protection and MS specificities had to be struck for this first European transnational e-democracy instrument.
Moreover, we’ve responded rapidly and effectively to the problems, working closely with organisers to find specific solutions to their problems and paving the way for a smoother path for future organisers.
I know that many of you are also already thinking about the future of the ECI in anticipation of the review of the legislation in two years' time, and that a conference on that issue was held just last month, with contributions from ECI organisers and Commission colleagues, among others.
A report on some of the potential improvements to the ECI discussed at that meeting will be unveiled right here this morning by Bruno Kaufman, and I am sure that it will fuel the debate throughout the day. But let me just make a few comments on this issue if I may to kick-start the process.
The Commission's point of view on the future of the ECI is very clear: we of course welcome the debate, and the commitment shown by so many people to making the European Citizens' Initiative as effective as possible. We will engage fully in this debate, and listen to all the ideas put forward before assessing them on their merits.
But let's be clear: there are still two years to go until the official review of the ECI legislation must be carried out, by April 2015. And we are still in the very early phases of this initiative: after all, we have not yet seen one ECI through to its conclusion, and cannot possibly know what will come as a result of that process – either good or bad!
The next twelve months will be exciting times for the ECI. The coming year will see the deadline for collecting signatures come to an end for all 14 registered initiatives, marking the next phase of the process – verification of signatures, examination by the Commission, a public hearing in the European Parliament and a final answer on the Commission that could see the very first piece of citizen-led legislation eventually make the EU statute books.
I'm sure you will agree that while it is perfectly legitimate to reflect already on the experiences of the first year of the ECI, we also have to wait for the second year to come to an end as well in order to get the whole picture.
This process of reflection must and will be an ongoing one. It will, I am sure, prove to be a priceless source of inspiration for the official review of the ECI legislation in early 2015.
Many of the ideas already being discussed in view of the future review are not in fact new ideas: questions such as whether to scrap the requirement to input IDs, to extend the collection period to 18 months or whether the Commission should act as the centralised host for all initiatives have all been discussed before, when the ECI legislation was first being drawn up.
But don't get me wrong: this does not mean that they should not be discussed again, and I am sure they will be many times between now and 2015!
The biggest question, perhaps, that will need to be resolved by the review of the legislation is whether or not to keep the current decentralised system or to move towards a centralised system of signature collection, managed most probably by the Commission. There are arguments in favour and against both proposals, but ultimately it will not be down to us to take this momentous decision, as the new Commission, which comes into place at the end of 2014, will have that task!
I will certainly encourage my successor to listen to all the arguments carefully and draw on the vital experience of the first three years of the ECI before making any decision! And of course, any advice that he or she may seek on how to make the ECI even better must include contributions from the people who really know best: the organisers of initiatives themselves.
Ladies and Gentlemen
Before I finish, I want briefly to touch on a couple of other issues that you will debate later today.
First, campaigning. One of the primary issues that has been raised during the first year of the ECI is how to help organisers promote their initiatives more effectively.
Some critics have complained that the tools provided by the Commission to help organisers do not help them campaign – and that is entirely correct! The tools are designed to facilitate the collection of signatures – nothing more.
The onus has to be on the organisers themselves to market their initiatives effectively, but we can certainly offer technical advice and support to optimise the organisers' preparation and use of the procedure. For example, why not consider launching the campaign six months before registering the initiative, to build up a head of steam before officially starting to collect signatures?
Most if not all registered ECIs have their own websites, and more can be done perhaps to use these as effective campaigning tools. And social media too has a key role to play in this area, not least because of its extensive international reach: many of the current ECIs are present on Twitter and Facebook already I know – indeed, I do my best to communicate with them via those media whenever possible – and I believe that these channels above all are likely to prove the most effective in spreading the word about specific initiatives.
In any case, I am sure the experienced campaigners here today will offer plenty of advice and encouragement!
And why not have an independent contact point to advise the civil society, potential ECI organisers, on relevant issues related to launching an ECI. I could well imagine that the EESC, for instance, would be well placed to establish such a point.
Second, can the Commission do more to promote ECIs? Well, we cannot give specific backing to individual initiatives, as I am sure you will understand, but we certainly can and will do all we can to raise awareness of ECIs in general.
For example, the ECI is featured heavily in the promotional material produced by the Commission for the European Year of Citizens 2013, and I know that Vice-President Reding and other Commissioners have talked about ECIs directly with citizens during the various Citizens Dialogues held across the EU already this year.
Commission officials responsible for the ECI are also touring Europe themselves to raise awareness, as are the Commission reps in the Member States, and of course we too have our own website and social media tools to promote ECIs. Indeed, all the Commission's social media channels are dedicated to the issue of ECIs this week, and I will be holding an online chat via Facebook/Twitter/Google later this week. Please feel free to take part and to promote it through your own social media channels.
I think it's fair to say, however, that more can be done at Member State level to support ECIs. We are still in discussions with 12 Member States that have not, in our view, correctly implemented the ECI legislation, which does not, as I am sure you can imagine, facilitate things for potential organisers.
We need a level playing field where the burden (and cost) of hosting, certification and verification is not shared by just a handful of countries because they are the only ones that have correctly implemented the rules! And once we have this level playing field, we need also the commitment from national authorities to support the ECI process – to let their citizens know about initiatives and how they can get involved. This is most effectively carried out of course in their own language – a relatively simple thing for national authorities to do but far more complicated and costly when managed by an initiative organiser or by the Commission, for example.
When I present the importance of the ECI to Member States, I try to show them a picture which goes beyond its current ramifications. I point out at the fact that in few years, we will have e-ID cards, which would allow our citizens not only to hold their health records and personal data on the chip, but also to participate in democratic e-debates. To use them in elections as we can already see in Estonia.
We can currently observe a clear development towards deepening EU integration, notably in the economic domain. Where the Commission gets new powers to comment on budgets, or to issue detailed country specific recommendations on child care, for instance. It is evident that there will be stronger and louder calls from citizens to have a say in this democratic process in order to be heard, in order to participate. In order to form a transnational democratic process of debates. On top of it, for me it is clear that the Facebook and Twitter generation will wish to do it via the internet, via electronic means and social media.
So to sum up, the ECI is the first step on our way to European transnational e-democracy and therefore we should deal with it with respect, full appreciation of its potential and in full understanding of what is coming up.
Ultimately, of course, the success or failure of an ECI will depend on whether organisers can really tap into the grass roots support they need to reach the million signature mark. That means not only choosing a subject that speaks to a wide range of citizens, but also one that is reflected in the day-to-day lives of people across the EU.
Doing this will, I think, make it easier to campaign, easier to market, easier to win support and, in the end, make it more likely for an initiative to achieve the ultimate goal of making it onto the statute books.
I am sure that this will be just one of the many issues you will discuss today, and I hope, if I've not talked for too long, to have a little time to take part myself in some of those discussions!
I thank you for your attention, and wish you a very interesting and useful ECI Day!