Assya Kavrakova, Director of ECAS: The European Citizens’ Initiative is the first transnational participatory democracy mechanism in the world
In this interview with the European Citizens’ Initiative team, European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) Executive Director Assya Kavrakova gives us insight into the tool and suggests recommendations for its development into an effective instrument of participatory democracy.
A core element of ECAS’ work is to support democratic participation in, and engagement with, the EU. How effective is the European Citizens’ Initiative in facilitating this participation?
The European Citizens’ Initiative is a unique instrument for a couple of reasons. To start with, it’s the first transnational participatory democracy mechanism, not only in Europe, but worldwide.
Secondly, for the first time in the history of the European Union, thanks to the European Citizens’ Initiative European citizens have the same rights as the European Parliament and the Council – namely to invite the Commission to legislate on a certain topic within its competence.
That said, the Initiative is not a tool for everyday use and, maybe, rightly so – its potential for agenda setting at European level can be explored only by those who are able to mobilise the support of citizens in at least seven Member States. This requirement ensures that it is representative of real European interests or concerns.
What have been the main obstacles to citizen engagement with the European Citizens’ Initiative?
In short, it has proved difficult to use. Even though we agree that there should be safeguards to ensure a minimum of balanced representation from across the EU, excessive administrative hurdles – such as the collection of too much personal data in some Member States – have made it not fit for purpose. This has been compounded by difficulties with the certification of the online collection systems, the personal responsibility of each member of the citizen committee, and so on. Too much effort on behalf of the organisers is required in terms of resources – human, financial, time and energy – for what they get at the end of the process.
How will the revision of the European Citizens’ Initiative address these issues and help increase its effectiveness as a tool of participatory democracy?
The Commission’s proposed changes to the regulation would definitely contribute to the Initiative’s user-friendliness. These will aim to reduce the cost and burden of the process, make it easier for citizens to launch an initiative, and empower organisers to run campaigns efficiently and effectively. The opportunity to sign an initiative at the age of 16 will increase citizen participation and aim to enrich the European Citizens’ Initiative community.
The European Commission has recently launched a European Citizens’ Initiative Forum. What impact is this expected to have?
We hope that the Forum will grow into a real collaborative platform, part of the European public space. It will provide an opportunity for all interested European citizens to debate, exchange views and connect with each other. They will be able to learn about what the European Citizens’ Initiative is and how it has evolved since its launch.
The Forum will also help future organisers to get feedback on their ideas for initiatives and find collaborators and supporters, as well as learn from each other’s experiences of the tool.
Last but not least, current and future organisers will benefit from independent expert advice on the legal, fundraising and campaigning aspects of their initiatives, free of charge.
If, in the future, the Forum, the online collection system that the Commission provides to the organisers and the website are integrated into a one-stop-shop, then we will be able to talk about a real European Citizens’ Initiative ecosystem.
Citizen engagement with the European Citizens’ Initiative depends, to a large extent, on awareness of the Initiative. What is being done to increase awareness of the Initiative across the EU?
Not much until now, in my view. Unfortunately, this lack of awareness has put an additional burden on the organisers – they have to explain not only their cause but also what the European Citizens’ Initiative is. This has discouraged many of them, and they have given up as a result.
The three-year awareness-raising campaign that the Commission is organising in the Member States is very welcome and necessary. It should be combined, however, with a deliberate effort on the part of both top EU officials and national politicians to explain and refer to the European Citizens’ Initiative whenever possible.
In addition to awareness raising, what other steps do you recommend to increase engagement with the European Citizens’ Initiative and to improve its effectiveness?
The process of running a European Citizens’ Initiative should, and will be, simplified with the revision of the Regulation. However, the response of European decision-makers to successful initiatives should also be reinforced. Besides the Commission, the European Parliament can definitely play a bigger role in considering the initiatives, and the Council should step in and form an expert working group on the European Citizens’ Initiative similar to those in other fields – freedom of movement, migration etc. Many initiatives could be followed up at national level in Member States where there is enough political will, even if there is no legislative follow up at European level.
Director of ECAS
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