There is one key element that decides the campaign success of a European citizens’ initiative: the network of civil society organisations supporting the initiative. No successful ECI today has reached the one million mark without the significant support of civil society organisations backing it. Both recently successful initiatives Stop Finning and Save Cruelty Free Cosmetics, for example, recruited nearly 100 organisations in its campaign efforts. Their strong networks clearly played an important role in the success of both initiatives.
But what does it take to make an NGO decide to support an ECI? And what are the misconceptions about the instrument and the process of collecting support that hinder an NGO from supporting an ECI? We took stock of civil society’s opinions, hopes, and concerns regarding the ECI – first, at ECI Day 2022 where we heard from experts and civil society organisations that contributed to the success of ECIs, followed by a survey, responded by over 50 NGOs sharing their perceptions of the instrument.
Respondents were firstly asked to what level and how their organisation has promoted the ECI as an instrument. Answers varied from promotion of a specific initiative, to more veteran-level support such as carrying out systematic and academic research on the ECI and its impact, to providing workshops and lectures on the ECI. Two respondents contributed to the introduction of the ECI. Organisations often decided to support the ECI via promotion of a specific initiative whose aims are closely linked to the organisation’s own aims. This allows for a more concrete promotional action for the organisation as it is raising awareness around an issue of importance, which uses the ECI to achieve its means.
Another main takeaway is that the quality of support given to an ECI is just as important as the quantity of organisations supporting the ECI. A large, significant backing of NGOs behind an initiative should be maximised to its full potential by mobilising as many supporting organisations as possible to offer hands-on and active support. 85% of the civil society survey respondents who have promoted or supported a specific ECI in the past suggest that offering meaningful support and sharing campaign burdens is key to the success of a campaign. This means that the campaign should be as decentralised as possible so that partner organisations can take ownership of the campaign and be able to customise messages and outreach approaches to their audiences and therefore maximise reach of potential signatories. This was also reiterated at our workshop at ECI Day with civil society organisations.
Some organisations have also pointed out that they have not yet supported an ECI because of the perceived level of commitment to the campaign, particularly for those organisations who are not operating at EU level. However, given the need to decentralise an ECI campaign, organisations working at local and national level can often be the best multipliers and promoters of an ECI, given their ability to reach people on the ground. Levels of campaign commitment can vary from full day-to-day campaign partner to low-hurdle signs of support, such as officially endorsing the campaign and providing a logo for the website or tweeting about the initiative. If an NGO is interested in the topic of an initiative, it should not hesitate to get involved in whatever way it can.
The civil society respondents of the survey revealed some justified reasons for their concerns with the ECI, which may contribute to their hesitations around getting on board to support an initiative. Many of these hesitations however have been solved in the new ECI Regulation, which went into effect on 1 January 2020. For instance, concerns from survey respondents regarding the Central Online Collection System included an ability to stay engaged with the supporters, ability to collect statistics on signatories, and simplification of the signing procedure. In recent years however, the Central Online Collection System has seen several upgrades that address these exact concerns, which can be found at the blog post here.
Lack of awareness regarding the instrument were also referenced ten times in the survey replies. The ECI however relies on NGOs to continue raising awareness about the ECI beyond Brussels. Moreover, 92% of organisations participating in the survey were mid- to veryinterested in incorporating European Citizens’ Initiative promotion in their own activities. When asked what the requirements for organisations would be for them to promote the European Citizens’ Initiative, among the top responses were requests for engaging social media content and graphics or videos in their local language. The good news is that the communications campaign of the ECI, #EUTakeTheInitiative, offers multilingual communication material that organisations and other multipliers can use to spread the message of the ECI, thereby helping increase the level of awareness. Find it here.
Some concerns raised by respondents were also based on outdated facts around the ECI, or are misunderstandings about the ECI, such as regarding the follow-up to successful ECIs. This Mythbusters page addresses some of the impressions around the ECI.
Other suggestions by respondents for the ECI included, for example, the call for a translation of initiatives in all EU languages, the call for a central online collection system, allowing the online collection of signatures, allowing the offline collection of signatures, allowing organisers to choose their own start date, a public hearing in the European Parliament and allowing the European Parliament to vote on the initiative, and the establishment of an official support centre. All these services or procedures now already exist and can be enjoyed, demonstrating that the ECI has come a long way in its 10 years!
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Daniela Vancic is European Program Manager at Democracy International where she carries out advocacy campaigns for greater citizens' participation at the EU level including running lobbying efforts for better implementation of the European Citizens' Initiative.
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