The European EcoScore European citizens' initiative was launched by a group of university students and aimed at introducing an EU-wide mandatory and reliable universal label on all products manufactured or sold on the European Union market, providing European consumers with transparent information about the environmental impact of the goods they are being sold. The organisers believe this would encourage consumption that helps fight climate change.
While the Initiative did not succeed to gather the required number of statements of support, the people who launched and ran it believe that the effort was worth it; and that the desired impact has to a large extent already been achieved.
These interviews with two of the youth organisers behind the Initiative help explain why.
Antoine Thill is 23-year-old student of law and political science.
Q: How did you get engaged with EcoScore and why do you think this Initiative is important?
Antoine: Actually, most of us were participating in the climate strikes but then at one point we thought, "No, it's time to act, much more than speak" and so we decided to do something very concrete that we believed could have an impact, a positive impact for the environment.
I think that a European EcoScore is very important for various reasons: first of all, it's important that all consumers get very clear information about what they are actually buying, because right now we have a lot of different labels with a lot of different methodologies and people get confused. Our project introduces a compulsory label with letters from A to F indicating if the product is good or bad for the environment.
We are extremely happy that the Commission has announced that they are going to harmonise the way of including the environmental footprint of products. This is actually an amazing step, but what we are asking goes a bit further because we would like a compulsory label on all kinds of products indicating positive information: the product is good, but also negative information: the product could be bad for the environment.
Q: How did you come across the idea to use the European Citizens’ Initiative?
Antoine: I follow the European law course at Saint-Louis Brussels University and there I had a professor who told us about this tool. I remember I thought "Oh, wow, maybe one day I would love to launch something like that and try to have an impact on European politics!” I strongly believe that all citizens should have a say in the European Union and I really believe in participatory democracy.
And then one year later when I was talking with a friend over coffee we thought: "Why don't we launch something?" First, we contacted some friends from around Belgium, and then we created an international network. Right now we are 80 young people involved in 10 countries.
Q: What were the biggest difficulties you faced along the way?
Antoine: I think there are two main challenges. The first one is to keep people motivated in the long run. It's a bit of a paradox, because on the one hand time flies - one year is a very short to collect so many signatures - but on the other hand it's so long, and especially for young people like us, because our lives are changing constantly, from one semester to another. You can go and live in another city, go to Erasmus, or do something very different. And also, of course, getting one million signatures is a very, very big challenge; and sometimes it can be a bit demotivating not to see this number increasing as fast as we would love.
It's very important to bond people together from the very start of your Initiative, to organize team buildings, to talk to each other as much as possible; and if possible to meet face to face, because it makes a difference in the relationships that you build together.
When we started this Initiative, we didn't exactly know what we were getting involved in, because it's a massive project which requires a tremendous amount of time. It is not just launching an idea and then sending some emails, no. For me it's more than 20 hours a week to coordinate people at the European level, to contact associations, to respond to emails and so on, so it takes a lot of time.
But, our main resource as students is not money but motivation. We have this passion, we believe in this project, and I think that if you have this motivation, if you gather around yourself motivated and inspiring people, it can help you find the time even in a very busy schedule.
Antione Till: It is sometimes difficult, but still worth doing.
Of course, sometimes I have to think: "Well, no, I’ll put this initiative aside for now and I’ll focus on my studies”.
I think that when you start a European citizens' initiative you must be aware of what you would be able to achieve. Of course, the main goal is to get 1 million signatures, we were also aiming at that when we started, but very soon we realized that reaching that number is extremely difficult, especially when you don't have the money, and when you cannot dedicate 100% of your time to the project for one entire year. When you start an initiative, you will of course try reaching that one million signatures, but you should also keep in mind that your idea is going to be heard in the entire continent and that you can have an impact even if you don't reach the 1 million signatures.
A very good example is the European citizens' initiative Fairosene which we used as inspiration as it was also led by young people, collected 60 000 or 70 000 signatures, (which is attainable) and were heard by the European Commission! I think it's important to inspire yourself from those examples.
Q: How did you manage to run the initiative during the Covid-19 crisis?
Antoine: We had been in lockdown for so many weeks that we were all fed up with using technology and with online meetings, so we thought: "No, it's time to connect with people directly. We did a long bike tour all the way from Brussels to Luxembourg to be able to meet face to face with people - citizens in the streets, NGOs, business, politicians, etc. It was extremely interesting for us to build the network, but also to have our first experience as campaigners. None of us had any previous experience in campaigning, we all started from scratch. I must say that the first time I went on the street to convince people to sign our initiative, it was quite memorable, because that’s a different level of getting engaged.
The biggest challenge is to make people sign. A lot of them are interested in your project, they are listening to you, we get a lot of nice words and encouragement and so on but making this step of signing is way more difficult, first of all because it takes a bit of time.
I would say that signing online is quite easy for the younger generation, but it is a bit more difficult for the older generations or those not familiar with the process. I know that a lot of friends of my parents were really interested in the project, but it took them a lot of time to sign.
Q: What’s your personal impression about the entire experience?
Antoine: The European Citizens' Initiative is certainly a very interesting tool and I'm extremely happy to have started one, because it helps you make so many contacts, it creates real friendships with people in your country and in all of Europe. For me it was a very good way to grow as a person as well, to reinforce my involvement as a citizen, as an activist. You learn so much and you learn to speak to different types of people. Depending on whether it's an NGO, or a business, or a citizen, you will have to talk a bit differently. The European Citizens' Initiative is also a very great tool to promote an idea at the European level, to get involved as a citizen, and to learn. I have made many very good friends.
It’s very important to realise that you are part of something bigger than just your country, that you are European in the noble sense.
Séverin Berthet studies law at KU Leuven and is a part of the team of the EcoScore European Citizens' Initiative.
Q: How did you learn about the European Citizens’ Initiative and how did you decide to get involved?
Séverin: I heard about it in class, I'm a law student. I take courses in European law. The first time they talked about it I thought: "Wow, it's impossible, it seems so far away". In class, the European Citizens’ Initiative is mentioned very briefly, like "there is also this possibility for citizens to get together one million signatures, but it's not that much used". This is at least the idea that we get as students from the professors. I think that without my law studies I would not be aware of this opportunity either. However, once you go deeper into the project, into the idea of starting an Initiative, you can see that it is actually quite doable.
I wanted to get involved in some way for the climate. One of my friends was involved in the European citizens’ initiative European EcoScore, so I decided to join. We hope that the Commission will impose a mandatory EcoScore label everywhere in the European Union, for every product. We were also asking for a very clear methodology for this EcoScore, because currently it's very difficult to calculate the ecological impact of products. A lot of different brands are making their own calculations and we are proposing harmonisation at the European level which would be great.
Q: What is it that you like about the European Citizens’ Initiative?
Séverin: Today, certainly in Belgium, we have a lot of debate about democracy and how we can get citizens involved in the democratic process and the European citizens' Initiatives are a great way for citizens to get involved in democracy and to propose legislation. The European Citizens' Initiative is a good tool because you can get involved as a citizen without having to deal with politicians in Belgium, or with your Members of European Parliament. A lot of people think that the European Union is distanced from us, and that everything is decided far from us “in Brussels”, but now we can propose legislation ourselves just by starting an initiative. It's possible and we are doing it!
Q: What do you think is the biggest challenge?
Séverin: The biggest challenge is to get people to sign online. It's sometimes difficult to have the trust of the people when they are signing the European citizens' initiative online because they have to give some very personal information, and even if they are ready to sign, when they see that they have to give personal information they don't want to sign anymore. You have to get them to trust you, and this can be difficult. You have to be very convincing. Working with young people is quite easy, because they are less reluctant about sharing their information than my parents, for example. The best way to get the trust of people is to sign with them, to be with them while they are signing and to say: "First you put your country, then you do it this way or that way, but you can use your eID; and you just help them through the process, you explain every step of the process and that really works. If you are there and they can ask questions, like "Oh, I have to give that identification number?" and you can say "Yeah, but don't worry it's very safe, it's just to be sure that it's the actual person that signed, not someone else!”
European EcoScore Organiser Séverin.
Q: Word of advice to other organisers out there?
Séverin: Yes, as a student it's definitely possible to start a European Citizens' Initiative. It’s feasible, and I'm the living proof of it!
Watch the entire video with Antoine and Séverin here:
Find more articles about young people and the European Citizens’ Initiative: