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European Citizens´ Initiative Forum

The European Citizens’ Initiative: a European Public Sphere?

Author: Inactive user |
Updated on: 16/07/2020 |
Number of views: 754

In 2017, the European Commission described the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) as ‘helping to build a European public sphere’ which ‘contributes to bringing citizens closer to the Union’ in a working document accompanying the document Proposal for a Regulation on the European citizens' initiative. Three years on, to what extent has the ECI contributed to this endeavour?  How do we assess what a European public sphere might be?

According to the political scientist Marianne Van de Steeg, ‘public spheres emerge through the public debate of controversial issues…the more we debate issues, the more we engage each-other in our public discourses, the more we actually create political communities’ (Van de Steeg, 2010, p.39).   Maximilian Conrad, head of the Faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Iceland (2016) draws a distinction between campaigns which challenge the EU polity as a whole, and those which challenge aspects of EU policy. In specific interpretation of this work, among the former would include four initiatives whose registration was refused on the grounds of being outside of the scope of EU treaties: ‘A Europe of Solidarity’ (cancel Greek Debt); to ‘hold a confidence vote in EU government’; ‘Abolish the European Parliament’; and (initially) ‘STOP TTIP’, with its wider anti-globalisation critique.  Examples of initiatives which challenge specific policies include Ban GlyphosateOne of UsStop Vivisection, and Free Vaping. These all fulfil the criteria of Andreas Follesdal (Professor at PluriCourts, Oslo) of offering ‘competing policy positions based on a contested conception of the European interest’ (Follesdall, 2015, p.261), but the wider question is to whether measures which contest the EU polity, such as Eurosceptic driven proposals, really can help to create a European public sphere.

In assessing the impact of ECI’s at national level, the European Commission noted in 2018 that in the four cases at that time where the signature threshold has been passed, there was a common element: Germany, Italy and Spain all exceeded the national quotas, with Germany notably ‘in front’ with 2.3 million signatures collected. ‘Minority Safe Pack’ notably drew most of its signatures from Hungary and Romania, where there are issues about the treatment of these nationals in the other country, and attracted signatures from regions where national identity and linguistic minorities is an issue (e.g. Sud Tirol).  75% of the signatures collected for the ‘Right2\water’ campaign were from Germany, where a comedian gave the issue a high public profile through a TV show and a YouTube video which went viral as Julian Plottke (Political Scientist at the University of Passau) highlighted in 2016 . The campaign later gained a high saliency in Ireland, following the decision of the Irish government to introduce water charges for the first time (Greenwood and Tuokko, 2017).  Lowest of all in the signature collection tally for the four measures is Estonia, with a meagre 6,023 signatures collected.  These factors suggest the presence of ‘segmented national spheres’ rather than a common ‘European public sphere’.

Commission Executive Vice-President Timmermans has already declared that the ECI is not a tool of direct democracy, but an agenda setting measure and a tool for participation (European Commission, 2017).  Thus, a final consideration here is whether the ECI could better be classified as a contribution to a European political public sphere as referred to by Alvaro Oleart (Free University of Amsterdam) and Luis Bouza (College of Europe) in 2017 and by Erik Longo (University of Florence) in 2019. The measure is used most by those who already have a strong EU orientation and knowledge as found by Anna Kandyla (European University Institute) and Sergiu Gherghina (University of Glasgow) in 2018, while there is low coverage of the ECI in the traditional media (highlighted by the Bertelsmann foundation in 2018).  All of the five initiatives which reached the threshold required for institutional consideration were created by established organisations.  These factors suggest that the ECI mostly makes a contribution to debate in Brussels, and in localities acutely affected by the topic of an ECI, rather than an EU wide public sphere.

Thus, in conclusion, the contribution of the ECI to a ‘European public sphere’ seems much more limited to  a series of national contexts where an ECI is of particularly acute local relevance, rather than to stimulating EU wide debate, and to where debate is more restricted to a European political public sphere concentrated around the ‘Brussels bubble’. 


Justin Greenwood is Emeritus Professor of European Public Policy at the Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, UK, and a Visiting Professor at the College of Europe.  He has contributed articles on the European Citizens’ Initiative to the peer reviewed journals Comparative European Politics, European Politics and Society, and Interest Groups and Advocacy


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Assya KAVRAKOVA | 18/07/2020

Different authors define the European public sphere in different ways.

According to Cheneval and Nicolaidis (2016), the common European public space is not meant to bring about a unique European people but rather to serve as the setting providing each political arena with resources to address questions, which are important for the respective publics and encourage demoicratic national conversations informed by interconnecting democracies (Cheneval & Nicolaidis (2016) The Social Construction of Demoicracy in the EU, page 21).

I personally favour Sicakkan (2016) definition, according to which the European public sphere is comprised of the Eurosphere and many different public spaces with their actors and the interactions between them. He promotes the multiplicity of public spaces in a public sphere and the possibility of a fragmented and segmented public sphere.


Overall, there is a consensus that the European public sphere has a strong bearing on the development of a European identity as a space of debate where collective identities are constructed, and political communities are created (Hennen, 2020).

As an agenda setting instrument at the EU level, it seems logical to me that the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) will trigger debates, especially as a follow up of the successful initiatives, in the Eurosphere of the European public sphere. I would argue however that the running European citizens’ initiatives’ campaigns do have an impact on debates in the different public spaces offline at national and local level and online.

“End the Cage Age” initiative, for example, managed to surpass the threshold in 21 Member States of the Union. This could not have been achieved if the debate was taking place only in the Eurosphere.

While there is an obvious need to make the instrument much more known in the Member States, the tendency is positive. ECAS last two webinars in May and June this year on how to register an ECI and campaign for it were attended by 270 citizens, out of whom about 12% were based in Belgium and the rest – in 19 different Member States.


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Inactive user | 23/07/2020

The European Citizens' Initiative was not conceptualised as a direct democratic instrument, but rather as a way of strengthening the role of the public sphere in upholding the balance between representative and participatory democracy (European Economic and Social Committee, 2015).

According to Jürgen Habermas, one of the main advantages of the public sphere is that it enables citizens to recognise that they have interests in common, which are not sufficiently served by the state. The recognition of these shared interests leads to positive social change and the strengthening of democracy (Habermas, 1962).

For a public sphere to be fostered continuous input and output is necessary. In this regard, more should be done to capture the attention of regular European citizens, thereby securing the input of the individuals who form the public sphere in ECI campaigns. Furthermore, the Commission should play its role in the output process by showing a greater willingness to accommodate ECI proposals in legislation. 

Thus, even though the ECI is still finding its feet, it represents a vital step in the direction of engaging with European citizens in the public sphere. For the future, it is important that this exchange of ideas, provided by the ECI, is supported and promoted in Europe so that the public sphere can make its crucial contribution to policy-making and democracy in the EU.

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Virginia Fiume | 15/04/2021

Dear Justin, 

I would like to inform you about this initiative (which will present tonight - even if it is a bit last minute, but it just a kick off) might be relevant for you: 


Let’s make 9th MAY Europe Day EU SIGN DAY (and still organise your own events for Europe Day and for the start of the Conference on the Future of Europe)

Join the kick-off meeting where EU SIGN DAY will be presented on the 15th of April 2021 at 6 PM CET to learn how you can

Online: Zoom
Languages: Direct interpretation will be provided in Italian and English (you will see the “translation” icon on Zoom if you have downloaded the most recent version)

This year you as a person, and organisations, association, networks you belong to can do something special to celebrate Europe Day: you can support the 14 citizens committees currently engaged in one of the biggest challenge and opportunity available for European Citizens: the European Citizens Initiative, the only institutional participatory democracy instrument available for citizens to raise their voice with the EU institutions and actually oblige them to act on specific matters.


EU SIGN DAY will be a self-organised initiative climaxing on the 9th of May 2021 that aims to inform as many European Citizens as possible about their right to shape the future of Europe with one (or more signatures) on the European Citizens Initiative.


On the 15th of April from 6 PM CET till 7.15 PM CET, the promoters of this initiative will present it to everyone interested in actively promoting European democracy in the framework of the activities already organised for the celebrations of Europe Day.



 Why European Citizens Initiatives are a powerful instrument for the (Conference on) the Future of Europe

 Why the European Public Sphere needs more awareness on the European Citizens’ Initiatives

 EU SIGN DAY presentation

 How organisations, networks and individuals  can support EU SIGN DAY


Virginia Fiume, coordinator of EUMANS and, Marco Cappato, promoter of, Helwig Fenner, Unconditional Basic Income European Citizens Initiative, Tony Venables - Voters Without Borders, Ella Jakubowska - Reclaim your Face, Andreea Belu - Reclaim your Face, Clara Cavalcanti - Stop Finning, Omri Preiss - Alliance for Europe, Roger Casale - Europe Future Fringe / New Europeans, Jenny Paul -  Head of Europe Direct Munich, Alvaro Oleart - postdoctoral researcher at Maastricht University - Studio Europa Maastricht, and a member of the Jean Monnet network OpenEUDebate, Gregory Engels - Freedom to Share.


The meeting will be open to the  public and will be recorded - Zoom Info:

For info: Virginia Fiume - - +32493158956



European Citizens Initiatives
(that you can already sign and share)

- Unconditional Basic Income

- Voters Without Borders

- Save Bees and Farmers

- Stop Finning

- Reclaim Your Face

- Freedom to Share

On the official website of EU SIGN DAY you will find ALL the ongoing European Citizens Initiatives, that you can already review here 


Citizens Take Over Europe coalition
The ECI Campaign
Alliance for Europe
Democracy International
Europe Future Fringe

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on the ECI Forum reflect solely the point of view of their authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the position of the European Commission or of the European Union.
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