In times of access to high speed internet and social media virtually everywhere, one would expect that it is easy to reach out to millions of people and encourage them to participate in direct democracy – but experience so far has proven the contrary. When the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) first started in 2012 it was hailed as a great means to foster citizen participation and increase the democratic legitimacy of the European Union. However, while people do ‘like’ and share pictures or videos online, it appears to be very difficult to translate this interaction into participation in democracy. More than one year into its existence, the experience of both proposers and users alike has been mainly one of disappointment. The process is cumbersome, with many people concerned about the amount of data required for a digital signature, and the system is not user-friendly. Another case of EU over-regulation, or an example of innovative technology taking a while to get on its feet?

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a means of direct democracy allowing citizens from at least 7 EU countries to propose legislation. When one million EU citizens support a certain proposal, it has to be considered at EU level.

This instrument was originally designed to allow citizens to participate in EU policy-making in the same way as governments or members of legislative houses such as the UK Parliament do. In this manner citizens can call on the European Commission, which has the sole power to propose legislation, to bring legislation to both the European Parliament and Council who, in most cases, jointly vote on its implementation. However, implementation of this low-budget initiative, run entirely by volunteers, has resulted in a large number of hurdles for proposers and signatories alike, which has ultimately hampered the potential impact of this effort to promote direct democracy among EU citizens.

Traditional Media

The Right2Water initiative launched by the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU) against the privatisation of water has been the first ECI to achieve over 1 million votes. While it has had a great online presence, its success resulted from the combination of three main factors:

  • The European Commission was at that time discussing the concessions directive, that aimed to facilitate competition and public-private partnerships within the water industry, which gave the organisers a window of opportunity
  • German TV discussed the privatisation of water in December 2012, and
  • A famous German comedian discussed the ECI directly on his comedy show (Erwin Pelzig, 13th Jan 2013).

This led to a big jump in signatures, with over 900,000 German signatures within only a few weeks, followed by another feature on German TV directly dedicated to Right2Water1. Germany is still the leading country with almost 1.3 million signatures, or well over three quarters of the total.

‘End Ecocide’ in Europe, a European citizens initiative which started in 2012 aiming at criminalising severe cases of environmental destruction, shared a similar experience as Right2Water. When it was first mentioned on French TV, internet traffic reached over 150 clicks per second, with intense activity on Facebook (one post reached over 50,000 people) and YouTube. However, only a very small percentage of those sharing the Facebook picture or watching the YouTube video actually voted for the petition.

A major problem in the ECI platform [...] is the absence of useful software and statistics to track visitors’ behaviour

Moreover, not all of the clicks on ‘vote now’ actually translate into valid votes. While the figures vary by country, overall more than 50% of the votes are lost due to the voting system. Specifically, only when a citizen receives a signature ID, his or her vote has been counted. This problem indicates that there are clarity issues with the online form, or that the voting procedure is too cumbersome for today’s instant communicators. The on-going collection of signatures for ‘End Ecocide’ in Europe has so far achieved the support of over 47,000 Europeans, a long way to go for the million.

A possible explanation of this partial failure of the initiative, as explored further below, is that citizens might decide not to support the initiative after reading the data requirements, or coming across issues of voter eligibility. In fact, differing national data requirements actually exclude some from voting. Another reason could be a failure in communicating a successful vote, with citizens being unaware that only once they receive a signature ID the vote is counted. Of course a third explanation simply lies in a lack of interest from the citizens in supporting the initiative. A major problem in the ECI platform, though, is the absence of useful software and statistics to track visitors’ behaviour, so it is very difficult to come up with a reliable explanation of an eventual unsuccessful outcome.

Co-founder of the Italian Five Star Movement (M5S) which advocates a form of ‘pure’ democracy, Beppe Grillo is a comedian and political activist. Niccolo' Caranti/Wikicommons

A Burgeoning e-Bureaucracy

Contrary to traditional petition platforms such as, the European Commission requires a substantial amount of data from signatories. It does not allow either the simple collection of email addresses or sharing buttons for social media. The format of the signature form is not very clear with lots of small print, obliging the user to go through a tedious process within the voting system.

Data requirements are probably the most obstructive aspect of this process. While some information is, of course, needed in order to check the identity of a signatory and ensure people sign only once, the process is further complicated by the fact that EU member states do not agree on uniform requirements. For example, Irish citizens have to provide different information, in different format, from Spanish citizens, for example. But even worse, there are some citizens who are completely excluded from voting due to the difference in requirements between their country of residence and origin. For example, the UK requires signatories to be residents, but Austria or Portugal require them to be nationals with the result that UK citizens living in some other member states cannot vote. This bureaucratic norm clearly does not help to promote the democratic principle of universal suffrage.

A closed-box software is provided to the promoters of initiatives, which cannot be customised as long as their ECI is hosted on the Commission servers. On the other hand, hosting an initiative on a different server is only possible for ECIs with a substantial budget, which usually is not available to the promoters. Such restrictions and complicated requirements within the EU digital platform constitute a sort of e-bureaucracy, which hampers the efficient promotion of policy-making initiatives.

Window of Opportunity

The ECI platform has great potential to become a tool for a more direct and participatory democracy within the EU, but there are major caveats in its implementation that need to be overcome. It’s almost impossible to achieve the 1 million targeted number of votes without a proper organisation and budget for any initiative – which contradicts its purpose to facilitate citizen participation, but rather transforms it into a tool used by strong lobby groups to further advance their agendas.

In addition, it is still unclear whether a digital platform alone is enough for the successful promotion of a political campaign recent experiences suggest that a traditional offline presence is still needed to reach a large enough audience. Experience also shows that it is only when the promoters of an initiative can place the campaign’s issue on the agenda of mainstream players that it is possible to achieve an audience large enough to spread the word to at least 100 million citizens, assuming that one in hundred votes.

Social media [...] and internet platforms [...] can serve as stepping stones for promoting campaigns, but traditional channels of communication are still needed for the ultimate success of these initiatives

Social media such as Twitter, Facebook and internet platforms such as YouTube can serve as stepping stones for promoting campaigns, but traditional channels of communication are still needed for the ultimate success of such initiatives. The single most important determining factor here appears to be linked to the ‘window of opportunity’ available to the campaign, such as news stories falling within current topics as occurred for the Right2Water initiative. Within this short window, the interest of citizens is sparked and digital platforms can play their role in efficiently and rapidly spreading the initiative.

It took decades to establish the democratic foundations of the ECI for EU citizens, but new norms and a simplified bureaucratic model need to be established in order to ensure that efficient and democratic participation of EU citizens in policy-making takes place. The technical caveats must be fixed, but beyond that policy-makers at a European level must recognise the ECI as an important tool (many members of the European Commission are not even aware of the ECI). Ultimately, one million votes is only the first step in wider policy participation – how to involve people in a continuous discussion surrounding new laws and their implementation is a future problem which must be tackled.

Nevertheless, this first step already demonstrates that only through a simplified e-bureaucracy, which facilitates the use of a digital platform among the citizens from all EU Member States in equal way, can the ECI function efficiently. In this manner the European Commission can benefit from the wide participation of citizens in policy-making on important socio-political issues, which can ultimately pave the way towards a more direct and participative form of democracy within the EU.