Exclusive coverage - Robin Good's Media Network announces the launch of the ECI, European Citizens' Initiative and provides before any traditional media outlet (including the BBC), information, news and a full video intro to this grassroots direct democracy citizen initiative.
In the age of ubiquitous participatory culture - from the explosion in user generated media to the very way we do business, art, collaboration and even education - the world of politics often feels left behind. Democracy has become indirect, stale and something far removed from the daily lives of everyday people. But this is changing.
Participatory democracy is high on the agenda of the European Citizens Initiative (or ECI) who are launching their campaign today in the European Parliament in Brussels. The aim of this ambitious campaign is to empower citizens to propose concrete policy and legal changes to the European Commission, by exercising the right of initiative. With hundreds of organizations behind them, and volunteers in their thousands, the ECI are determined to show that collective action can have a direct impact on the way we live our lives as active producers, rather than passive consumers of democracy.
Bringing power to the people that are effected directly by legislation is a bold and necessary measure in an age when accountability is often swept under the carpet, and politicians increasingly fail to represent the interests of those that elected them once the final votes are cast.
By attempting to gather one million signatures, the ECI campaign aims to gain the right of initiative, so that European citizens and civil society organizations could then directly influence the political agenda of the EU for the first time in history. With one million citizens collective voices, it is possible to demand changes to European law and policy, placing the right to challenge the actions of politicians firmly in the hands of the people at street level.
In this exclusive video interview with the ECI's Carsten Berg, and former rector of the College of Europe and supporter of the cause Gabriel Fragniere, I talk through the key questions about what the ECI aims to achieve, how it can be done, and what you can do to make a difference in the emerging participatory democracy that promises to tip power in favor of everyday people.
Video: Carsten Berg & Gabriel Frangiere in conversation with Michael Pick
A full transcription of the interview follows this article.
What is the ECI?
The European Citizens Initiative is a campaign aimed at bringing a participatory, hands on dimension to European politics. It's implications are, however, global. As the ECI website explains:
''Time has come for citizens to play a genuine and meaningful role in the European project. The goal of this campaign is is to collect signatures of people from all member states, demanding the introduction of the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) by a regulation into European law. Such a regulation would require the European Commission to respond to a proposed change in European law signed by at least one million EU citizens.
When implemented, the ECI will be the first transnational tool of participatory democracy. It would enable European citizens to directly influence the political agenda of the EU for the first time in history.
This demand of the right to have a direct say in how Europe is run, beyond the electoral process, is very much in keeping with the Smart Mobs detailed by Howard Rheingold - groups of people drawn into collective action, often through the use of citizen media and journalism, towards a common social or political end. As such, while the focus of the ECI is clearly on European politics, its message of a participatory politics, a hands-on democracy, is one that has much broader, international implications.
The ECI hopes to close the gap between citizens and institutions, and further the cause of direct civic engagement in a society in which people have come to feel politically disempowered and apathetic.
Why one million signatures?
The initial campaign to gather one million signatures is to open the door for future participatory action on the part of citizens. As the ECI website explains:
''To open the door for other campaigns using ECI, the right of initiative must be introduced as a legally binding instrument.
The institutions are unlikely to introduce a strong regulation without further public pressure, so it is up to the citizens to demand its introduction.
A huge number of signatures, gathered all across Europe, will prove that European initiatives can work, and put the EU institutions under considerable pressure to respond positively. This campaign will show that citizens have the will and capacity to take the European project into their own hands.
The idea is simple -- once the initiative has been proven to work once, it can be used again and again at the service of the people, empowering them to step in and make a difference when serious issues have an impact.
Imagine the implications if America had such a system in place, in the wake of Bush's unwinnable and publicly maligned war in Iraq. While the right to initiative will not always be called on for dramatic ends, it nevertheless promises to give people the right to take direct - and legal - action about the issues that matter to them.
The ECI is actively enlisting both people to sign their signature form, and volunteers to enlist others to do the same. Organizations are also encouraged to join the growing list of supporters rallying behind the cause, and after today's launch in the European parliament, this list is likely to go on growing.
Beyond being able to support the initiative online, if you happen to be in Brussels today, you can get involved directly.
The launch of the European Citizens' Initiative will be celebrated by several events:
A press conference will be held in the European Parliament from 14:00 to 14:30.
At 14:45 citizens will meet in front of the European Parliament where the collection of signatures will officially start. (Rue Wiertz 60 in Brussels).
In the evening, there will be an ECI café event, involving mainly young people talking about their role in the campaign
Michael Pick: Hello I'm Michael Pick from Robin Good's Media Network. Could I ask your name and your involvement with the European Citizens' Initiative?
Carsten Berg: Hello my name is Carsten Berg, and I am the General Coordinator of the European Citizens Initiative campaign.
Gabriel Fragniere: My name is Gabriel Fragniere. I'm born Swiss, Belgian by adoption, and European by citizenship. My involvement in the European Citizens' Initiative is a strong personal support, because it corresponds to what I believe.
MP: How would you describe the European Citizens' Initiative to someone who has no idea whatsoever what is is?
Carsten Berg: The European Citizens' Initiative Campaign is an exciting movement of many hundreds and thousands of citizens across the whole continent, who have understood that it is about democracy now.
If we want to change Europe and bring it further and make progress, then we need to talk about democracy and not only talk about it, but really get active and introduce new and modern ways of democracy. And for this we want to use participatory democracy, where citizens can directly influence the political life of Europe with the European Citizens' Initiative right.
Gabriel Fragniere: Now how do you describe a citizens' initiative? I would do it in the following way: my father told me when I was young "take care of politics, if not, politics will take care of you".
Now I think the European Citizens' Initiative is a way of caring for European policies instead of developing means for complaining about European policies.
Carsten Berg: What is participatory democracy? Well, in fact there are two ways in general on how to make democracy work:
In our history, in the nation states and on the European level, we so far always had representative, indirect democracy, where we vote for our politicians and they represent us in parliament or in the government.
And then, there's a new way of making politics - it is participatory democracy, which is not only indirect, but where citizens can influence directly the political life and make proposals by using the citizens' initiative right, or even vote directly on the concrete questions of legislation in a referendum. These two things, initiative and referendum, these make out participatory democracy.
Gabriel Fragniere: What I believe of participatory democracy is that it's a needed compliment to representative democracy. Parliaments should make law, but citizens should develop European policies, propose their policies and say what they want to happen. They should care about policies.
MP: What do you see as the biggest problems in the existing model of European politics as it stands today?
Carsten Berg: Well, the biggest problem at the moment in European politics is that citizens don't feel anymore that its their own model of politics, its not their own political community. European politics are far too removed, aloof, far too distanced from citizens, and they don't believe they could change anything in European life and political life.
And this creates a huge gap between citizens and the European institutions who are supposed to govern in the name of the citizens. So the biggest challenge at the moment is to reconnect and create trust within citizens not by simply advertising Europe in the traditional way, but by creating new tools where citizens can change Europe and make a difference. This is the biggest challenge at the moment in Europe.
Gabriel Fragniere: I think the fact that the top decisions are taken by people who are not elected for it - the chief of governments and heads of states are elected to take care of their states, not about Europe.
Therefore, I think we should abolish, or retrict, the power of the European council, because without that there is no freedom, there is no democracy, because they do not report to anyone, and they forbid the European citizens to take care of what's going on outside of the borders of their nationality. Since the Treaty of Maastricht, we are European citizens, this is what I am, and I want to participate in that.
MP: Tell me a little about the right of initiative. What effect would that have on the way that we live?
Carsten Berg: The right of initiative would give citizens the right, for the first time in history, to really influence political life. By collecting one million signatures, citizens can call on the European commission to change, to make a change, to European law. And this is something where you would bridge the huge gap between citizens and institutions.
Citizens would not be anymore passive consumers, but they would be actually producers of a democratic life. We would create our political life, and much more identify with it. We would be more informed, the quality of debate, and information would be much higher.
Gabriel Fragniere: If citizens come and say, express, make known what they want, the legislators won't be able to avoid it. Because most of the legislators are elected on promises, and after that they do what they can without caring about what citizens say, because they say "they have elected us, we don't have to go back to them".
With an initiative, we say what we want. We should take these measures and express our views, so tht the legislator will take care of what we think and not only care about what the industrialists or the financial powers are telling them.
MP: Do you think its possible to unite people Europe-wide towards a single common end, such as the European Citizens Initiative?
Carsten Berg: Yes, I strongly believe it is possible that European citizens get together, face a problem and try to solve it together. Just as you get together on the local level or on the national level - there are certain problems which you can solve only on the local level and there are also problems which you can only solve on the European level: environmental questions,they have climate change - this is a global dimension, as well as terroristic questions, terror attacks,the other questions, social issues.
For this, we need to get together as European citizens and communicate across borders, exchange perspectives and really try to solve problems together, and this of course has a uniting effect.
Gabriel Fragniere: Is it possible to unite people around Europe? Yes, of course, if not I wouldn't be here.
MP: What does the ECI need to be a success, and how are we going to actually measure that success?
Carsten Berg: Well first of all it needs people - citizens who say "I want to take it into my own hands". It is possible to get together. It's important to understand the message and to explain it to others. Then, secondly of course its important to collect signatures while talking to others - talk to your friends, talk to your family, talk to your grandmother or your sister, and make it as an easy message, to say we need more democracy in Europe now, and we want to involve everybody.
Gabriel Fragniere: What does the ECI need to be a success? To be known and well explained. Because many people, individuals, will doubt about the possibility of expressing their views, but if you succeed with one example, and that's what we're up to, then they will know it's possible, and let's do it, and with the means we have these days it's a possibility of doing that, and that's what I expect from ECI. That the first million will be gathered, and then maybe many others, because when the movement will be taken, we can reach that goal.
MP: Okay, so what's next? What can expect from the ECI in the coming months?
Carsten Berg: Well in the coming months its important to keep the flow really flowing, and the roll rolling. And for this we have prepared already a couple of conferences, we will prepare further, so if you have an idea to make a conference, come and talk to us. We will come up with more precise proposals of how the ECI should look then.
There is an important question for the implementation law of the European Citizens' Initiative, and there we give twenty key recommendations, that means its important to think about how many member states future European Citizens' Initiatives need to come from, which issues are possible to make use of for an ECI, what is the role of the institutions, for example the representations of the commission in the parliament, in the different member states, in London, in Rome, in Berlin, in all the different European cities. What is their concrete role? And for this you need key recommendations and we're going to prepare them as well. And at the same time, keep the ball rolling amd talk to many, many people about it collect signatures further.
MP: Okay, so how could I get involved - let's say I was interested in getting involved - what can i do as an individual to contribute to the initiative?
Carsten Berg: Well it'd very easy to get involved, just have a look on the website: www.citizens-initiative.eu, there you will find contact persons for your country, there are most probably organizations for your country as well, because we have in almost all EU member states organizations who support ECI, and then, if this would not work, always feel free to connect or to call the ECI co-ordination team, which is here, situated in Brussels.
Gabriel Fragniere: What we can do to get involved in this - if anyone signing says I promise ten friends, or twenty friends to sign with me, the movement will be big enough so that we'll reach our goal. And I think the democracy of Europe, in Europe is at stake in that case, and we should work for it. Thank you.
European citizenship provides interesting legal rights for all European people (for the moment the criteria is to have the nationality of a country in the European Union). To the exception of the right to move and work freely -which was unimaginable only a decade ago- most of these rights are not crucial: right to vote & stand as a candidate in another EU country, write and receive answer in any EU language, etc. The European Citizen Initiative (ECI) is only one more right which we could have. Another one which was, like the ECI, included in the rejected Constitutional Treaty, was the right to good governance!
When looking at national citizenship and the rights it entails, we quickly understand that it is indeed a very politically sensitive topic involving access to education, to social security, to unemployment benefits, environmental and consumer protection, etc. Those are highly controversial issues for national governments; EU citizenship pays the price for the lack of will of our own governments to empower our rights at the European level.
The link with the principle of non-discrimination is extremely important since it leads to better definition and enforcement of equal treatment laws. The European Court of Justice is constantly passing judgments that reinforce our rights within the European Union. Our rights are on the move!
However, the concept of EU citizenship is yet not fully developed. One could say that we do not even possess a common definition of the term. Ask 1000 people, you will get 1000 different answers. Let's debate this already!! Let's move our rights further!
The problem is that there is no one in the EU institutions (EU Parliament, EU Commission, EU Council) dealing with EU citizenship. No one to talk to despite the fact that there is increasing public interest and political debate. Nothing moves because there is not one single place where we can all debate together and address all the issues at stake, such as the link between EU citizenship and religion or minorities.
A petition is now pushing for the European Parliament to take initiative by creating a common forum for debate and hearings with civil society, academics, journalists and politicians. It also asks the European Parliament to put concrete propositions forward. Let's pass this one around www.ecas-petition.org, it is important we get the opportunity to get heard!