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ECAS Highlight of the Week – Citizen discussions on the European Citizens’ Initiative and participatory democracy

22 July 2020

In its basic description, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a tool for participatory democracy. But through its function as such, and its pan-European mechanism, it also contributes to building a much-needed European public sphere. The argument for this is that whether it results in legislation or not, the ECI raises awareness, forms debates around pressing issues and creates networks of support throughout the EU.

To what extent it succeeds in doing so is the topic of one of the discussion threads on the European Citizens’ Initiative Forum. Justin Greenwood, an Emeritus Professor of European Public Policy, opened the discussion in view of whether the ECI stimulates an EU wide debate or if its reach is contained to the ‘Brussels bubble’. Noting the overall low coverage by traditional media, Professor Greenwood argues that the contribution of the ECI to a European public sphere seems much more limited to a series of national contexts:

“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…. 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”.

In response, ECAS Executive Director Assya Kavrakova commented that assessing the contribution of the ECI to the creation of a European public sphere can differ based on which definition of the latter is used. In the context of Professor Greenwood’s expressed view, she referenced the definition given by Norwegian political scientist Hakan Sicakkan:

“[According to Sicakkan] 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”.

While Ms Kavrakova acknowledges the need to make the ECI much better known in the Member States, she underlines how the trend over the last few years has been positive. More and more citizens from all over the EU have been expressing interest in the tool, separate from just giving their signature of support to a specific initiative.

The full discussion thread can be accessed here.

In a different Forum conversation, a group of university students from the Vesalius College shared their ideas on how to minimise the impact the Covid-19 epidemic has had on the European Citizens’ Initiative. They also mention challenges that existed prior to the crisis, and proposed ways they believe would further strengthen the functioning of the tool:

“One improvement would be to simplify the collection of signatures so that it is quicker and less complicated to set up. Another measure, which has been proposed by Carnegie Europe, in order to put more pressure on the Commission to take action, would be to hold hearings and debates in the national parliaments and the European Parliament at a much earlier stage in the procedure. This would also promote the ECI and publicise the very interesting projects that had been put forward but that the public was completely unaware of”. 

The full discussion thread can be accessed here. Register on the Forum for free and join the conversation!

The European Citizens’ Initiative Forum is an online collaborative platform that offers support to citizens when organising a European citizens’ initiative. It is operated by ECAS on behalf of and under contract with the European Commission and is implemented in cooperation with sub-contractors Democracy International (Germany) and ProMedia (Bulgaria).