In the age of Internet and social media it is very easy to express an opinion and try to make it heard. We have seen how Facebook and Twitter facilitated the Arab Spring, or how social media propelled Barack Obama to power. But the worst thing you can do is invite people to express themselves, promise them a platform there to do it, and then make it technically impossible to use it.
According to Euroactiv.com this is exactly what is happening with the European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECI), whereby the European Commission is inviting European citizens to submit their ideas, garner support from different countries through digital signatures, and then get the opportunity to present them directly to the Commission to influence its policies – a token opportunity but an opportunity nevertheless.
A few initiatives have already started and cover such aspects as voting rights, mobility and access to water as a human right. One asking for an EU-wide ban of nuclear power has already been rejected.
However the website reports that civil society groups have asked for help in dealing with the Commission's online administrative procedures to register an ECI and collect digital signatures. The costs involved in fulfilling the requirements and providing a server have amounted to several thousand euros – too much for many civil society groups.
The online collection problem is urgent because once civil society groups register an ECI; they have 12 months to collect the one million signatures they need to trigger the Commission into action. However Euroactiv.com reports that no one is actually collecting signatures at the moment, according to activists at 'The ECI Campaign', who described the situation as "an absurdity".
“We have regularly informed the EU Commission about these severe problems, which are creating huge problems for ECI organisers. The Commission has fully acknowledged the problem and their responsibility," the campaigners said in a statement. As it remains unclear, however, how quickly the institutions will react to this problem, civil society needs to organise and help itself,” it said.
The ECI campaign is currently exploring ways to make available both software and a server for all ECI organisers.
Although the initiative by the European Commission is to be commended, the way it is being handled is leading to increased frustration by European Civil Society. The European Commission has a directorate general specifically tasked with enabling and enhancing the communication between European Citizens and the European Commission, which, contrary to what happens in Western democracies, is an unelected executive.
Under the Barroso Commission between 2004 and 2010 there was a commissioner specifically tasked with enhancing communication with the European Citizens, but the post was not kept in the current Barroso Commission. The post was created at a time when European citizens’ interest in European affairs was seen as dwindling. Participation in the European Parliament elections was going down, with an EU27 average turnout of just 43% and as low as 20% in Slovakia, 35% in the UK and 41% in France in the 2009 session.
If the European Commission really wants to engage European Citizens and give them a real voice, it should make it simpler, not harder, for the citizens to make themselves heard. The technological tools are there and they are simple to use, if there is the willingness to facilitate this.