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Founded just over 50 years ago, the European Union has become a powerful actor on the global political and economic arena. Despite current eurozone distress, the EU single market is the world’s largest, and the continuous multilateral political environment gives the member states a unique space to negotiate, discuss and compromise.
The EU’s core values have made it into a champion of freedom and human rights, working with soft, normative power rather than wielding influence through hard, military power. However, although it boasts a number of successful endeavours on its resume, the EU is certainly not without flaws.
One of the most common criticisms is that the EU is an elite organisation, distant from the citizens and without interest in or ability to take citizens’ wants and needs into account. The non-elective nature of the Commission and lack of transparency in EU procedures are examples of causes often singled out to what is often termed the democratic deficit.
It is important to point out that there is by no means any consensus on the existence of a democratic deficit at all. While there are scholars that berate the EU for failing in its democratic commitment to the citizenry, there are also scholars arguing that the EU, being the sui generis that it is, cannot be confined to notions of democratic systems created for nation states. The former may be more inclined to argue that the EU cannot be legitimate and credible without more democratic channels and increased citizen involvement; the latter may persist in arguing that the EU is legitimated by successful output.
Whether one subscribes to theories of the democratic deficit or not, indications are that European citizens’ trust towards the EU institutions have been dropping, just like voter turnout in elections to the European Parliament.
Against this background, it may not have been a complete surprise that the Lisbon Treaty, ratified in 2009, brought about the most progressive institutional change vis-à-vis citizen involvement since making the European Parliament directly elected in 1979: the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI).
Implemented on 1 April 2012, the ECI presents an unprecedented chance for citizens of the European Union to make their voices heard and become active parts of both the legislative process and the European project. The ECI allows any individual citizen to register and start a campaign, which must meet certain criteria, but if it is successful also must result in a legislative proposal by the Commission. The legislative proposal must then be submitted to the European Parliament, where the real success of the ECI will finally be determined.
On Fraternité 2020
Enabling people to take an active part in the European project lies at the heart of Fraternité 2020, the first initiative ever registered.
Just like one of the four freedoms, Fraternité 2020 is focused upon the mobility of people; by expanding and improving exchange programmes, more people could be given the opportunity to not just visit a fellow member state, but to truly experience it. Even more importantly, it could enhance and increase exchanges of knowledge, language, culture and history amongst citizens of the European Union, creating greater understanding and solidarity. As lack of funding is often cited as a common barrier preventing people to go abroad, expanding the exchange programmes could be a step towards fairer distribution of opportunities across the European Union.
The concrete aims of Fraternité 2020 are threefold: increasing the funds available to exchange programmes within the European Union, primarily the Erasmus exchange programme and the European Voluntary Service, as well as improving the quality and setting up better systems for evaluation and monitoring of such programmes. During the seemingly never-ending negotiations on the 2014-2020 financial framework, Fraternité 2020 has been campaigning for increasing funds to three percent of the EU budget.
Opportunities of exchange studies or working abroad should not be seen as merely benefiting the individual, but on a societal level too. People who travel and experience different cultures may be further inclined to continue a mobile lifestyle, thus making the effects of exchange programmes more long-term than just the length of the exchange programme itself.
Enabling individuals to build cross-border networks could have a positive effect on a larger scale, for instance in areas such as trade and employment. Encouraging citizens to take on new challenges, such as learning the systems and social codes of new countries could indeed stimulate citizens to venture further, for example to invest in other countries or permanently relocate.
Fraternité 2020 is in itself a good example of how the European Union exchange programmes can lead to integration, cross-border networking and stimulate a sense of entrepreneurship. Being the first ever registered European Citizens’ Initiative, Fraternité 2020 is founded and run by people who have all benefited from the opportunities provided by the exchange programmes, and want to extend and improve such opportunities for yet more European citizens.
Fraternité 2020 is based on the notion that mobility is a key component in creating a strong, diverse and open European Union – a European Union not only for politics and politicians, but also for the people.
Organisation and challenges
There are of course many challenges to starting and running a European Citizens’ Initiative. Since there is no precedent either for organisers or EU institutions to make reference to, there is a lot of trial and error on both sides. For example, the provision of a free-of-charge online collection system for registered initiatives by the Commission was not agreed upon until July, followed by several more months before becoming accessible with a signature collection to start. A free online collection was an important signal that the Commission takes the initiative seriously, as requiring that all ECIs must fund their own platforms would have put many out of business immediately. However, the system provided by the Commission has received plenty of criticism for being user-unfriendly and poorly constructed. It is still up to each ECI to decide whether to go with the Commission system, or to pay for another option.
One may speculate as to why the ECI did not surface in EU treaties until 2009; but it is safe to say that organising an ECI would not have been possible for ordinary citizens without a technology boom like the one that happened over the past decade. Online signatures are necessary both to active ECIs, as it needs to be as easy as possible for supporters to sign, and to the authorities, as processing one million paperbound signatures would have been an even larger administrative task.
For each individual ECI, locating the like-minded across the EU member states – Fraternité 2020 has members of the citizens’ committee from all 27, plus Croatia – and coordinating events, discussing next steps and sharing ideas all very much presuppose the quick, low-cost, accessible nature of the internet and e-mail. Admittedly, it is difficult to imagine how a continent-wide voluntary project with a limited timeframe would even have a sporting chance of succeeding without the new tools at our disposal.
Social media is also an essential asset to ECIs, in terms of outreach and promotion. The issue of funding is surely handled differently in every ECI; for Fraternité 2020, the best option has been to work purely pro bono. While financial support gives certain possibilities in, for example, marketing of the ECI, it also risks the ECI being bound by the interests of its investors. This does however make social media crucial in reaching out and spreading the word, as there are few other means of campaigning that are free and open to all. Equally, Fraternité 2020 is non-partisan: supporters from across the political spectrum are welcome if they share the vision and support the goal of bigger, better EU exchange programmes.
On a closing note, it is too early to evaluate the ECI. The success of the ECI need not necessarily be defined by the number of initiatives that reach one million signatures; nor need individual ECIs be considered failures or as having been in vain if they do not reach their ultimate goal. Every ECI is valuable in that it provides information about what citizens on the ground are concerned about. It is a learning process, both for organisers and for EU institutions, and future officials and organisers will be able to draw upon the experience being accumulated now to improve working procedures or strategies. Time will tell.