OPEN DIALOGUE BETWEEN INSTITUTIONS AND CITIZENS
     
By means of a comment by early 2010, attention was given to one of the first institutional innovations provided for in the Lisbon Treaty is the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), the aim of which is to engage European citizens with the European project, help mobilise civil society and strengthen pan-European debate on European policies and a missing element. In the mean time, the first EU-citizens initiative was undertaken and pointed out that one million ignatures were not enough to let bureaucracy to move. Practicle issues are too big: a too small address field, a not yet well-functioning software system and complex provisions on data protection.

Austrian Institute for European Law and Policy, which institute organised 2011 / 2012 a serie of workshops on open dialogue, will evaluate the first practical experiences with ECIs and their impact during a conference ASSESSMENT OF THE EUROPEAN CITIZENS’ INITIATIVEs IN PRACTICE. Optimizing democracy and enhancing citizens’ participation in the political life of the European Union has been a long and on-going process. The Lisbon Treaty made a big step forward when it introduced the first direct democratic right to the EU.

Since April, a new instrument – the European citizens’ initiative (ECI) – is available and has put EU citizens into the driving seats as it has provided them with an opportunity to directly shape the political future of the EU. This offers important means of transnational participation while bringing together new opportunities for information, consultation and dialogue for those who wish to have a say at EU level.

We have seen much pan-European engagement through this new instrument over the last months. These are exciting times for all those who have played a role in ensuring that this new tool is a success – and for all those who have been eagerly hoping to exploit it for quick action. The issues raised through ECIs might even be taken into account by political party campaigners and they could also have a role in the running-up to the European Parliament elections in 2014.
However, as matters sometimes turn out quite differently in practice from what was expected by the drafters, we have also seen a lot of problems and challenges. We have seen the first refusals of ECI´s. Over the last few months, it has been also proven that the "semi-official" tool is not as user-friendly as it claims to be
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Initiators have been unable to organise their networks as promptly and easily as one might have expected. Even if some of them formulated brilliant proposals, they often do not have sufficient resources and capacity to make it through the process. Problems arise in particular with regard to the online signature collection software (and especially the excessive costs for setting up this system) in addition of high costs for running a campaign. Particular attention should also be paid to the notion of transparency. One of the first outcomes from the early stage of the process is that the European Commission has been reluctant to disclose the ECIs it had received before its registration. For EU citizens is it essential to have access to all relevant information at every stage of the proceedings not only to be able to follow a legislative process but also to work together from the early stage in order to secure a true transnational debate on the issue.

The conference is therefore going to offer an excellent opportunity to evaluate the first practical experiences with ECIs and their impact. Most importantly, it will focus on sharing of information, experiences and inputs on particular initiatives and will enable stakeholders to exchange the best practices with a special focus on the technical aspects of the regulation as well as on the potential legal issues which still raise some concerns. The conclusions of this conference should also provide room for further discussion focusing on the revision of the Regulation in three years’ time.

Article 11 (2) TEU oblige European institutions 'to maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society'. In order to get answers on questions and to highlight other elements of “direct democracy” in the EU, the Austrian Institute for European Law and Policy organised from October 2011 till March 2012 a serie of workshops on 'OFFENER DIALOG ZWISCHEN DEN INSTITUTIONEN UND DEN BÜRGERN'.

In May the European Commission has registered the first European Citizens Initiative and hence launched the very first formal signature gathering campaign at the European level in history and indicated, which hurdles and challenges still have to be overcome. The ECI handling team should be increased as well as the European Commission, the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions to take their responsibility for European democracy seriously and to ensure the best possible support for Citizens' Initiatives (read the Manifesto).

The wording seems to be clear and imperative at first sight. If looked at more closely, however, it raises a lot of questions. Since we intend to elaborate on the correct answers in the workshops, were a questionnaire was compiled as a preparatory guideline for all our “senior participants” who were kindly asked to deliberate on these questions in advance – of course, neither of each person was required to answer every question nor were in any way hindered raising additional ones.Main raised questions were which are the „representative associations“ and the members of „civil society“ referred to? and which are the means and tools that are needed to realise such a dialogue?
By asking these questions, the workshops’ concept aims at:

- presenting with rationality
- raising appropriate questions
- collecting reflections from all parties concerned
- preparing first results for further implementation
In sum, we asked: “What do institutions and stakeholders think and feel about the Lisbon dialogue-setting?”

In addition, already in the past, and without this specific provision, some sort of dialogue had been maintained between at least the main institutions and some representative associations of civil society. In particular, already from the very beginning of the (now) European Union the „Economic and Social Committeeand, some decades later, also the Committee of Regions had been established. The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), a right that is enshrined in the EU treaties, began to apply from 1st April 2012, when the Regulation setted out the procedures and conditions. Citizens are abled set the agenda by proposing legislation on matters where the EU has competence to legislate. A citizens' initiative has to be backed by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 out of the 27 member states. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those 7 member states

So the crucial question is now: Which specific value is added by this provision?

This added value could be a legal one (realising that the content of the said provisions is going beyond what had been mandatory in the past), but also a more political one, calling the partners of the dialogue to improve their communication.

This project aims to get answers to those questions with the clear goal to contribute, if necessary, to an improvement of communication between institutions and civil society (understood in a large sense, i.e. including the „representative associations“). Given the current factual background of more than 500 millions of citizens of the European Union, however, it is suggested, as a starting premiss, that meaningful participation of citizens on a Union-wide level would, necessarily, imply a specific political self-restraint of Union legislation, as required by a strict interpretation of the principle of subsidiarity (leaving to the Union only those questions to decide which cannot be treated better on a lower level) and of the principle of proportionality (respecting as far as ever possible the autonomy of the individual).

Representatives of the main Union institutions deliberated together with representatives of the different sectors of “civil society”. To this end, the relevant stakeholders („senior participants“), delivered short initial statements, and opportunity was given to discuss the issue among themselves as well as with participants of the general public. Therefore, the intention was to stimulate interactivity on a broader basis of participants.

The three workshops, composed of dialogues with the European Economic and Social Committee, the Committee of Regions, Related Interest Groups, Non-governmental and Religious / Philosophical Organisations and non-organized Citizens, were followed by a final presentation. During the final event 14 March 2012 on 'The Way Forward', the European Ombudsman P.N. Diamandouros hold a keynote speech. Below the conclusion:

'Let me conclude. I think we can all agree that important mechanisms for the dialogue between civil society and citizens on the one hand, and the EU institutions on the other hand are already in place. Many of them could, however, be used more, such as Parliament's Petitions Committee, the Ombudsman's services, or the possibility to lodge infringement complaints with the Commission. All of these procedures are open to every European citizen.

The Lisbon Treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights have added more provisions to increase dialogue and citizens' participation, such as Article 11(2), the European Citizens' Initiative, and enhanced openness and transparency in the EU decision-making process. Most of these mechanisms are already being used, but mainly by those civil society representatives who are involved in EU policies and know the complex decision making procedures.

However, we will not get a stronger involvement of European civil society at the local, regional, and national levels if we do not manage to find better ways to inform the European public about their existence.

 

Without a joint effort, by the EU institutions on the one hand and civil society organisations on the other, we will, not be able to achieve more citizens' involvement. If we fail, it would have a very negative effect on the already wide gap between the EU and its citizens. I think this series of events has pointed to many ways in which the dialogue could be improved and where the concrete problems are. It is now the responsibility of us all to live up to the criticism, praise, suggestions, and innovative ideas which resulted from these fruitful debates and to turn them into an effective reality'.

 

The director of the Austrian Institute closed the last event with: 'be not a patient audience, bring the open dialogue to make it a movement'. CEPS commented: 'the dialogue focused on the interpretation of Art. 11(2) TEU, concluding that mutual collaboration is necessary to further improve the communication between institutions and civil society. Marco Incerti (CEPS) argued that the institutions have already implemented mechanisms aimed at engaging with civil society. EU bodies are also exploring the possibilities offered by new technologies and social media. However, Incerti emphasised the need to raise awareness of EU matters among citizens as a precondition for an effective and meaningful dialogue. This view was shared by Margaritis Schinas, Deputy Director of the Bureau of European Policy Advisors, who also pointed out that the institutions had been developing rules to interact with civil society well before the Lisbon Treaty.


Finally, the European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros considered that the new instruments could improve transparency and visibility, noting that the European Council in particular was not pro-active in this area. As an example, he referred to a recent Eurobarometer survey showing that 70% of EU citizens do not feel sufficiently informed. However, Diamandouros noted that the task of informing citizens cannot fall on the institutions alone: civil society has to play an intermediary role there. Finally, he welcomed the European Citizens’ initiative as a positive development, but cautioned against raising high expectations'.