Interview / Daniela Vancic: “The Pope promoted the European Citizens' Initiative”

01 October 2018 /

Our editor in chief Niklas Franke interviewed Daniela Vancic from Democracy International who has been engaged in the revision process of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI).  Reveiling some behind the scences details, she explained how the ECI should be changed.

Good news: European Citizens were able to manifest their concerns at EU decision-making level. Bad news: there was no impact.

Back in November, it hit the headlines that the Council failed to approve a glyphosate ban. Retrospectively, we can say that the policy outcome was fairly disappointing, however, it was remarkable how fast the issue was tabled. If nothing else, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) Stop Glyphosate speeded up this process, they were able to collect more than 1 million signatures across Europe in only 6 months. Good news: European Citizens were able to manifest their concerns at EU decision-making level. Bad news: there was no impact.

The ECI is quite characteristic for EU politics nowadays. The tool is a good idea – the concept to shape policies more democratically and bottom-up – but then it fell by the wayside. For instance, the ECI is now 6 years old, only 5 have made it to the Commission and not one of them has made it into EU law. Moreover, the ECI which collected most signatures (against TTIP) was rejected by the Commission, and the European Parliament (EP) refused when they were asked to play a bigger role in the ECI process. So, it seems that success stories of direct democracy tools are rather written in Switzerland than in the EU.

At this very moment, the ECI is under revision in the Council. Daniela Vancic from Democracy International has been engaged in the revision process. In early September I had the chance to sit down with Daniela and get some behind the scenes details about the process. She explained how the ECI should be changed, who are her allies are in the EP and why even the Pope promoted the tool.

Eyes on Europe: Hi Daniela, Democracy International has promoted the ECI for over several years now. What exactly was your role in this process?

Daniela Vancic: Democracy International works globally but I’m a European program manager, so I work on everything that is related to the EU-level: campaigns, networking, maintaining our partnerships, etc. As there’s such a limited number of organizations that work solely on the ECI, it’s very important to reach out and build alliances, so that the ECI network can expand. This year, we’ve met with a lot of Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). We targeted those that were not on our side yet and we tried to convince them and to find common ground. Besides the institutional level, we’ve been publishing a lot of material in order to raise public awareness and to create public pressure.

Eyes on Europe: Why is the ECI tool so important for your organization?

Daniela Vancic: At Democracy International, we want to support and promote direct democracy and we’ve been lobbying for the ECI tool for 20 years now. The ECI, being a nonbinding tool since the Commission is not bound to respond, is a tool of participatory democracy going towards the tool of direct democracy.

Eyes on Europe: One of your core demands is an increased role of the EP. Why do you want the EP to play a bigger role in the ECI?

Daniela Vancic: The EP is the only institution that is democratically responsible to the system, since its members are democratically elected. In other national citizens initiatives the parliament has a huge role. Finland is a great example: a lot of initiatives are put forward and they are much more successful. Members of the Parliament are accountable to the people, so the citizens can see if a parliamentarian didn’t vote in favor of a topic that they felt strongly about. In a few years, the parliamentarian is going to be up for election and the citizens are going to think about that. So, it’s easier there to identify which parliamentarians are on which side of the spectrum on the issues that are really important to you.

In an ideal EU the EP would have the right of initiative, but of course that would require treaty change.

Eyes on Europe: And how, do you think, can this role be increased?

Daniela Vancic: In an ideal EU the EP would have the right of initiative, but of course that would require treaty change. In reality, they still have to sum up to the Commission. Within the framework of the treaties, our demand was to have a vote and a debate in plenary in the EP on every single successful ECI. We’ve already achieved to include a public hearing into the rules of procedure. But we also demand a public debate, a vote and a report by the EP to the Commission. In our vision, the Commission would be more bound to respond, now that the EP has taken more action on this. And at the same time the EP would kind of direct the Commission on what to do because they’ve voted and debated about it already.

Eyes on Europe: But the proposal was rejected and it seems that there’s not much of support coming from the EP. Do you find more allies in certain parties than in others?

Daniela Vancic: Yes, definitely. The Greens have been more supportive. They were totally behind us when it came to social media campaigns, lobbying efforts, civil campaigns, etc.  Other than that, they also tabled an important amendment. Besides, MEP Josep Maria Terricabras was really supportive and also some members of ALDE. Regarding the EPP, we saw that they were already a little bit fragmented on this issue and a lot of members were looking towards the position of the Rapporteur, György Schöpflin. So, before the plenary session we met with a lot of EPP members in order to convince them. At the end, Schöpflin reminded them to stick to party lines but he proposed to introduce a part of our demand into the rules of procedure. For a lot of MEPs that was enough to adopt the report.

Eyes on Europe: In comparison to a petition, the ECI is rather an initiative right than a participatory tool. What has to be changed to make the ECI a much more democratic tool?

Daniela Vancic: We need real political impact. Citizens can campaign and sign all they want but without any impact it’s a bit of a democratic sham. The Commission has taken steps in this direction: This year, they came out with an EU drinking water directive. Well, the initiative is from 2012 and the directive is not exactly what the organization demanded, but at least they say the directive was inspired by the ECI.

If you want to make the ECI a real tool of democracy, you need to give citizens a voice.

If you want to make the ECI a real tool of democracy, you need to give citizens a voice. Sure, 1 million signatures are maybe too soon to make it automatically binding but already 20 years ago, we suggested a second collection of signatures. The original idea was to collect first, for example, 1 million signatures and then to have a second collection with a higher threshold if the Commission doesn’t act on the first one. Once you reach that threshold it would automatically spark an EU-wide referendum. Sure, the second threshold should be much higher because it should not be taken lightly that there is an EU referendum but then it shows that there’s really interest in this. Let the people decide, give it enough months to have a good debate on it. Have it on TV, town halls, have it live streamed. I think then you can do what the tool was intended to do.

Eyes on Europe: As an insider, why do you think that some of the ECIs might have had more success than others?

Daniela Vancic: The fastest growing ECI was Stop Glyphosate and I think they were so successful because it’s a hot topic. Glyphosate is around you: it’s in the food, it’s in the products that you use, so it effects your day to day life. It’s easier for people to connect to this kind of topics. Another reason is that they had really strong alliances, such as Greenpeace and WeMove.

One of us was basically an anti-abortion ECI and actually the Pope endorsed it, which created a lot of buzz.

One of us was basically an anti-abortion ECI and actually the Pope endorsed it, which created a lot of buzz. I mean, he did promotion for the ECI tool in general, great job (laughing). The organizers should know exactly where to be successful, and indeed most signatures came from catholic countries, especially from Italy.

Right2water was the first ECI, so once they really started to get a push, people started to talk about the ECI. I think then it was easier for them to collect signatures because people had the assumption it would really lead to legal change.

And of course, money is very, very important. It’s a transnational campaign across 28 countries and 500 million citizens, yes, you have to have some money in the bank. Also, you need a good volunteer base, money in resources, etc. There are also examples of ECIs that made it with less money, but my advice to campaigners is to do some fundraising.

Eyes on Europe: Thank you very much for the interview, Daniela.

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