On Tuesday I had the opportunity to speak alongside a reasonably illustrious panel at an event hosted by the European Parliament’s office in Edinburgh. I would like to thank James Temple-Smithson for the invitation!
Other speaker were:
- Mr P Nikiforos Diamandouros – EU Ombudsman
- Prof Jo Shaw – Salvasen Chair of European Institutions, School of Law, University of Edinburgh
- Frank McAveety MSP – Convener of the Scottish Parliament’s Petitions Committee
Generally the meeting went well, with everyone on the panel making a distinct, relevant and interesting set of points. I hope that someone was taking notes!
I decided that I would stick to describing the practical issues faced when designing a system to handle ECIs. By doing this I think I managed to carve a distinctive position from the more philosophical/political contributions of the others.
The three areas I focussed on were firstly, an overview of the EuroPetition application – as a lightweight, bottom-up option based on techniques that are known to work through experience at the Scottish Parliament and a range of English local authorities.
Secondly, I did a brief comparison of an ECI to petitions – pointing out the similarities, but also the differences in terms of the formality of the process, particularly the need to authenticate signatures: I think it was a revelation to some in the audience that the validation could be statistical (eg “we need to be 99.9% certain that the threshold of 1m has been passed. What sample of out of the 1.1m signatures we have obtained is required?”) A good point that was clarified in later discussion is that petitions are generally looking for administrative redress whereas ECIs will be looking for legislative change.
Thirdly, I briefly ran through particular issues that are raised by the EU aspects of the ECI process:
- An online system is pretty inevitable given the physical scale of the required campaigns – but the system needs to allow for multichannel campaigns, including the use of paper
- Clarity will be required when looking at ECIs in comparison with the work carried out by PETI and the EU Ombudsman
- Dealing with campaigns and initiatives in multiple languages has to be at the core of the system. It is unacceptable to force everyone to work in English.
- Data protection/privacy will be important – including different application of the law in Member States
- Authentication of identity – I’d prefer a loose definition of who can sign, with tighter checks on a sample at validation stage
- Centralised or federated verification and the relationship to electoral registers or national identity databases
- Need for standards for recording details of Initiatives and the supporting signatures, along the lines that have been discussed for e-petitions in England – else how to share and compare across systems.
Overall, there was a general consensus that ECIs should not be allowed to hollow out representative democracy, and that the concept of ‘EU Citizen’ is not at all the same as being a national citizen.
The biggest risks that came out from the discussions were first that the process could be highjacked lobbyists and corporations: all we can do is watch and see (and hope that the European Parliament can act to neutralise the threat).
There is also the risk the whole process could be swamped by bureaucracy – for instance by demanding 100% verification of signatures at point of signing, or by looking for reasons to refuse to respond to an ECI. One questioner was concerned that the ECI system would require a multi-million-Euro system and accompanying level of staff; I do not believe that this is necessary and that lightweight federated systems will provide a more effective solution, particularly as everyone learns how the process can work.
The other risk was seen as explaining clearly to citizens the limitations on the subjects that can be covered by an ECI: since they cannot propose amendments to the Treaty, ruling out such campaigns as OneSeat. If ECIs are repeatedly knocked back as inadmissible, the process will work to undermine rather than reinforce the democratic element.
Bottom line: like them or not, ECIs are coming and the Commission is sounding positive about making them work. All we can do is support the process, and do what we can to keep it transparent and democratic.