Design considerations for the ECI

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!

Addressing Messrs Diamandourous, Temple-Smithson and McAveety. Jo Shaw is just out of shot.

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.

About Peter Cruickshank

Lecturer in the School of Computing and a member of the Centre for Social Informatics at Edinburgh Napier University, Scotland. Interested in information systems, learning, politics, society, security and where they intersect. My attempts at rounding out my character include food, cinema, running, history and, together with my lovely wife, bringing up a cat and a couple of kids.
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5 Responses to Design considerations for the ECI

  1. I found Tuesday very interesting Peter although I think I left with more questions than I arrived with!
    I do, for example,still wonder about the verification isssue but my big concern is, as you point out, could the system be ‘highjacked’ by lobbyists and corporations. Encouragingly I reckon around 75% of the petitions that come to the Scottish Parliament are from individual members of the public and local community groups but then only requiring 1 signature to bring a petition forward probably lends itself to encouraging this.
    I note the comment above that ‘petitions are generally looking for administrative redress whereas ECIs will be looking for legislative change.’ Of course, as you know, there have been petitions in the SP which have led to legislative change (and committees of the Scottish Parliament do have the power to initiate Bills (and this power would extend to the Public Petitions Committee) so there is potential certainly for petitions to change the law).
    Like you, I’ll be following this issue with interest.
    Fergus, Clerk to the Scottish Parliament Public Petitions Committee

  2. Hi Fergus. Thanks for the comment, and my apologies for the rather strange graphic the gravater system generated for you!

    I agree with your implied line that petitions are a more flexible mechanism than initiatives, and fit more comfortably into a parliamentary model of democracy. It could be argued for instance that beefing-up the European Parliament petitions process would have been a better mechanism – allowing a wider range of topics to be raised, giving parliament and PETI (the petitions committee) more powers in proposing new legislation.

    But we are where we are. And from an academic viewpoint, it’ll be interesting to see who actually has the resources to put together a trans-european campaign. Will any ground-up movement be able to do it? Or will it be restricted to corporations (and corporate funded groups) and the big NGOs? Only one way to find out…

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