April Fool’s Day sees the slightly premature birth of the European Citizen’s Initiative, where Europeans can, if they jump through enough hoops, put an proposal to the European Commission.
The rules have been long argued over, and privately, many of the ECI’s supporters are dismissive and it has become known amongst Brussels wags as the European Lobbyist Initiative, because only large companies, NGOs and… business clients have any hope of success.
The lobbyists know this and have been turning out in force at events preparing for the initiative.
Bell Pottinger are using it to attract business, hardly the purpose of the ECI.
In an email, Daniel Hamilton, Director for European Affairs for the lobby firm explains, “This measure has long been advocated by those who see the ‘democratic deficit’ – the large distance between the EU and its citizens – as a threat to the EU’s future growth and credibility in the eyes of the general public.”
He continues, “It has, however, prompted concerns amongst politicians and civil servants. “ Pointing out that “The EU is a complex and at times sclerotic machine,” Hamilton grasps for the heights of oratory, “Each legislative package that comes through the European system takes months of blood, sweat, tears and compromise after compromise. “A suitably Churchillian tone, if not the linguistic mastery of the political legend. But now, we get to the rub, “The European Citizens’ Initiative poses a direct threat to this established process.
“An petition calling, for example, for the mutual recognition of gay marriages across the EU would likely draw opposition from Catholic countries such as Poland. And Malta.” Ah yes, Malta.
Well, if it worked as intended it could cut out the lobbyist and hidden influence.
Thankfully the Commission are already dealing with this lapse, by making the ECI impossible for ordinary people. Hamilton claims, “To prevent impasses like this occurring, the Commission has announced tough regulations governing the way in which European Citizens’ Initiatives must be initiated and administrated.
“The regulations vary by country but require individuals to sign up not just with their name, country and address but also asking citizens to provide their ID or passport numbers, as well as their date and city of birth.
“Other complex requirements include the need for petitions to include signatures from residents of more than seven EU countries and to ensure they are compliant with existing laws, regulations on the way petition forms must be designed and stringent data protection requirements.”
Now that the citizens are kept away, the field is free for the professionals, and our friend is feeling better, “The European Citizens’ Initiative provides an exciting opportunity for businesses and campaign groups to directly influence EU policy and their profile across the organisation’s 28 member states.
“Such complex requirements, however, mean that only a scarce few petitions are likely to succeed. Organisations interested in deploying Citizens’ Initiatives will need to have substantial resources”
Indeed, now where could such resources be found?
“Bell Pottinger Public Affairs can provide that professional support; guiding you through the process of devising, launching and managing an initiative—ensuring you are armed with regulatory and logistical advice to ensure it is a success.”
There’s a few quotes added on including, “Alain Lamassoure, French MEP and Chairman of the European Parliament’s Budgets Committee: “Lobbyists may harness [the European Citizens’ Initiative] for their own interests. Let them. It's high time to boost debate and democracy in Europe”
Maros Sefkovic, Vice-President of the European Commission: “The European Citizens’ Imitative provides a direct gateway for citizens to make their voices heard in Brussels and will foster a real cross-border debate about issues. Pan-European campaigning will not be as difficult as one might think. We underestimate the extent to which EU citizens from different countries and different walks of life have common ideas and concerns”
Stuart Agnew MEP (EFD, UK) has been following the birth pangs of the initiative, said, “"What was obvious from the start is shown to be the case. The European Citizen's initiative was always designed to be a democratic fig leaf for the European Union. Big lobbyists have now stripped that leaf away.”
Decrying the lobbying, he adds, “As Bell Pottinger make crystal clear, only those with a huge budget and massive organisation have any hope of collecting the signatures. What is pretended to be for the ordinary citizen, has become a plaything for corporate lobbyists and multinational, often state funded NGOs. "
"It is a great day for real participatory democracy," Martin Schulz said on the eve of the ECI, and he is relaxed about lobbyists, “We have to make sure it's all done transparently and in any case it will be pretty easy to pick up if there are economic interests behind an initiative."
And then what, President Schulz?
So, the ECI looks like it is going to be a success, at least for the lobbyists!