The European Council wants to ban the use of so-called ‘individual Online Collection Systems’ to gather signatures for European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECI). In an open letter, democracy experts warn that this will mean a huge setback in user-friendliness and effectiveness for the ECI, the world’s first tool of transnational participatory democracy.
Interinstitutional negotiations are currently underway for a first-ever revision of the regulation on the ECI, aimed at making it more effective. The Council now has proposed to ban the use of individual Online Collection Systems, something that neither the Commission nor the Parliament have called for in their positions and that democracy experts warn would actually weaken the ECI.
Digital experts, democracy professionals and ECI organizers have warned strongly against this proposal in an open letter that they submitted to the three institutions today. They urge the institutions to protect and promote campaigners’ freedom of digital choice.
Currently, organisers have the choice between the Commission’s Online Collection System and a so-called individual Online Collection System. At the moment, the only operating alternative is 'OpenECI', which was developed by experienced campaigners in 2015 after major technical bugs made the Commission-run system difficult to use. Among the creators were the organisers of 'Right2Water', the first-ever successful ECI.
Popularity and use of the alternative system have steadily increased since it was launched, with 50% of running ECIs currently using the individual Online Collection System to collect signatures. The software has proven very effective, as demonstrated by the success of ECI Stop Glyphosate: by using 'OpenECI', they managed to collect 1.1 million signatures in 5 months’ time, a speed record for the ECI.
"If the EU institutions decide to follow the Council’s position, future ECI organisers would have no other option but to use the centralised online collection system that is run by the Commission," said Daniela Vancic, Democracy International's European Programme Manager, "This would be acceptable if it worked perfectly, but at the moment this is not the case and 'OpenECI' continues to be the only campaigner-friendly Online Collection System."
In their open letter, the experts warn that banning the use of alternatives would “create uncertainty for future ECI organisers and stop a fruitful process of mutual learning, it would also undermine the possibility for civil society to further invest in the ECI’s digital dimension.” Limiting campaigners’ choice of tools to collect signatures would stifle further digital evolution of the ECI and curb civil society engagement with the instrument.
Democracy International expresses great concern at this proposal. "Not only does it abolish organisers’ freedom to plan their campaigns across a variety of channels, it would also make the ECI less user-friendly to signatories," said Daniela Vancic, Democracy International's European Programme Manager, "This ultimately causes the most damage to the citizens of the EU, whose possibilities to participate in EU decision-making are being limited."
“It is time to make the European Citizens´ Initiative stronger, not weaker,” said Bruno Kaufmann, Global Democracy Correspondent and Board Member of Democracy International, adding that “the development of different types of online signature collection technology underscores the pole position Europe has when it comes to participatory and direct democracy. This is something we should not give up lightly.”
A final agreement of the interinstitutional negotiations on the regulation of the ECI is expected by December 2018.
 The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is the world’s first-ever instrument of transnational, participatory and digital democracy. It allows 1 million EU citizens from at least 7 Member States to invite the European Commission to propose a legal act of the Union for the purpose of implementing the Treaties. Since its introduction in April 2012, 75 citizens’ initiatives have been started, 53 have been registered by the Commission, and 5 have reached the 1-million threshold.