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TAKE THE INITIATIVE: the reform, the community and the importance of sharing knowledge

13 December 2018, 9:30 – 17:00 | Conference on the European Citizens’ Initiative |Vienna, Austria

The European Citizens’ Initiative Roadshow ended its first year of travel across Europe with a full day interactive conference... - Read more

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TAKE THE INITIATIVE: the reform, the community and the importance of sharing knowledge

13 December 2018, 9:30 – 17:00 | Conference on the European Citizens’ Initiative |Vienna, Austria

The European Citizens’ Initiative Roadshow ended its first year of travel across Europe with a full day interactive conference in Vienna on 13 December 2018. The Roadshow which started in Bulgaria in May, visited throughout the year Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, France and Portugal to raise awareness around this tool of participatory democracy, to meet the local participatory democracy communities and build up knowledge of how to successfully lead a citizens’ initiative campaign.

The full-day interactive conference was the culmination of the Take the Initiative campaign’s first year and was special because just hours before it started, the Council of the European Union and the European Parliament reached a political agreement on the Commission's proposal to reform the European Citizens' Initiative.

Bruno Kaufman, Global Democracy Correspondent, Swiss Broadcasting Company, moderated the conference, which offered a mix of interactive breakout and pitching sessions, talks and panel discussions presenting the tool and giving insight on the improvements in the upcoming reform of the European Citizens’ Initiative.

Robert Stein, Head of Electoral Affairs, Federal Ministry of the Interior, Austria, opened the morning session, which continued with a video message from Alberto Alemanno, Professor of European Union Law & Policy HEC Paris & Founder, The Good Lobby, who talked about ‘Europe as a People’s Project: Towards a new paradigm for citizen participation’. Next, Pascal Herry, Team Leader of the European Citizens’ Initiative at the European Commission, engaged the audience with a quiz on the European Citizens’ Initiative, followed by an overview of the reform and the key improvements that will apply as of 2020. The morning session was concluded by a panel-discussion on the topic of a vision for more citizens’ participation in the EU policymaking.

 “Lack of participation” can have severe consequences on our democracies

Erwin Mayer, Founder of Mehr Demokratie! Austria & Board member of Democracy International, put emphasis on the importance of involving the people and giving them the opportunity to have their say in democratic unfolding. He took the example of our European treaties and explained how important it is to involve EU citizens via referendums whenever the treaties are being changed. Mr Mayer indicated that the lack of participation can in part explain the events in Europe currently and suggested that encouraging more citizen involvement via tools of participatory democracy could counter these phenomena. 

The next panellist Kinga Joó, Member of the European Economic and Social Committee and rapporteur of the opinion on the European Citizens' Initiative, presented the role of the European Economic and Social Committee in the European Citizens’ Initiative process. She explained that the Committee has a bridging role between the organisers and the EU.  They have set up many tools to help organisers successfully run their campaign, namely a users’ manual for the ECI organisers, an EU citizens’ passport, inviting organisers to the Committee to receive advice and support, etc.

Member States should be more involved in the European Citizens’ Initiative process

Both Kinga Joó and Gregor Wenda, Deputy Head of Department of Electoral Affairs, Federal Ministry of the Interior, Austria made a reference to the importance of the involvement of Member States in the process of an initiative. Gregor Wenda explained that the involvement of Member States gives the tool credibility and confidence to EU citizens. He pointed out that Member States should have a more active role, namely at the starting point of an initiative, that they should be a contact point for organisers and give them guidance if needed.

“The last 6 years have been a learning process for everyone involved”

Olga Kurpisz, Policy Officer, European Commission closed the panel-discussion by recapping the last 6 years and pointing out the improvements to be brought by  the European Citizens’ Initiative via the reform. She pointed out that these years had been a learning experience for all actors involved. It had been the opportunity to understand and identify the blocking points and obstacles, which needed to be overcome.

Breakout sessions to get together and discuss ideas

Following the morning session, which offered the participants a detailed overview of the European Citizens’ Initiative, the afternoon was more focused on giving the participants the opportunity to talk, share and debate amongst each other. The afternoon kicked off with 5 breakout sessions all on different topics relating to practical questions about the European Citizens’ Initiative.

How to draft an initiative? (Moderators: Elisa Lironi and Flavio Grazian, Digital Democracy Manager & Digital Democracy Coordinator, European Citizens’ Initiative Forum & European Citizens Action Service (ECAS))

The moderators indicated that it can be complicated to find the right wording to express the essence of one’s message, to describe the idea supported, to give potential signatories the right arguments to want to sign, etc.

In order to counter these obstacles, Elisa Lironi and Flavio Grazian gave practical tips to the participants such as:

  • Using the tools already available which were developed in the context of the European Citizens’ Initiative Forum with the idea of helping initiative organisers, namely “How to Guides” and other materials in the “Learn” section of the Forum;
  • Using the annex wisely when drafting an initiative – it can be used to provide more detailed information and filter down the general tone of the main text.

How to raise funds? (Moderator: Pieter Boeder, Communication consultant & Member of We are Europe!)

The group agreed that fundraising is not only about money, it is more importantly about building alliances and networks. Raising money is a secondary goal. It is a valuable idea to develop more than just a monetary relationship with some partners.

The group identified challenges such as the different tax systems in the Member States and the importance of ensuring transparency.

Finally, the group agreed that the EU should provide funding for European citizens’ initiatives. Lack of funds should not be a barrier to proposing an initiative.

How to look for partners? (Moderator: Dessy Gavrilova, Chairwoman of European Network of Houses for Debate "Time to Talk" & Founder and Chair of The Red House Center for Culture and Debate, Sofia)

The group discussed at length which partners are the best multipliers. This must come into account when identifying and selecting partners.

A general idea is that the bigger the partner the bigger the outreach, unfortunately this can sometimes be misleading. Therefore, the size of the partner is not necessarily the most important criterion. Influence, outreach and dedication are more important.

It can be comfortable to stick for example to an NGO’s network, however it is wiser to step out of one’s comfort zone and reach out to a variety of partners.

The group discussed some tips to find partners, such as choosing a good topic which will attract attention, identifying organisations that share the same values, beliefs and who will be motivated to carry out the message with dedication,

stimulating the debate locally and    

making sure partners will have their own benefits by helping to transmit the message.

How to campaign? (Moderator: Julia Hahn, Head of Bürgerforum Europa)

The main ideas developed by the group regarding how to campaign are the following:

  • Building a European network;
  • Identifying stakeholders carefully;
  • Tailor and develop a clear message; ideally it is wise to start by identifying the “why?”
  • Having a goal-oriented approach;
  • Making sure to have a full-circle approach, which means not only spreading the word but also collecting feedback to improve the message and campaign;
  • Turning multilingualism into an advantage, often cultural differences are more important than linguistic differences.

How to communicate and collaborate better on the European Citizens’ Initiative? (Moderator: Yana Pargova, #EUTakeTheInitiative Campaign Manager, GOPA Com.)

The group came up with several key ideas to reach the best results:

  • Finding engaged ambassadors at a local level in order to reach real engagement;
  • Engaging multipliers by providing step-by-step guides and templates they can use to promote the tool more easily;
  • Highlighting the results in the process of the campaign; i.e. it is valuable to show that something is happening, that a campaign is being effective;
  • Looking into initiatives that are not necessarily successful but have been taken into account; doing so can create a positive message;
  • Identifying success stories and testimonials;
  • Involving the media more actively.

The group also identified some of the challenges facing organisers of specific initiatives when trying to communicate and collaborate:

  • Somebody needs to be listening, it can be difficult to identify the right audience, which will be interested in one’s message and eager to forward it and play an active role in the campaign;
  • Lack of trust in the system;
  • Language barrier can be an obstacle when trying to communicate.  

Pitch your idea

Following the break-out sessions the participants then took centre stage and were asked to pitch their own idea of an initiative or discuss a challenge they are facing to then work together in groups to find solutions.

6 ideas in total were pitched:

#1- EU ball: organising an EU ball hosted in Vienna gathering EU citizens.

#2- Money creation by the European Central Bank (ECB): encouraging money creation in the EU.

#3- We decide climate: taking action to prevent climate change.

#4- Launch an unconditional basic income: encouraging the EU to make recommendations and support all Member States in introducing an unconditional basic income.

#5- European Credit Initiative: providing interest-free credits to economic enterprises willing to improve the common good.

#6- Redemption value for plastic bottles and cans/EU/worldwide: creating a EU/worldwide system enabling consumers to get money back when they return their plastic bottles and cans.