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European Citizens’ Initiative roadshow kicks off in Sofia

The European Citizens’ Initiative roadshow kicked off during the European Civic Days in Sofia, Bulgaria on 29-31 May. The event provided a unique space for civic actors to share and learn from each other and included a presentation of the European Citizens’ Initiative Forum , an introduction to the “ Take the Initiative ” awareness campaign and some valuable insight into the Bulgarian perspective on the Initiative and on participatory democracy more broadly.

The European Citizens’ Initiative roadshow kicked off during the European Civic Days (29 – 31 May) in Sofia, Bulgaria – the first stop on a trip across Europe seeking to encourage greater participatory democracy and to boost citizen participation through citizens’ initiatives.

Taking stock of the current state of democracy and civic space in Europe, the event, co-organised by the Citizen Participation Forum, the European Civic Forum, the BlueLink Foundation and the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS), highlighted positive examples of civic engagement and co-decision in policy making. It provided a unique space for civic actors to share and learn from different experiences, hear from a variety of stakeholders and envision ways towards a renewal of European democracy in line with the core values of equality, solidarity and inclusiveness.

As part of the European Civic Days, the European Citizen’s Initiative team presented the instrument and updated on the ongoing revision of its legal basis. The team also shared news about the recently launched Forum.

An interactive booth and matchmaking wall invited participants to have their say on topics they truly care about and would like to see as a European citizens’ initiative. Their ideas will now travel to other EU countries in search for like-minded citizens and organisations willing to work together to bring about change.

Co-deciding with citizens: collaboration and interaction

Pascal Herry, Team Leader of the European Citizens’ Initiative team in the Secretariat-General of the European Commission, called the Forum a concrete outcome of many consultations with stakeholders over many years. “The Forum is a pilot project aiming to make the Initiative more citizen-friendly, improve the quality of proposals and bring the community together”, he said, adding that the tool is undergoing development. He called on participants to help improve it by providing feedback online.

While displaying the functionalities of the Forum, Elisa Lironi, Digital Democracy Manager at ECAS, pointed out that the European Citizens’ Initiative is a unique, transnational tool that allows citizens to participate in EU decision making. To improve the tool, she said that all civil society organisations need to continue working together. Assya Kavrakova, Director of ECAS and moderator of the panel *name*.., added that the Forum is an important step towards this objective and that it should function as an ecosystem.

In response to a comment from the audience, the panellists discussed the variety of impacts an initiative can have besides a legislative proposal. Recommendations from the European Commission included a debate in the European Parliament, raising awareness at local, national and EU level, engaging stakeholders, and creating networks around similar concerns across EU countries.  

Being asked what makes a difference when promoting an initiative, one participant underlined the fact that when the campaign message focuses on something that has a negative impact in people’s lives – an urgent issue or emergency – it spreads much faster and more successfully.

Meanwhile, Atanas Slavov from the Institute for Direct Democracy stressed that scale is important. Based on his experience with communication and gathering signatures for initiatives and petitions, he said that reaching and mobilising citizens at local level, where the impacts are more tangible, is  considerably more effective and measurable than carrying out activities at national level.

Take the Initiative: communication and engagement

A panel discussion on “Take the Initiative: a new EU-wide communication campaign on the European Citizens’ Initiative” brought an interesting mix of perspectives on how to foster learning and exchange, and demonstrate how communication can lead to an increasing number of successful initiatives in the long term.

Fabien Dongradi, Team Leader EU Campaigns at GOPA Com., presented the new awareness-raising campaign “Take the Initiative”, which includes a variety of activities and tools that focus on stakeholder engagement across Europe. He talked about the roadshow, which will visit six more countries by the end of the year – Poland, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Portugal, France, Austria, and will cover all EU Member States in the coming two years.

Referring to the discussion in the previous panel, Mr Dongradi pointed out that although the communication campaign was launched in Brussels, the aim is to meet local actors and hear directly from them about what is happening on the ground. Here, the role of the national organisations is crucial in spreading the word at the local level through their members or constituencies. “If you want to be part of the success of this tool, which is special and unique, join us in spreading the word”, he said, inviting all the participants to download the ready-made communication materials that are available online on the European Citizens’ Initiative website in all EU languages and to use them across their own communication channels.

The Bulgarian perspective was provided by Atanas Slavov from Sofia University and the Institute for Direct Democracy and Radostina Pavlova from the Centre for Legal Aid: Voice in Bulgaria - the local coordinator of the ongoing initiative ‘We are a welcoming Europe’.

Atanas Slavov noted that the European Citizens’ Initiative is not only about citizen participation, it forms part of a bigger picture – it is an essential element of making the EU more democratic and puts focus on strengthening common European values. He went on to highlight the positive changes included in the Commission’s proposal for the revision of the European Citizens’ Initiative Regulation currently under discussion between the EU co-legislators:

  • enfranchising more EU citizens by lowering the age for supporting an initiative to 16 years;
  • the possibility of registering a specific legal entity to provide organisational support;
  • increasing support from the European Commission through an Online Collection System for gathering online signatures and a Forum providing advice and consultation; and
  • reducing requirements for the provision of personal data when signing an initiative.

Mr Slavov thinks that the European Commission’s proactive approach will have a positive influence on national legislation and on boosting advocacy for new initiatives at the national level.

Radostina Pavlova spoke about her direct experience as organiser of the initiative “We are a welcoming Europe” and their approach to communication, gathering signatures and building networks. While mentioning challenges such as the complexity of the process, the expertise and resources needed to conduct a campaign, and the lack of a strong tradition of civic engagement in Bulgaria, she pointed out several important elements that initiative coordinators should keep in mind:

  • adapting messages and language style to the local context so that they resonate better;
  • finding partners working within a wider context and with wider membership base;
  • creating lasting partnerships beyond a specific initiative ( e.g. they launched the Civil Society Brunch); and
  • taking advantage of the full range of communication opportunities, including face-to-face engagement, media appearances, lectures at universities, etc.

European Citizens’ Initiative: impact beyond the signatures

The panel moderator Assya Kavrakova then opened the discussion on the impact of the European Citizens’ initiative beyond the ultimate goal of legislative change with the audience. “There is much more to the European Citizens’ Initiative than collecting and reaching 1 million signatures. It makes sense to push for a high-level working group on the Initiative in the Council of the EU that can discuss proposals. There are many initiatives and ideas that can be developed even without legislative change”, said Ms Kavrakova.

The audience agreed that the success of European citizens’ initiatives should be measured in broader terms, taking into account results such as consolidation of support and strengthening of networks, increasing the visibility of messages, reforming of national legislative acts, and the launching of EU-wide debates.

As Ms Pavlova put it: “The European Citizens’ Initiative is an opportunity for a wider advocacy campaign at EU as well as national level. It is a way to tell EU citizens that they are not alone and that there is a way to effect change together.”

By Yana Pargova, Campaign Manager @ EUTakeTheInitiative, GOPA Com

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