The European Citizens' Initiative – a far cry from participatory democracy

By Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO)

The European Parliament will this week approve the final deal on the European Citizens Initiative (ECI), which obliges the European Commission to consider proposals supported by the signatures of one million Europeans. The final deal is a compromise between the Commission and Council, who insisted on administrative hurdles that would have made it very difficult to collect the signatures needed, and MEPs who wanted fewer obstacles. But how much of a boost is this new instrument for democracy and citizens’ power?

The Citizens’ Initiative is presented as a tool to empower citizens. Such a tool is of course much-needed in a European Union that is suffering from a deep democratic deficit, and where citizens are largely sidelined in decision-making, contributing to a strong and deepening sense of political disempowerment. The vacuum that currently exists between citizens and the EU institutions is occupied by professional lobbyists, most of which represent big business interests. It is in this desperate context that the European Citizens’ Initiative is launched.

Introduced as a result of the Lisbon Treaty, the Citizens’ Initiative has even been referred to as a “tool for participatory democracy”. Wikipedia defines participatory democracy as processes that ensure “broad participation of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems” and create “opportunities for all members of a political group to make meaningful contributions to decision-making”.[1] Belgian Secretary of State for European Affairs Olivier Chastel, who negotiated for the Council during the EU Presidency, even claimed that “Thanks to the citizens’ initiative, we will change from representative democracy to participatory democracy!” [2]

But now that the final text on the process has been approved, it is clear that this is a wildly exaggerated claim for an instrument that merely obliges the European Commission to consider proposals that have received backing of one million signatures from at least seven Member States.

Once one million signatures have been collected, the Commission has three months to “set out the actions it envisages to take in response to it”, including “its reasons if it does not envisage taking any action”. In other words, these proposals are not in any way binding for the Commission. There is not – in contrary to in the US or elsewhere where citizens’ initiatives exist – the possibility of binding referenda or anything else that would justify the term participatory democracy. The Commission will continue to have the absolute monopoly on making proposals for EU legislation. The organisers of the petition do gain the right to present their demands at a “public hearing at EU level”, but this is a very meager compensation for having gone through such tremendous signature-gathering efforts.

Collecting one million signatories is never a simple exercise, but the final rules for the ECI add further hurdles. The European Commission and Council had initially insisted that all signatures should be complemented with ID numbers and perhaps even re-confirmed by the signatories, bureaucratic hurdles that would be virtually impossible for grassroots citizens groups to jump. In the final compromise the procedures for confirming the authenticity of the signatures is left to each Member State to decide. Bureaucratic hurdles will therefore vary from one country to another, but Member States are free to introduce quite excessive conditions. The signatures have to be collected within twelve months, a very short time frame. Significant numbers of signatures have to be collected in a quarter of the 27 EU member states (MEPs had insisted that one fifth was sufficient). These are important conditions that will determine whether the new instrument is available as a tool for grassroots groups or mainly for large well-funded organisations. This is one of the major lessons to be learned from the Citizen’s Initiative that already exists in California, US.

Lessons from California

The Californian Citizens’ Initiative, which has been in place for almost a century, is today rarely used by grassroots citizens’ groups because of fundamental flaws in its design. Ironically, it is more often used by big business interests. According to an in-depth study published by the Center for Governmental Studies, “Money often dominates the initiative process even more than it does the legislative process.”[3] In fact, there hasn’t been a single Citizens’ Initiative based on volunteer support since 1982 because of the high numbers of signatures required and the short deadline for collecting signatures.

Virtually all the initiatives put forward in California use expensive professional signature-gathering firms and “volunteer signature gathering has become a thing of the past.” The signature-collection stage – which is comparable to the ECI model – costs on average one to three million US$. This is a massive hurdle for grassroots citizens’ groups, but not for well-resourced NGOs, businesses or wealthy individuals, the actors that are using the California initiative system. “Money, rather than breadth or intensity of popular support has become the primary threshold”, the Centre for Governmental Studies concludes. The recommendations are two-fold: lower the threshold (lower number of signatures and longer timelines) so it becomes easier for lesser-financed groups to succeed in submitting initiatives and limit campaign contributions to ensure that wealthy groups or individuals cannot buy their way in.

A tool for citizens’ power?

It remains to be seen if the European Citizens Initiative will suffer from similar problems as the Californian model, but clearly the set-up of the ECI is far from ideally equipped to avoid this. The threshold is significant and likely to deter many grassroots groups from attempting to use the new tool, not least in the light of the Commission’s right to reject a proposal even if it passes the one million hurdle (the Californian model leads to a referendum with binding outcomes).

The risk that big business groupings will use the ECI to promote their demands is probably limited as they enjoy far more direct routes to agenda-setting via lobbying in Brussels. But attempts to abuse the ECI for corporate propaganda cannot be completely ruled out. In California it is very common for industry lobbies to launch counter-initiatives to defeat initiatives on social or environmental issues which they are unhappy with. This is typically done through industry-funded front groups posing to represent citizens. The most recent example is Proposition 23, an unsuccessful attempt to suspend a law aimed at limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. Americans For Prosperity, funded by oil giant Koch Industries, played a key role in propagating the ‘Yes on 23’ campaign. Lobby consultancies often play a key role in establishing such front groups. Will this happen in Europe?

It is positive that the organisers of citizens’ initiatives in the EU must provide “regularly updated information on the sources of support and funding for the initiative”. But it would have been far better to go beyond transparency and restrict who can finance such initiatives. Excluding corporate funding and large contributions from wealthy individuals would have been far more logical, considering that this is supposed to be a tool for ordinary citizens.

The first one million signatures for a citizens’ initiative had already been collected before the rules were finalised, providing an opportunity to put the new initiative to the test. Greenpeace, with the support of Avaaz, presented a petition calling for a ban on genetically modified (GM) crops.[4] Biotech industry lobby group EuropaBio were extremely annoyed, dismissing the petition as “a publicity stunt” and claiming that EU citizens are not concerned about GMOs.[5]

The Commission, meanwhile, has indicated it will not consider the Greenpeace petition because the signatures were collected before the ECI rules were finalised.[6] “Strictly speaking, they would have to do it all over again,” a Commission spokesperson said. This attitude does not bode well for the new initiative. For the Commission, brushing away the petition relieves them of responding to a demand that challenges its pro-GMO policies and decade-long alliance with the biotech industry.

While the ECI will not bring participatory democracy in any real sense, let alone increase democratic control over EU policy-making, it will hopefully serve a purpose in gaining attention for some of the numerous progressive citizens’ concerns that are routinely ignored by the Commission. And perhaps, over time, the Commission’s likely refusal of many demands, which are backed by millions of citizens will expose the deep lack of accountability that exists today — giving momentum to citizens’ movements demanding genuine democratic opportunities.

Industry front groups in Brussels

Edelman is one of the lobby consultancy firms in Brussels advertising “grassroots advocacy” services. The advantage of this approach, Edelman explains, is that industry lobby demands “will not be seen as biased, unlike your organisation”.[7] A recent example was the GM food tasting event held in the Renaissance Hotel, in front of the European Parliament, in June this year. The invitations for MEPs and journalists came from an unknown group called the Farmers Biotech Network, but the event was organised by Edelman.[8] On the menu was polenta made with Monsanto’s Bt-maize, produced in Spain. Only later Edelman admitted that it was biotech lobby group EuropaBio that paid for the event, a fact that was not disclosed to guests nor to the media covering the event. The demand to ‘give farmers more choice’ in growing GM crops is part of EuropaBio’s wider lobby campaign on behalf of large biotech corporations.


1: Wikipedia article on participatory democracy, accessed 13 December 2010.

2: Olivier Chastel: “Thanks to the citizens’ initiative, we will change from representative democracy to participatory democracy!”, 30 September 2010.

3: Democracy by Initiative: Shaping California’s Fourth Branch of Government, Center for Governmental Studies, 2008 (2nd edition).

4: First European Citizens’ Initiative delivered to Commissioner Dalli; A million Europeans demand a moratorium on genetically modified crops, Greenpeace press release, 9 December 2010.

5: EuropaBio dismisses Greenpeace/Avaaz anti-GM petition as ‘publicity stunt’, Public Affairs News, 2 November 2010.

6: EU receives anti-GMO petition amid raging legal battle, Andrew Willis, EUobserver, 10 December 2010.

7: Session on ‘Grassroots Campaigning‘ during the European Agenda Summit 2008.

8: ‘Farmers Biotech Network’ GM food tasting event paid for by EuropaBio, Nina Holland, Corporate Europe Observatory, 13 July 2010.


Agenda for a social Europe (Party of the European Left)

Joint Action Platform for resistance and alternatives in Europe

Political Action Programme of the Party of the European Left 2011-2013
Motion of the EL-ExBoard to the EL 3rd Congress
December 3-5, try 2010


The 3rd Congress of the European Left is taking place as more and more unbearable sacrifices are imposed on European people. Indeed, in the vast majority of European countries, programmes of public spending cuts, of super-austerity, of liberalisation of public services and the labour market are being implemented. To generalise these policies, countries, with the full complicity of their governments are being placed under custody of the European  Commission, the European Central Bank (ECB) and other institutions such as the IMF.

These policies are presented as a necessary response to the financial and economic crisis. But this is a crisis of  capitalism, and of its current globalised and financial form. This crisis also impacts on the environment, energy, food, cultural and moral values. Therefore this crisis finds expression at all political levels and in all societies marked by the ruling capitalist mode of production and similarly at the EU level with its recent orientations, neoliberal policies and institutions.

The current debt problem constitutes a new phase of the protracted crisis. It has its roots in the economic and political developments of the last 30 years. Interlinking the multiple causes of the crisis, it is increasingly impacting on people’s everyday lives.

We, the Party of the European Left, together with other socialist, communist and red-green parties and organisations – widely regarded as the current plural European left, oppose these neoliberal policies and structures applied to the EU via successive treaties up to and including the Lisbon treaty.

The responsibility for these policies lies with the coalition formed by European , liberal and social-democratic parties that has dominated at the European and national level. We seek to present a political alternative to the neoliberal model. Given the widespread use of austerity, new resistance is developing across Europe. The major challenge facing the Left is to set out alternatives,  encourage this resistance, and mould from it a movement for an alternative vision of civilisation committed to solidarity. We do this in the name of a social, ecological and peaceful Europe.

Ever firmer adherence to the Stability Pact and the EU 2020 strategy, modelled on IMF structural adjustment programmes, will not lead to the end of the crisis: on the contrary, it heralds the prospect of aggravated distortions, tensions, authoritarianism and social inequality. There is a risk of economic collapse, massive exacerbation of poverty and precariousness, and the destruction of the social model and European civilisation itself. There is a risk of further depression within the Euro-zone, not to mention the insurmountable problems imposed on other countries, such as the United Kingdom, Hungary, Romania or the Baltic countries. There is a risk of powerlessness in the face of the challenges posed by the ecological question. There is a serious risk of strangulation of democracy, of authoritarian “governance” of member states led by the interests of the market, and the management of national economies by the Commission, the ECB and the IMF.

There is already a substantial threat that the EU´s legitimacy crisis will worsen, that a lack of democratic impetus and of solidarity among the scorned and excluded who are unable to enforce their rights and decide their future will bolster the ascent of the ultranationalist, xenophobic and racist ideas of the extreme right.

There is a mounting threat to peaceful coexistence and to national minorities within the EU and the possibility of achieving real equality between women and men is facing significant obstacles. This involves the aforementioned tendency towards dramatic cuts, as well as rollbacks on standards in gender democracy and non-discrimination against minorities within the EU and beyond. More and more social care work is being delegated to families, i.e mostly to women as unpaid labor. This is the root of many women’s poverty and lack of economic self-determination.

It is not people in Europe, the working as well asunemployed, students and those in training, the elderly, women and children, the sick and disabled, the poor and the low and middle-income earners – who should pay for this crisis.

No, it is time for radical policy change. This policy change must guarantee that those who are responsible for the crisis will pay for it. Sustainable regulation must be developed, taking the banking and credit system into public control and re-orientating it towards social and ecological aims. Concrete steps can and should be taken to free EU and national government policymaking from the grip of financial markets, to turn the logic of profit into a new logic of human development based on social justice and sustainable ecology.

That is the current path of realism. That is an approach in the interests of European countries and their peoples. With the constructive will to formulate alternatives with which we can enter into a broader dialogue with people –and to organise a common struggle – we present the following proposals.

These proposals are not simply to be taken or to be left, but are intended to evolve in an open debate among European people and movements.

Building Community through Information Access: Towards an ASEAN Protocol on Freedom of Information

By Focus on the Global South-Philippines

Bangkok – As ASEAN advances towards its goal of becoming an economic community in 2015, it has to confront urgent issues relating to the people’s right to information, trade and economic agreements, and the environmental concerns resulting from this integration into the regional and global economy.

Regional and national civil society organizations gathered in Bangkok, October 26, for the “Taking Stock, Moving Forward towards ASEAN Peoples’ Campaigns” conference, called on ASEAN to address these urgent concerns. The meeting was spearheaded by the Solidarity for Asian People’s Advocacies (SAPA) Working Group on ASEAN.

An overarching advocacy supported by various groups is the development of a freedom of information policy for ASEAN, to cover information produced or received by ASEAN and its many organs as a regional body, subject only to narrow list of reasonable exceptions.  According to lawyer Nepomuceno Malaluan of the Institute for Freedom of Information (I-FOI) and the Philippine-based Right to Know.  Right Now! Coalition, “international or intergovernmental organizations like ASEAN are bound by international law that recognizes  the people’s right to information. The people’s right to information has also been affirmed in practice, with more than 80 countries having enacted Freedom of Information (FOI) legislations, and various intergovernmental organizations such as the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, the UNDP, and bodies of the European Union adopting comprehensive access to information policies.”

Among ASEAN member countries, Thailand and Indonesia have enacted an FOI law, while the Philippines recognizes the right to information in its constitution and is also nearing the passage of its own FOI act. There is also a campaign for an FOI legislation in Malaysia, and a similar initiative is nascent in Vietnam.  Malaluan called on these states to take the lead in pushing for the adoption of a progressive FOI policy for ASEAN.

Supporting the argument for an ASEAN Protocol on FOI, Jenina Joy Chavez of the regional think tank Focus on the Global South said that “aside from it being a right in itself, freedom of information is crucial in facilitating the exercise of other rights like freedom of expression and the right to participate. It is also vital in exacting accountability and upholding community rights through free prior and informed consent.”

In an earlier strategy meeting on the ASEAN FOI Protocol attended by key advocates, experts and campaigners in the region, October 25, Chavez pointed out that “the three blueprints for an ASEAN Community all contain clauses for a communications strategy.” She cited a provision in the ASEAN Political Security Community Blueprint that provides for a communications strategy that “will not only create greater public awareness of the various initiatives, outcomes and issues of the APSC, but also enable all stakeholders to be involved in the process”.

In the same meeting, Kulachada Chaipipat of the Southeast Asian Press Alliance said that “the region has long been a hotspot for the lack of freedom of information and of expression, and it is high time ASEAN did something about it.”

Speaking via Skype, Joseph Purugganan of the EU-ASEAN FTA campaign network lamented that trade negotiating processes and the economic/trade agreements by ASEAN were often not subjected to public consultations. “If the World Trade Organization has to be notified about these agreements, the citizens of ASEAN also have the right to be informed”, Purugganan argued.

No longer just ‘emerging issues’

Jacques-Chai Chomtongdi, also from Focus on the Global South, said that ASEAN member states negotiate with various trading partners like the EU, the US, and among themselves, but access to information in these negotiations is almost nil. He criticized the intergovernmental body for “failing to come up with a single voice in negotiating with the EU, and with the EU ironically assisting ASEAN to come up with a single position.”

The environment is another issue considered urgent by civil society. Dorothy-Grace Guerrero, a senior associate at Focus on the Global South and member of the SAPA Working Group on Environment, stressed that ASEAN cannot delay actions to deal with global warming and climate change, and argued that  a fourth pillar on the environment is imperative to complete the foundation for the ASEAN community. “Environmental concerns”, according to Guerrero, “can no longer be just subsumed into the ASEAN mechanisms on economic and social-cultural rights; it is an urgent issue that cuts across governance, resource management, and environmental-related disasters.”

The groups committed to develop the instrument for access to information, as well as to flesh out the coverage and functions of a fourth pillar on the environment.

ASEAN will hold its 17th Leaders Summit in Hanoi on October 28-29. Unlike in previous years, there will be no interface with representatives of civil society organizations during the Hanoi meeting. #

If you have inquiries, please contact Ms Clarissa V. Militante (Media and Communications Associate) at number (632) 433-08-99; or through the email

Already 43 years old, here the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has yet to enjoy wide recognition and support from the ASEAN populace. Many explanations have been offered for this, not least of which is the distance of the regional formation from the people that it is supposed to represent and serve. The long history of authoritarianism and unstable political environment in the region has also been cited.

While the idea of an ASEAN Community has been broached many years ago, a lot remains for ASEAN to do to realize this goal. Recent developments, including the establishment of the ASEAN Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights (AICHR) and the signing of the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection of Migrant Workers, did a lot in bringing ASEAN to the attention of its people. ASEAN is finally doing some things that can directly benefit its citizens.

A main obstacle to understanding ASEAN is the dearth of information on its activities and operation.

ASEAN for example has become a hub for free trade agreements (FTAs) in Asia, with bilateral and regional negotiations happening left and right.  These FTA negotiations and trade policy making in the region in general are non-transparent with very little space for genuine people’s participation. Often, negotiating these comprehensive agreements, with far-reaching implications on lives and livelihoods, are beyond the purview of citizens and are almost the exclusive domain of governments.

State of Freedom of Information in Southeast Asia

The state of freedom of information in Southeast Asia has gradually improved over the past decade thanks to the on-going political reform process and social and economic changes taking place in most of the region.

The existence of laws guaranteeing the rights of the people to seek official information such as in Thailand have helped improved the government’s transparency and accountability. However, the culture of secrecy among bureaucracy, lengthy and complicated information inquiry and petition process and shortage of manpower to handle the information office made the law less attractive to users. After over a decade of its existence, the amount of information classified as secret or confidential remain massive. Indonesia’s first official information law adopted in 2008 just takes effect in May this year, while that of the Philippines was hung in the 14th Congress and did not make it to passage before its term ended in July this year.

In Malaysia, the civil society has long battled with the government to have an information law in place but it remains entangled in the legal debate given the precedence of several existing powerful laws protecting state secret and restricting information disclosure even on weather reports. Vietnam started drafting its first law on the right to information since 2008 but the final draft is unlikely to be approved by the national assembly until after the Communist Party’s Congress early next year.

Notwithstanding, the devastating effect of natural disasters such as Tsunami and Nargis cyclone,  the recurrence of serious environmental problems such as industrial chemical leaks, and cross-border diseases like AIDs and swine flu have combined to force reluctant governments to adopt a more open attitude and policy towards disclosure of information critical to the lives of their citizens.

In open societies like Indonesia, Philippines and Thailand, the convergence of information and communication technology and more liberalization of communication sector help ease, speed up and provide more communication options to people’s access to information but the quality of information may not be a desirable outcome of the ICT revolution. Majority of people still lacks media education and internet literacy to be able to make use of emerging diverse and accessible information.

In restricted countries like Burma, Vietnam and Laos, internet and social media are largely being used to push the boundary of free expression and people’s right to know that are not allowed in the traditional media, all state-controlled, if not owned.  But the variety of publications and broadcast technology offer mainly non-sensitive matters like culture, sports and entertainment information and even subjected to prior censorship before release.

Restriction of information, especially the disclosure of contents critical of governments or detrimental to economic stability and state security, remains in place in both democratic and closed societies.

Freedom of Information in International Organizations

International organizations such as the ASEAN have international personality. They have the capacity to institute legal proceedings, to enter into treaties or loan agreements with states, and to acquire and dispose of properties. They have lawful objects and organs. The conclusion of the International Court of Justice in Reparation for Injuries Suffered in the Service of the United Nations (1949 I.C.J. 174), finds application: “the Organization was intended to exercise and enjoy, and is in fact enjoying, functions and rights which can only be explained on the basis of the possession of a large measure of international personality and the capacity to operate upon an international plane.”

Being subject of international law is not only about possessing rights; it is also about being bound by obligations incumbent upon them under general rules of international law. Among such obligations are human rights norms that can be considered as having attained the level of customary law or general principles of law. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1966, are considered by many to be codification or evidence of international custom or general principles of law binding even upon non-state parties such as the ADB.
Article 19 of the UDHR, echoed further in Article 19 (2) of the ICCPR, states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

In the fifth report by the UN Commission on Human Rights Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression (Mr. Abid Hussain of India), he stated that “the right to seek and receive information is not simply a converse of the right to freedom of opinion and expression but a freedom on its own.” While the report addresses itself mainly to the right to information as it relates to nation states, it should apply with equal force to international organizations such as the ASEAN.

Building the case for an ASEAN Protocol on Freedom of Information

As per the ASEAN Charter, the purposes of the regional body include the following:

Art.1.7 To strengthen democracy, enhance good governance and the rule of law, and to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, with due regard to the rights and responsibilities of the Member States of ASEAN;

Art.1.13 To promote a people-oriented ASEAN in which all sectors of society are encouraged to participate in, and benefit from, the process of ASEAN integration and community building.

The same has been repeated in the Principles (i. respect for fundamental freedoms, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice).

In the practical sphere, the three blueprints contained in the Roadmap for an ASEAN Community all contained clauses for a communications strategy that “will not only create greater public awareness of the various initiatives, outcomes and issues…but also enable all stakeholders to be involved in the process”. (APSC Blueprint)

There are thus provisions in ASEAN instruments and programs that can be used as basis to develop an FOI advocacy.


Building the Case for an ASEAN Protocol on Freedom of Information: Initial Thoughts – By Jenina Joy Chavez (Focus on the Global South | SAPA WG on ASEAN)

Right to Information in International Organizations – Nepomuceno A. Malaluan (Institute for Freedom of Information)

The State of Freedom of Information in ASEAN Countries – Ms. Kulachada Chaipipat (Southeast Asian Press Alliance (SEAPA)

Comparative Information Access in Trade Negotiations – Joseph Purugganan (Focus on the Global South and EU-ASEAN FTA Campaign Network)

Notes: Trade and Transparency across the Globe – Joseph Purugganan (Focus on the Global South & EU-ASEAN FTA Campaign Network)