As the European Citizens Initiative (ECI) has now come to the phase of its final shaping, we now have the chance to contribute to its success in being a tool for true citizens participation in European politics. However, current discussions on the regulations drafted by the Commission do show some confusion about what this legislative instrument actually can provide and which risks it contains.
Generally ECI is understood as an instrument for decision-making or voting, as we know it from direct democratic instruments like referenda. Thus, the main use of ICT for the ECI is seen in the authentication and collection of votes (e-voting).
But in fact ECI is not essentially a means for decision-making. Its legal consequences are limited to submission of proposals to the Commission, which in turn is not even obligated to pass this proposal to the parliament. Thus, ECI does only allow citizens to participate in political agenda setting and rather has to be understood as a process of collective opinion formation. Accordingly, current discussions on authentication and representativeness miss to address the crucial questions at stake, because ECI is not comparable to an election or referendum.
However, this does not mean that ECI is not worth anything. As an instrument for participatory agenda setting, ECI does offer citizens an opportunity to deliberate on questions, which they feel concerned about and to proactively bring them on the political agenda. ECI could open a space for trans-cultural, trans-border discourse embracing all the different viewpoints Europeans from various member states may have, and thus, has the potential to establish a European public sphere. It is about creating a process of discursive appropriation of Europe by its citizens, making them co-authors of the European endeavour.
Thus, ECI must be understood much more as a participatory process, requiring an intelligent and consistent combination of offline and online methods for constructive collaboration at local, national and European level.
Furthermore, to prevent ECI from being misunderstood as a mere oppositional instruments, it will be equally important to guarantee a synergic interplay between civil organizations and governmental institutions.
Therefore, further concretion and development of ECI must focus much more on the participative process of collective opinion formation and deliberative agenda setting.
Accordingly, the role of ICT in these processes has to be reconsidered. We will not only need e-voting systems and virtual IDs, but also powerful tools for cross-language dialogue, structured debate, collective co-creation of proposals and position papers as well as tools for effective e-campaigning and proactive self-organization.