February 22, 2011
Like many in Brussels involved in policy debates, I rolled my eyes when I had learnt about the inclusion of a Citizens’ Initiative section in the Lisbon Treaty. Perhaps it was my well-honed, smug, academic elitism, but I had visions of hordes of the great unwashed coming to Brussels to clog up policy processes with their radical agendas – a million signatures to have the Commission deny the Holocaust, ban pesticides, expel all foreigners or stop research in biotechnology – with social media tools today, you can get a million people to support pretty well anything. Then, to my surprise, I had a moment of clarity.
Earlier this month, I gave a talk in the European Parliament – one of my precaution punching routines. Impressed by the number of people who showed up at such an ungodly hour, I had expected that my counter-intuitive approach would have provoked some outrage. Surprisingly, everyone in the room seemed to agree with me – that precaution was a policy tool rushed in during a reactive period of risk crises and after the EEA twisted up its interpretation, it needed to be revised – and my alternative policy tool, ALARA, was embraced. The only discussion was on how we could get out of this mess. Shortly after, the answer became clear: the Risk-Monger would have to start a Citizens’ Initiative to request the Commission to revise the 2000 Communication on the precautionary principle with clearer guidelines on how and when precaution should be invoked.
So then I began to look into the details of starting a Citizens’ Initiative, reading the Commission’s FAQs and thinking about what else I would like to do with the next eight months of my life. As I have no affiliations or large organisations behind me (no large membership funding my communications machinery), it was not as easy as the Commission made it seem. A Citizens’ Initiative is not simply getting a million militant minions to click “Like” on a social media page. I would have to get their personal details and counter-check it with the national authorities. Which means I would have to guarantee privacy and ensure that no Hactivist could break in and use the information to “expose” people. That requires more than what a citizen is capable of. I would need a salary for the next eight months and since I would probably be paid by some interested group, that would be reason for the pro-precaution lobbyists to campaign against it. Credibility is in the hands of the trusted (and who would trust anyone who is paid to do something?).
So a Citizens’ Initiative is not for citizens with good ideas that should be implemented in policy then. Is it something for pressure groups who claim to represent sections of society then (what Tom Wolfe called “steam control”)? Hardly since activist groups are beginning to notice that their million mobilisations are being politely received and “considered”. Rather, in examining the point of the exercise, I believe the Citizens’ Initiative is largely intended for Commission officials.
Within the silos of organisational structures, initiating policy is challenging if not impossible in the European Commission. So civil servants can see slow motion regulatory train wrecks like the use of precaution in REACH or the Pesticides Directive, and simply mutter: “Oh dear, that’s terrible – I wish I could do something, but …”. If a Citizens’ Initiative were to be offered for consideration on a subject of interest (say something like: Revising the Precautionary Principle Communication with better guidance), I could imagine several civil servants volunteering to pick up this subject. The Citizens’ Initiative is hardly “steam control” but rather, a means towards initiating better regulation and avoiding institutional silo gridlock. Somewhere in the Commission, civil servants are praying for initiatives with common sense to be submitted.
So the Risk-Monger would be helping the Commission at better regulation by taking the initiative as a citizen. But I am just a citizen. What I propose is that the Commission gives me money for the next eight months to go out and gather a million signatures so they can then go about and improve their policy tools. This is not unprecedented and I should not feel that I am being crass – the European Commission hands out millions of euros to environmental-health NGOs like HEAL, Friends of the Earth and WWF without any expectation of a return on investment. I think the Risk-Monger would put that money to very good use!David Zaruk