22 September 2014

The ECI rejection: a silver-lining on a dark cloud?

The Commission’s own-goal may only serve to bolster citizens’ determination

Simon McKeagney, Editor

Photo: Protestors gather in Berlin on Saturday outside the SPD ruling party's headquarters. Protest movements against TTIP/CETA continue to build across Europe, despite the recent ECI rejection. [Photo by Jakob Huber/Campact via Flickr.]

A tweet from Julia Reda MEP to the Commission on the day they rejected the ECI, adequately sums up the problem they now face:

The ECI rejection may have more consequences than previously considered by the Commission. Campaigners across Europe had set their sights on delivering the million signatures needed for a hearing on TTIP and CETA in Brussels. More than 240 organisations had pledged support, as well as countless individuals even before the petition could be launched. The act of creating pan-European debate on any issue, and coordinating a grassroots campaign dedicated to pursuing a set goal, is no easy feat. 

What a disappointment it is then to have this growing civil movement silenced by an unwilling Commission, couching their reasoning in legalese, unable to see the writing on the wall. Or is it? There is no doubt the movement around the ECI has helped to catapult TTIP and CETA into the headlines. Now it may not be going ahead, but those headlines are not going away. Neither, it seems, is the movement.  

“Now the battle really begins,” said Michael Efler, a spokesperson with the Stop-TTIP Alliance. “The rejection of the ECI only confirms the Commission’s strategy to exclude citizens and parliaments from the TTIP and CETA negotiations. Instead of paying attention to citizens, it is just lobbyists that are being listened to.”

Campaigners have vowed to continue their fight, despite the Commission’s rejection of the ECI. They’ve opened up two fronts; challenging the Commission’s decision at the European Court of Justice, and continuing with an ‘autonomous ECI’ which will collect signatures in spite having no green light from the Commission.

“Apparently the Commission is afraid of this ECI, which has the potential to become the most successful citizens’ initiative so far,” said Efler. “If the Brussels bureaucracy thinks that this is how it can stop people’s protests against TTIP and CETA, then it is mistaken. We will not allow the Commission to tie our hands. ”

What's next? 

The Stop-TTIP Alliance, along with a host of campaign groups, have done us a great deal of service. They have managed to stir the consciousness of the public at large on issues so often dismissed as too technical, opaque, dull. 

And with so many aspects of TTIP potentially impacting citizens’ lives, who could justifiably say they should stop now? The ECI rejection if anything, has solidified their determination to continue. Where the Commission could’ve easily managed expectations under an ECI-format, denying campaigners this basic ask throws open a whole range of new possibilities, and leads the growing opposition in directions that are not easily quelled by the powers that be. In short, the alliance, together with the eclectic mix of supporters from across the continent have even more freedom to campaign and shed light on areas that would’ve been less-easily explained in a straight-forward ECI.

ISDS and extra-investor rights remains a key issue, especially after the Commission rubbished the record-breaking number of citizens responses to its own public consultation on the matter. Regulatory coherence still risks watering down democratically made laws and putting downward pressure on regulations in both regions. The secrecy surrounding key negotiating texts has not gone away. 

A self-organised movement of this nature has huge potential to positively impact the negotiations on a whole range of issues and expose the democratic-deficit underlying the process. As Karl Baer, a member of the campaign has said: 

“Democracy arises through social intervention and participation in the political process; it is not something to be granted or denied by Brussels. That is why we will be launching a self-organised European Citizens’ Initiative. The European Commission is trying to ignore us; it will not succeed.”

The Commission may have considered it legally outside the framework of its powers to grant approval to the ECI. But in doing so, they have just turned a molehill into a mountain. Where it goes from here remains totally in the hands of citizens.

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