Back in college, decades ago, my political theory professor regaled his students with stories of the brilliant political analyses and insights of his favorite European socialist intellectuals. Abhorring socialism, I began to better appreciate my Mothers oft-repeated challenge: If everyone else jumps off a cliff, are you going to jump, too?
Ideas are wise or foolish, however, without regard to national origin. Americans can and have learned great concepts from folks in Europe and Asia and Africa. Its called paying attention. We Homo sapiens do have an uncanny knack for imitation.
Take Switzerland. The Swiss Confederation has more than 150 years of experience with citizens enacting or rejecting laws through initiative and referendum. It thus offers the world a worthwhile example of participatory democracy. Odd that more countries havent flat-out ripped off the idea for their own benefit.
Of course, empowering voters offers distinct advantages for the average person. Not so for the political elite. For them, when it comes to citizen power, less is more.
Thats why it is worth taking note of the new European Citizens Initiative (ECI), brought to life through the European Unions Lisbon Treaty. This foray into citizen engagement is far, far tamer than the Swiss model of voter initiative and referendum — or the citizen initiative process at work in 24 of these United States.
In fact, while dubbed direct democracy, the ECI seems anything but direct.
It better resembles a suggestion box than the familiar-to-the-Swiss (and us) initiative. To propose a measure through the ECI, more than a million Europeans representing a significant percentage of citizens in at least one-third of EU countries must sign a petition. This is a serious hurdle, though the requirement is not nearly as difficult as the signature levels that must be met in most states in order to qualify a ballot measure.
Moreover, even if the petition reaches the necessary signature threshold, and is found to be an area of governance that can be properly addressed by the EU, the ECI will not result in a vote of the people throughout the Union. Nor does an ECI require the representative bodies of the European Union to represent the very sentiments of those petitioning by taking any specific action in light of a million citizens petitioning their transnational government.
As Bruno Kaufmann, head of the Initiative & Referendum Institute-Europe, put it recently, there are obvious weaknesses in the proposal . . . above all the unclear follow-up stages.
Call the ECI, then, a baby step — but one being taken by a very big, transnational tot.
This step could lead to further steps. Before we know it, Europe may be jogging — or even sprinting — toward a future with citizens wielding far greater control over their governments.
But forget that for a moment. What is the nature of this initial step?
The ECI is called an Agenda Initiative — distinguished from a binding initiative — meaning that what citizens get to do directly is to place an issue of governance on the EU agenda.
That is no small matter. One of the greatest attributes of the statewide initiative and referendum process in America has been its allowing of citizens to impact the agenda. Again and again, issues traditionally ignored have received the breath of life.
Sure, like politicians elsewhere, EU solons may ignore or frustrate the petition of the people. But, even if ignored or flouted, the process can put change in motion. By forcing officials to publicly refuse to takeÊaction on an issue, the stage is set for persuasion: The issue has been placed out in the open. And that issue can hang there, like the sword of Damocles: If legislators or officials do nothing, the sword may fall, and they may be out of office in the next election.
While I wish the ECI were a full-fledged initiative process whereby the people of Europe would ascend to a nearly-equal footing with the elite politicians that seem to resist actually representing them, I wish even more that we in the United States possessed even this limited process.
First step? Yes. But the path it begins might very well end with citizens standing on their own feet as sovereigns, not subjects.
Maybe those Europeans are on to something this time.