Have you heard of the European Citizens’ Initiative? No, not to worry. It’s not your fault. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a marvel of EU participatory democracy, which was one of the “main innovations under The Treaty of Lisbon", (which, if the truth be told, is one of the few reasons why it can lay claim to be a constitutional treaty). In a nutshell, it enables citizens of member states to suggest proposals for legislation that will apply throughout the EU.

The principle precondition is that the initiative must be validated by the European Commission (if this was not the case, the system would soon be swamped by demands to reduce taxes). Thereafter, the petition must be signed by a minimum of one million Europeans, from at least seven member states, over a period of less than one year. There are ongoing discussions about the accessibility of the online voting form, and some member states are already contesting the procedure for the validation of one million signatures.

To date, only one initiative of this type has succeeded in gathering the required number of signatures: the Right2Water campaign, which wants access to water to be recognised as a universal human right. In contrast, another initiative for a 30km/h speed limit in Europe’s cities and villages has failed to secure much in the way of support.

Among the proposals (which are not as numerous as you might expect), there is one that aims to modify the common legislative framework to ensure media pluralism and the political independence of national media authorities.

Devil in the detail

Put simply, it aims to prevent the concentration of the ownership of media outlets (and the excesses of media magnates) and to guarantee the political independence of audio-visual and media councils in member states. Will it be in the interest of citizens? It most certainly will. Will it pave the way for more accurate news and help prevent propaganda from being served up as impartial journalism? No doubt it will. Will it contribute to the ongoing evolution of society? Of course. But why then am I so sceptical about the success of this initiative? The devil is in the detail.

First and foremost, there is the issue of the novelty of the procedure itself. Brussels’ willingness to process citizens’ initiatives is largely theoretical. This is a new procedure, there is no guarantee that it will work, nor do we know about the potential obstacles it may face.

The second problem is the question of divergent interests. Without promotion, we will not be able "to sell" the idea, and it will be very difficult to collect the requisite number of signatures. This is particularly the case with regard to the concept of media pluralism, which is not easily explained. The response from citizens whose interests are to be defended by this undertaking will likely be a curt one: "But we already have media pluralism. If you don’t like Romanian President Traian Băsescu you watch Antena [which is owned by the founder of the Romanian Conservative party]. If you don’t like Victor Ponta, you watch B1. And if you want more serious stuff, you have to fall back on România TV, because those good-for-nothings closed down OTV (which belonged to Dan Diaconescu)!" Faced with this type of reaction, just imagine the difficulty of explaining that citizens’ should be provided with real news and not propaganda. Go ahead and try!

Powerful enemies

Who is to take charge of the promotion of this initiative? Hardly anyone apart from the online press is willing to take up the task. Private press groups are the natural enemies of this venture. Of course, Europe does have public media outlets, but they are not doing too well regardless of the countries where they are located. They might take on the challenge, but their audiences are much smaller than the audiences enjoyed by the commercial competition. Finally, there is the problem of "the requisite human and financial resources." Apart from journalists’ associations, it is hard to see who is going to provide sponsorship...

In short, this is a citizens’ initiative that is useful to democracy, but one that has to contend with some very powerful enemies (virtually all of Europe’s media conglomerates). It has virtually no visibility apart from its presence on the Internet, hardly any funding, and it is dependent on a mechanism that has yet to be fully calibrated by Brussels.

Last but not least, let’s not forget that this initiative is designed to defend the interests of a vast majority of consumers who are the audience for media outlets that the future legislation is supposed to make more responsible, and for whom the initiative amounts to an unsolicited service.