The European citizens’ initiative (ECI) "Cohesion policy for the equality of regions and sustainability of regional cultures" has gathered over 1.4 million signatures and has very good chances of becoming the 7th successful ECI in the history of this still relatively new legal tool. As the deputy (substitute) representative of the organising citizens committee of this ECI, in this article I hope to share some of my views on the prerequisites for organising a successful ECI.
Strategic thinking: Strategic thinking is essential. You need to be well organised, think ahead and elaborate contingency plans for various outcomes. You need to build up a network of supporters, raise funds and be able to improvise and think out of the box if the situation calls for it. Assess your potential supporters in advance (well before you start the one-year signature collection period) and build up a multi-level strategy to reach out to them. Identify your target countries/communities and focus on them. At the same time, avoid using any resources to areas where there is no “market” for you.
Our campaign had 3 basic pillars (the first two of which is geographically well definable):
1) Hungarian communities of the Carpathian-basin, as well as Hungarian diaspora communities: Every successful ECI needs a “base camp” from where the vast majority of signatures will come. In our case the idea of the ECI stemmed from the Szekler National Council, an advocacy organisation located in Szeklerland (Transylvania/Romania). It was obvious that our base camp would be Hungarian communities living in Romania, Slovakia, - to a lesser extent - those living in Croatia and Slovenia, as well as the citizens of Hungary; and finally, the Hungarian diaspora living in western-European countries.
2) Inhabitants of national regions across the EU: The term “national region” is a new one that was elaborated by the organisers. One of the achievements we managed to accomplish was to insert this new term into community law as a result of the six-year long legal struggle we had to go through before the Court of the EU in order to get the ECI registered by the European Commission in the first place. This term refers to regions that possess national, ethnic, cultural, or linguistic characteristics that are different from those of the surrounding regions, e.g. South Tyrol, Catalonia, the Basque country, Szeklerland, Bretagne, Flanders…etc. It was our aim from the very beginning to build a movement around the interests and common goals of national regions to influence public discourse, raise awareness and lobby for these jointly with our allies and partners. This informal network of supporters we have been building since 2013 - when we submitted the ECI for registration - includes NGOs, political parties, municipalities and umbrella organizations. It is important to keep in mind that the legal tool of the ECI has not yet proved itself as an effective tool in putting certain issues on the legislative agenda of EU decision-maker. However, it has proved to be an effective means of raising awareness about certain issues that receive little to no attention in the EU.
3) Those individuals who are not affected directly (i.e. they do not live in a national region) but sympathise with our cause on the basis of their world views: Throughout the campaign we were keen to explain to office-holders and organisations across the political spectrum why supporting this ECI represents their interest (including conservatives, greens, social-democrats, liberals…etc.). Always try looking for self-interest! Solidarity can be effective, but people are more likely to support a cause that can have a positive effect on their lives or the lives of the communities they identify with.
Finally, choose the members of your Citizens Committee (Group of organisers) wisely. You need to bear in mind that ideally, any member of the Citizens Committee should be the number one advocate of the ECI in their respective countries.
Tailor-made messages through social media channels: Storytelling capacity and interpersonal ability to connect are crucial. You have to be able to explain your arguments to people with the most diverse social- cultural- political- historical backgrounds and for that you need authentic and tailor-made messages that suit the particular “target” community, and you need to be able to mediate those messages on the language of that community. Leverage social media for maximum impact in reaching out to your audiences. Out of the 1.4 million statements of support we received, 1.167.571 were collected online using social media tools. Our experience was that if you can develop the right messages with your international partners and you can have locally respected and authentic people (politicians, celebrities, influencers...etc.) to come out with those messages to their own followers, then large social media networks can do miracles with your signature count. For example, the first time the wider Catalan public received information about our ECI was through an interview that one of the most popular news portals, VilaWeb made with me. This article was then disseminated through the social media channels of VilaWeb, which doubled the number of signatures we had from Spain up until that point. We collected over 2500 signatures within 48 hours.
Persistence: You will experience many ups and downs. You might encounter adversaries who are not interested in your success and you need to have a certain level of determination to overcome such phenomena. Additionally, signatures do not pour in evenly. There are months when it is virtually impossible to mobilise people for any signature collection, most notably August and December. Additionally, the very last days of the campaign are the most crucial ones. We had three consecutive extensions of our signature collection period due to the adverse effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on ECIs. This meant that we had 4 waves of campaigning, with 4 run ups to a campaign deadline, each of which contributed to surpass both the quantitative (one million signatures at least), as well as the geographic hurdles (surpassing the national minimum threshold in at least 7 EU member states). For example, on the last day of the first wave on 7 May 2020, we collected over 170.000 signatures from Hungary online.
Through this brief and non-exhaustive snapshot, I intended to provide insights into the practical functioning of an EU-wide signature collection campaign, hoping to inform future ECI organisers on some crucial factors they need to consider if they wish to organise a successful ECI. One could add many more aspects that are pivotal for any ECI campaign. Hereby this blog post hopes to encourage further discussion on the topic.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on the ECI Forum reflect solely the point of view of their authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the position of the European Commission or of the European Union.
Dr. Attila Dabis is a political scientist and public figure, based in Budapest, Hungary. Since 2012 he has been functioning as the Foreign Affairs Commissioner of the Szekler National Council. Since 2016 he has been the International Coordinator of the Institute for the Protection of Minority Rights. As of 2019 he is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the of the scientific journal, Kisebbségvédelem / Minority Protection. He contributed to this Forum as the deputy (substitute) representative of the European citizens’ initiative called 'Cohesion policy for the equality of the regions and sustainability of the regional cultures'.
Source: European Citizens' Initiative Forum