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European Citizens´ Initiative Forum

Sharpening the Swiss Army knife for European democracy

Updated on: 31/01/2019

It is a true legend – and cultural icon. The multi-tool pocketknife was manufactured in a remote Alpine valley in Switzerland. Originally called (unpronounceably) ´Offiziersmesser´, in the 1950s, American soldiers using the handy combination of screwdriver, can opener, wood saw, scissors, nail file and many other functions simply called it the Swiss Army knife (SAK). Its multi-purpose nature has inspired tool designers across the world – among them, the designers of the first transitional tool of participatory and direct democracy, the European Citizens´ Initiative (ECI).

In the last seven years, almost 10 million European citizens from 28 Member States have used the ECI to set the political agenda of the European Union by launching more than 70 different initiatives (of which more than 50 have been officially registered). And as in the case of the more than a century old yet ever sharp SAK – the most advanced model is called ‘The Giant’ and has no less than 87 tools with 141 different functions – the much younger ECI has already seen a fascinating host of different forms of use – making it a true Swiss Army knife for the purpose of European democracy.

Many Europeans have used the ECI as a ´gas pedal´ to promote innovative transnational legislation. This includes one of the first initiatives, the ´Single Communication Tariff Act´ launched on 3 December 2012 by a group of young students and a modest budget of EUR 2 000. It never really needed to get the formally required 1 million signatures from at least seven Member States to gain momentum as it was a timely impetus which the European Commission was glad to receive and implement.

A series of other ECIs, including the highly successful ´Right2Water´ initiative, which gained the verified support of no less than 1 659 543 EU citizens from across all Member States, not only put an issue on the political agenda but made it all the way into Europe-wide legislation.

But the ECI can also be used in many other ways: for example, as a ´brake´ to stop or reverse legislation. The ‘Stop TTIP’ initiative was possibly the most distinctly representative of this kind of ´braking´ proposal. In recent years, millions of European citizens have activated themselves in questioning the benefits of international trade and investment agreements. But also, the so-called successful ones, meaning those initiatives which surpassed the 1 million signatures requirement, like ´Ban glyphosate´, ´Stop vivisection´ and ´One of us´ were mainly about setting up a big, big STOP SIGN at the transnational level.

And like the Swiss Army knife, there is much more to the European Citizens´ Initiative. The multi-tool can also be used as a ´valve´(to fix or improve existing legislation), a ´bargaining chip´ (to influence European policymaking, in addition to other methods) or as a ´catalyst for coalition-building´ (powerfully, for example, by the ´Universal Basic Income´ initiative, which never got enough signatures to qualify for the next step, but nevertheless contributed to creating a large European network of supporters). Finally, and this is very popular in pre-election times like now, some ECIs are simply seen as a powerful ´canvasser´ for a candidate, a political party – or even a company… early on in the still young history of ECI practice an American ice-cream producer tried to use the process by launching a ´happy cow´ proposal.


Article's contributor: President of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe


Bruno Kaufmann, President of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe

Bruno has been following the development of the European Citizens Initiative since the early days in 1991, when he cofounded the "eurotopia"-networking originally raising and promoting the very idea of the ECI. Today Bruno serves as Chairman of the Democracy Council and Election Commission in Falun (Sweden) and co-chairs the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. Bruno Kaufmann is the global democracy correspondent at the Swiss Broadcasting Company and Editor-in-Chief of Since 2001 he chairs the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe and serves as the Director for International Cooperation at the Swiss Democracy Foundation.

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