Mapping the European Citizens’ Initiative: An Analysis of the Impact of the European Citizens' Initiative on the European Public Sphere
The launch of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) in April 2012 was greeted with enthusiasm in the conference rooms of Brussels, and portrayed as a new era for participatory democracy in the European Union (EU). It has been claimed that the ECI establishes a new space for direct citizen participation in the EU‘s decision- and policy-making processes, as one of the most concrete steps aimed at shifting the state of civic engagement in EU affairs, and incorporating the tools of participatory democracy into existing mechanisms of representative democracy. It is expected that the ECI will contribute to the democratisation of EU politics by bridging the gap between EU politics and citizens, and to the formation/enhancement of the European Public Sphere (EPS). A preliminary analysis based on the regulatory and operational setup of the ECI reveals, however, that its participatory potential may in fact be limited, especially in terms of its influence on policy-making processes. Nonetheless, the ECI process itself, may indeed catalyse cross-border citizen debate on the issues prioritised by its organisers. However, the communicative interactions of citizens cannot be directly translated into conclusions about the state of the EPS. An additional aspect is the emphasis placed on online technologies for ECI processes with a transnational scope. The definition of the ECI as a predominantly digital tool confirms the central role that has been assigned to online technologies. The main aim of this research project is to map the communicative spaces created by the ECI to explore the relevance of this new participatory tool in terms of the formation/enhancement of the EPS, with a special focus on online platforms. The first step is to connect the concept of the EPS in the ECI context with the academic debate grounded in EPS theories, as the dominant use of the concept in EU discourse seems to be detached from the definitions and reconsiderations reflected in theoretical frameworks. Furthermore, the limitations of online technologies in forming a transnational public sphere that has a democratising effect needs to be taken into consideration in order to analyse the potential role of online technologies in ECI processes and to assess whether the online ECI debates have a transformative impact on the EPS. In this regard, we are interested in three key aspects of ECI-related communication on online platforms; (1) the visibility and connectivity of the communicative spaces initiated by the ECIs; (2) participants of the conversation; and (3) the plurality of perspectives reflected in citizen-generated conversations. Using the methods of network analysis and qualitative content analysis, we seek to understand the actual influence of the ECI processes on the EPS. The experiences of the first official ECIs signal a decisive role for the future transformation of this participatory space and its potential contribution to European politics and the European public sphere in the long term.