Europe’s also trying crowdsourced law-making, but is it just too big?

Finland is crowdsourcing new laws online, and Iceland’s citizens just green-lit a constitutional draft that they helped put together through Twitter and Facebook. And now the European Commission, the EU’s executive body, has announced a minor milestone in its own, similar efforts.

Back in April, the Commission launched a new scheme called European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECIs). The idea here is that, if a proposal for a new pan-EU law gets support from at least a million citizens spread across at least seven member states (out of a current total of 27), the Commission will have to “give serious consideration” to the proposal. If they decide not to push forward with it, they’re obliged to explain themselves.

As with the Finnish system, support can be gathered online. The Commission has come up with open-source software for this and, in July, it invited people to use its own servers.

And today a Luxembourg-based initiative called Fraternité 2020, to do with boosting exchange programs within the EU, became the first ECI to start collecting signatures on the Commission’s servers. A previous ECI called ‘Right 2 Water’ is already running on private hosting.

“This result proves that the Commission is absolutely determined to make this new instrument of participatory democracy a success,” EU vice-president Maroš Šef?ovi? said in a statement.

Can it work?

This scheme is obviously a very different affair from the crowdsourced politics initiatives going on in Finland and Iceland, and frankly I’m a lot more sceptical about this one.

For a start, this is the first I’ve heard of the entire ECI system – and I only learned of it today because I was in the mood to pore through obscure European Commission press releases. Many people in the EU are barely aware that the Commission exists and, given the scanty coverage that the ECI has received, I’m pretty sure that few people are clued up about the opportunity. Is that deliberate? Hard to tell, as the Commission is not great at communications at the best of times.

A related problem is the size and cohesiveness of the populace that’s being invited to participate.

Finland has just over five million citizens and Iceland has not many more than 300,000. Both are relatively tight societies. The EU as a whole has more than half a billion inhabitants, and cohesion is… an issue.

And what happens when you have a mass-participatory system like this that few people are really paying attention to? You get a golden opportunity for lobbyists to game the system.

In theory, the Commission should catch such attempts, but that’s a big ‘should’. This is the final and perhaps most deadly problem: the EU’s executive branch is, sadly, unelected. Many if not most people do not trust it, and that’s a pretty huge barrier to participatory democracy, no matter how technologically-enabled it is.

There are other problems, too. A huge part of the EU’s cohesiveness challenge is down to the spread of languages across the union and, although the Commission has to screen all the initiatives that go up, it’s refusing to handle translation.

That means the organizers need to translate their initiatives themselves – a barrier that you can see for yourself on the list of open initiatives. It’s hard to get support from people in other countries when they can’t read your proposal.

Time will tell. The first deadlines for signature collections will hit in May 2013, and we’ll see after that whether this online citizens’ initiative drive is worth the pixels it’s written on. But I suspect that the challenges presented by the extremely challenging European Union will make this a whole different ballgame from the ones being played in Northern Europe’s smaller societies.