(Originally published at Fox & Hounds Daily)
Dear Californians, and especially those Californians who play in the initiative process,
You might want to plan a working vacation to Europe soon.
I'm spending the week in Brussels, visiting European Union institutions and talking with people here about a new, EU-wide initiative process that will launch in April 2012.
The regulations of the process are still being drafted, both here in Brussels and in the member states - which, like California counties, will handle the verification of signatures. But the good news for Californians is this: you can draft your own initiative and take it to Europe.
All you have to do is create a committee that has at least seven European citizens from seven different EU member states. You can fund the thing with foreign money - you'll have to disclose it - whether that money comes from individuals, multinational corporations, unions, or, heck, even foreign governments. (Personally, just out of a spectator's affection for chutzpah, I'd love to see, say, a Chinese company owned and operated by the People's Liberation Army try to use this tool of democracy).
Now there are limits to this new initiative power. You are restricted to subjects that are in the purview of the European Union - among them transnational issues such as competitiveness and monopoly, the environment, privacy. And this is not a ballot initiative, at least not yet (There is no Europe-wide election system, but the initiative could be a foot in the door for those who would build such a system, as well as other things). It's an agenda-setting initiative. An initiative is merely a proposal to the European Commission, the governing body. But that's big stuff in Europe. Only the member states and the Parliament can make such a proposal now. This would put the people, via initiative on equal footing.
But the initiative is an enormous opportunity to gain power and notice in Europe - in ways that could advance your goals back home. California interest groups that want to advance a novel policy could claim a victory in Europe to give them an example of success. And California companies - particularly technology companies who have tangled with European regulators over anti-monopoly and privacy law - might be able to use the process to tweak such laws to their advantage. And anyone wanting to create a movement or gain public notice across Europe for an issue might profit from using the process.
The European initiative might not be that costly, at least compared to California's. To qualify an initiative for introduction to the European Commission requires one million signatures - only a little bit more than in California - out of a much larger population, 500 million. Online gathering is permitted, which should reduce costs. And while each country can make its own rules on signature gathering, right now there are no onerous residency restrictions on petition circulators. You could send the guys working shopping center parking lots in Corona. (Yes, I know-that might make a hilarious reality show). The big cost for these campaigns would be translation - you're responsible for translating your initiative into 23 languages.
Many of the specific regulations are up in the air, particularly those that have to be designed by the European countries themselves. In fact, the Europe-wide forces each country to establish an infrastructure for initiatives; some of these countries don't have their own initiative processes - at least not yet. So if you get here soon, you could shape the rules of the game itself.
Those of you who live in Sacramento will find Brussels comfortable, even familiar. Imagine a government city with an insular political-media bubble, surrounded by boring suburbs. Only this one has better waffles.