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

Au revoir,

Joe Mathews