The Lisbon Treaty only underlines the necessity of at least one million signatures from a significant number of member states. In 2009, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which provided guidelines for implementing the initiative and the European Commission launched a Green Paper and opened a public consultation in order to seek the views of all interested parties on how the citizens’ initiative should work in practice. Following these consultations, the EC laid down ground rules and procedures in a draft EU regulation issued on the 31st of March.
BRIDGING THE GAP BETWEEN THE EU AND ITS CITIZENS
JEF has for a long advocated for a greater participation of citizens in European Union. Thus when it was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, JEF welcomed the European Citizens’ Initiative as a concrete tool to strengthen European democracy that can help develop the European common public space and civil society and bridge the gap between the European Union and its citizens.
In its contribution to EC Green Paper, JEF took a strong stance in favour of a flexible ECI that maximises its use in order to allow European citizens to fully benefit from their European citizenship and influence the EU’s legislative agenda.
Experiences in EU member states have shown that citizens’ initiatives, if they are to be truly workable, need to be designed in a simple and practical way, as former Commissioner Margot Wallström stressed when launching the public consultation: “the new democratic tool must be accessible, transparent and user-friendly”. This is all the more necessary for a European Citizens’ Initiative given its transnational character.
STRONG HURDLES FOR THE IMPLEMENTATION OF ECI
The rules set out by the European Commission on the 31st of March for using a citizens’ initiative seem to set a high bar for the implementation of ECI.
While outlining EC proposal, Maroš Šefcovic, the new EU institutional commissioner who is handling the issue, stressed that the ECI should “not be too difficult, not too technical or complicated for citizens”. It is quite surprising that the steering of this issue has been given to Maroš Šefcovic, Commissioner responsible for Institutional Relations and administration and not to Viviane Reding, Commissioner responsible for “citizenship” and communication. This steering does not suggest openness to citizens’ initiative.
Many of JEF’s suggestions are ignored in the EC proposal.
The EC firstly proposes that as a compulsory threshold, a third of Member states (currently nine) whereas the European Parliament suggested a quarter (currently seven).
Certainly this aspect could be a positive given boost to the role of European parties, since such a threshold for a valid initiative would require a level and scale of organisation that true European parties could be able to provide. This requirement however, should be as low as possible. The ECI is related to European Citizenship and not to national Citizenship or residence. That’s why a count per Member State could be seen as contrary to the genuine European flavour of the ECI.
Secondly, if JEF is pleased that the European Commission finally accepted the petitions on the Internet, the procedures for verification and authentication of signatures proposed by the Commission are particularly discouraging and require intrusive personal data.
Each signatory will have to provide not only his or her name, address, email address and signature but also date and place of birth and personal identification number (passport, national identity card or social security number). These strong requirements could discourage people to sign an initiative by fear of violation of privacy and identity theft.
Each signatory will have to provide not only his or her name, address, email address and signature but also date and place of birth and personal identification number
Furthermore, the period of 12 months to collect the signatures is really insufficient. ECI is a new tool at European level that cannot be compared basically with national experiences because, once a citizens’ initiative would be launched, it will take time to overcome language barriers and geographic distances and to create a pan-European debate on the topic. For this reason, 18 months should be the minimal time period. Let’s remind that none of the two informal ECIs, which succeeded to collect 1 million signatures on paper, managed to do this within 12 months.
FEW COMMITMENTS FROM THE EC
Regarding the admissibility of a citizens’ initiative, the Commission proposes that "every citizen initiative should first be registered and then subjected to a qualifying examination by the Commission, once the organizers have collected at least 300 000 statements of support”
This obligation for the entrance examination is not satisfactory since it should happen at the very beginning of the process. The organisers of an initiative will be able to request a EC decision on the admissibility only after 300,000 statements of support . This means that a lot of work would have already be done with the risk of a negative answer by EC regarding the admissibility, damaging thus this instrument to the public.
It’s also disappointing that the EC won’t provide any practical support : neither legal advice, translation or on-line collection system on the EC’s own website.
Finally, the EU executive is not legally obliged to initiate legislative action in response to a collection of signatures. If we can understand that the EC will not retain the initiatives that are devoid of serious or against European values, the Commission cannot just ignore or turn down a legally valid successful ECI because this would seem arbitrary, lead to disappointment and widen the gap between the EU and its citizens. The only task of the Commission should be to examine the legal nature of when the registration of an ECI proposal is done as well as whether the practical requirements of a successful ECI have been met but not its political value or impact.
the EU executive is not legally obliged to initiate legislative action in response to a collection of signatures
The Commission’s role should be seen as the one of a legal facilitator and not a political evaluator of ECIs. It should be up to the European Parliament only to decide whether to transpose a successful and legally valid ECI into European law or not and the examination role by the Commission should thus be limited. The initiators should have the right to challenge a rejection of validity before the European Court of Justice.
These numerous procedural constraints raised deep concern about the political will of the European Commission to really allow citizen initiatives. The legislation has now to be passed by the Council and the Parliament before becoming law and the first initiatives being examined at the beginning of 2011. Instead of repeating that it’s necessary to address the democracy gap, let’s hope that MEPs and governments will act for this goal by lightening the restrictive requirements. It’s a necessity in order to ensure that he ECI will be usable and the European door really opened to the participation of citizens in European politics.