Lisbon treaty enters into force - so does the European Citizens’ Initiative

Part 1

, by Carsten Berg

Lisbon treaty enters into force - so does the European Citizens' Initiative

The Lisbon Treaty entered into force (December 1) and various groups have contacted us seeking for advice on how to prepare and conduct a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Educational issues are at stake, calling for a new structure of the European Bachelor/Master study programme (we currently have the biggest pan-European student protests since 1968) as well as environmental and social issues such as the protection of water and public services. In other words: people are looking forward to lift their voices through ECI.

For the moment however it is not possible to start an ECI on a legal basis. But the next step to make ECI operational is on the way. As expected the European Commission has now published a Green Paper on ECI. This action coincides with the launching of a public consultation process, which aims at seeking views of all interested individual citizens and organizations on how to design the implementation laws for the European Citizens’ Initiative.

Experience in EU member states has shown that citizens’ initiatives, if they are to be truly workable, need to be designed in a citizen-friendly way. This is all the more true for a European Citizens’ Initiative due to the far more difficult circumstances at the transnational level. After we have analysed the EU-Commission’s proposal, we urgently recommend everyone to discuss this recently purblished Green Paper within your JEF-section and contribute actively to the consultation-process. Within the weeks to come (until January 31st) we still have the chance to improve the Commission’s Proposal on ECI.

Launching the public consultation, Commissioner Margot Wallström promised “the new democratic tool must be accessible, transparent and user-friendly”. Since the EU however has no experience yet to deal directly with Citizens through European Citizens’ Initiatives, the EU-Commission urgently needs your support and asks us all to assist on adequately drawing up user-friendly implementation rules for ECI, which will finally written down in an extra EU-Regulation, so that ECI can enter into force by the end of 2010.

ECI establishes for the very first time a direct legislative channel for European citizens as an Agenda Initiative.

In the following we give you a first general overview and analysis of the Commission’s proposal, contained in the Green Paper, which still needs considerable improvement, due to several misunderstandings, connected to the legal and practical nature of a Citizens’ Initiative right at transnational level. While the Commission requires to reduce the restrictions for itself, it actually does increase restrictions for future ECIs, compared to well-designed Citizens’ Initiative rights at national level. So far the Commission also refuses to provide any supportive elements for ECI, which do exist in citizen-friendly procedures at national level.

In this context it is reasonable to look at the experience with the first 20 informal ECIs, that do already exist at European level, as we have documented in the ECI-Handbook 2008.

None of the three ECIs, which have succeeded to collect a million signatures, would have fulfilled the restrictive and burdensome criteria lined out in the Commission’s proposal for ECI. We thus need to bring together the world of ideas (the legal nature of ECI ) and the world of concrete experience. Only then we have a chance that ECI will be an accessible democratic innovation.

The legal nature of ECI and its practical consequences

The authors of the Green Paper are using the so called method of “reasoning by analogy”, which means that the analysts compare ECI with the existing procedures in EU-legislation, in order to draw conclusions from them for ECI. Since however ECI is the first element of its kind at transnational level, there is no comparable procedure at European level. Thus the Commission compares national Citizens’ Initiative rights in Member States and tries to draw adequate conclusions from them for the implementation for ECI. To a certain degree this is an appropriate approach, in order to get a taste for the important detail questions. “Reasoning by analogy” to procedures in Member States however is insufficient in so far, as it is impossible to copy a design of a national procedure and apply it at EU level. Instead, the procedure needs to be an original creation, according to its own nature and adapted to the needs of democratic life at European level, where it is significantly more difficult to conduct a Citizens’ Initiative.

For the moment there still are some misunderstandings among analysts within the Commission, which basically circle around three types of democratic instruments, that have to be clearly differentiated. They partially have identical names depending on the context and country, but are connoted with vital different contents.

The Commission compares national Citizens’ Initiative rights in Member States and tries to draw adequate conclusions from them for the implementation for ECI.

Firstly, there is the right of petition, which does not bind the addressed institutions to act. The institution is free to remain inactive and ignore the collected signatures of citizens.

Secondly, there is the Citizens’ Initiative as an Agenda Initiative, which obliges the addressed institution to act legislatively on the topic raised by the Citizens’ Initiatives, but the institution is free to interpret and define the content of the legislative act.

Thirdly, there is the Citizens’ Initiative as a Popular Initiative, which leads to a popular vote, with the consequence that the result of the vote, that is a referendum, is binding.

What exactly is the European Citizens’ Initiative? ECI neither is a petition (which already exists in respect to the EU parliament) nor is it a full citizens’ initiative in the sense of a popular initiative leading to a popular vote. Instead ECI establishes for the very first time a direct legislative channel for European citizens as an Agenda Initiative. That means, once an ECI has collected one million signatures and is declared as admissible, ECI has a binding nature for the Commission in the sense that it has to take some legislative action on the topic proposed by the ECI and then forward it to the Council and European Parliament. Only then the issue is put on the European agenda, and only then the instrument is taken serious as an Agenda Initiative. If the EU-Commission would be free to ignore one million citizens’ signatures, this would be of great disappointment and a tragic misunderstanding.

The EU-Commission surprisingly speaks in its press-release of a “petition”, apparently relating to ECI. This misunderstanding, has led to many misunderstandings within European media as well, suddenly reducing the power of ECI to a “petition”. Here we have to be most attentive in the next weeks and carefully continue our engagement for ECI. [1]

 European Citizen’s Initiative, source: google images


[1A summary of the academic debate on the legal nature made by Democracy International and the German government think tank SWP, on page 29 (only in German).

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