The European Citizens’Initiative : from a long claim to a wonderful opportunity!

, by Pauline Gessant

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The European Citizens'Initiative : from a long claim to a wonderful opportunity!
With the ECI, let’s draw our Europe Credit © European Union, 2011

A long claim...

The participation of citizens in European decision-making is a long-standing demand of the Federalists and of JEF-Europe.

Already during the Convention, federal organizations conducted intense lobbying that led to the introduction of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) in the draft Constitutional Treaty. In 2005, JEF-Europe expressed its satisfaction with the provision of the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe which stated that a petition signed by one million EU citizens could be brought before the European Commission.

After the no in the referenda in France and the Netherlands, JEF-Europe had supported the campaign for the establishment of an ECI, the famous “Initiative for the initiative” to give European citizens and organizations of Civil society the opportunity to directly influence the political agenda of the EU. The campaign was effective : the Lisbon Treaty introduced in its Article 11.4 the European Citizens ’Initiative by referring to the European Commission to determine in a regulation the procedures and requirements for the implementation of such a citizens’ initiative .

Then JEF-Europe contributed to the Green Paper and public consultation launched by the European Commission in 2009 stressing the need for flexible terms of implementation. Yet the draft regulations published by the European Commission in March 2010 contained too many obstacles for an effective implementation of the ECI. JEF-Europe then entered into a campaign for an accessible ECI by issuing several press releases and open letters to the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and European parliamentarians who had to discuss the proposal of the Commission according to the co-decision procedure. The main claims of JEF focused on the number of EU countries that would represent the one million signature (1 / 4 instead of 1 / 3), the threshold of admissibility, the period of collection signatures (18 months instead of 12) and the technical assistance provided by the Commission (the translation of the ICE in all official languages of the EU and the availability of a site for collecting electronic signatures).

Following this engagement, Gerald Haffner MEP, rapporteur for the Commission PETI on the ECI, invited the President of JEF-Europe, Philippe Adriaenssens, to present JEF arguments and representatives of JEF-Europe also participated in various hearings held by European political parties, NGOs… JEF-Europe was thus able to interact with key decision-makers involved in the adoption of regulations on the ECI. With the support of JEF sections, more than half of MEPs were contacted in their own language.

JEF’s efforts was not in vain because the final settlement, voted by the European Parliament and the Council, is more democratic than the first proposals of the Commission and the Council, including the reduction of national thresholds, the possibility of collect signatures online, an earlier admissibility check and a guarantee of follow-up by the Commission.

... A great opportunity

Having campaigned for a flexible and friendly ECI throughout the years 2009 and 2010, the Young European Federalists (JEF-Europe) have begun to explore themes and methods for launching an ECI that contributes to the completion of a federal Europe.

JEF is able to mobilize several European organizations in its network, among which the European Youth Forum, and can draw on its national, regional and local sections in almost all EU countries where young people can easily mobilize the mass street actions by traditional activities and online activism. But past experiences, such as the joint UEF - JEF Europe campaign for a consultative referendum on the constitution at the same time as European Parliament elections of 2009 showed that it is not so easy to collect 1 million signatures in one year. It is therefore essential that all the organization is mobilized and committed to launch a common ECI. Therefore JEF-Europe has issued a questionnaire to consult its members to collectively determine the potential issues and alliances necessary to launch an ECI.

According to the results of the questionnaire, JEF members considers an ECI campaign as an opportunity to promote a more democratic and efficient Europe, to increase the visibility of the organization, to enlarge JEF networking among the civil society as well as to strengthen JEF and its internal cooperation.

The political platform of JEF-Europe and its political resolutions are excellent sources of ideas for the topic of an ECI even if we have to keep in mind that the proposal should be under the competencies of the Commission in order to pass the eligibility check. The topic should thus reflect the priorities of JEF-Europe while being clearly defined, easy to understand and with a direct impact on all citizens . The first results of the survey show that JEF members are sensitive to environmental, social and economic issues. The topic should also be supported by other organizations to widen the classical pro-European cooperation and enhance its chance of success and be usable by non-EU JEF sections, for example to promote the EU membership as a way to give the citizens the power to influence the policy.

Keeping in mind the lessons learnt from the YES Campaign in 2004-2005, JEF-Europe is also aware that the ECI may bring the organization to the limits of its capacities. Moreover the campaign should in no way financially prevent the organization from functioning normally. In order to reach a successful ECI and thus gather one million signatures all over the EU within the timeframe of 1 year, JEF-Europe will have to face this project being completely united and determined to succeed. Since collecting one million signatures is a great challenge, JEF-Europe will have to build a network to promote its ECI, gathering civil society organizations sharing the same values than JEF-Europe, especially the UEF and European Movement but also specific organizations such as thematic NGOs, youth organizations…

After having led a vigorous campaign for an accessible, flexible and democratic ECI, JEF-Europe must now seize this opportunity to put into practice its own federalist agenda based on a tool of direct democracy, we have always claimed for. If the federalists do not fully grasp the instrument, we can be sure that the Eurosceptics will do according to their own priorities.

Beyond the success or not of future citizens ’initiative, the launch of a European Citizens’ Initiative will be a victory in itself if it has high visibility. Because it will talk about the European Union other than through the simplistic messages that it is often the object. A citizens’ initiative will contribute to cross-border debate and thus the creation of a European public space, whose existence depends on its interaction with the national public spheres. With the entry into force of the European Citizens’ Initiative in April 2012, the EU introduces one of the first supranational democratic tools in the world. The ECI opens the possibility for citizens to get involved in a new way, allowing direct access to decision-making process at European level. Experience also shows that tools of direct democracy as the right of initiative tend to strengthen representative democracy. Two years before the next EP elections, the ECI should help parliamentarians to approach the choice of voters and encourage positive collaboration between citizens and their representatives.

With the ECI, let’s transform the Europe of states into the Europe of citizens.

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