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European Citizens' Initiative
This case study features a new initiative that aims to promote a whole new form of participatory democracy across the European Union (EU). Citizen initiatives that garner 1 million signatures across a wide range of Member States will be considered by the European Commission. This gives residents across the EU the direct ability to propose legislation and influence matters that concern the entire continent.
Problems and Purpose
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is one of the EU’s major innovations to foster direct and participatory democracy. As laid out in the Treaty of Lisbon, the ECI is unique in that it is one of the first instruments of transnational participatory democracy in world history. In most European countries, citizens’ initiatives already exist at national, regional, and local levels. Of course, they vary significantly in terms of their procedure and scope. The ECI, however, allows citizens to address much larger issues, including problems that cannot be solved alone by any one Member State.
The ECI is certainly not the only form of participatory democracy in the EU. Before the creation of the ECI program, the right to petition to the European Parliament had existed under previous treaties. Petitions and initiatives differ in several ways. First, and most importantly, petitions have no formal minimum number of signatures necessary, nor do they require a broad base of support across multiple Member States. Second, petitions may be submitted by EU citizens as well as by companies, organizations, and non-citizen residents. Third, unlike ECIs, petitions are addressed to the Parliament and must relate to the implementation of EU law (topics may include environmental matters, consumer protection, employment issues, European rights, etc.).
Nonetheless, the ECI is arguably a much more expedient way for citizens to influence legislation. The European Commission believes that the ECI is “widening up the sphere of public debate, allowing citizens to participate more intensively in the democratic life of the Union, through this new ‘participatory democracy’ tool.” Whereas a petition typically results in an investigation or report conducted by European Committee on Petitions, an initiative (if successful) directly sets an agenda and introduces new legislation in the Parliament. ECIs are thus much more complex and take longer to complete, as opposed to petitions, but their potential impact on European law is far greater.
The ECI is a very recent innovation, having just been introduced in the Treaty of Lisbon only a few years ago. The first initiatives were registered in early 2012; presuming they are successful, their impact on European legislation will take effect no earlier than late 2013.
In its formative stages, the right to initiative was advocated by the ECI Campaign, a grassroots coalition of democracy proponents and over 120 European NGOs. The group successfully lobbied for the inclusion of the ECI in the draft EU Constitution and Lisbon Treaty. Currently, the campaign monitors the implementation of the ECI, provides guidance to individuals and groups organizing initiatives, and examines how the framework can be ameliorated.
Organizing Entitites and Funding
The ECI program is primarily overseen by the European Commission, the executive governing body of the EU. When an ECI is registered, it is the Commission that reviews the proposal and decides whether or not to introduce legislation in the European Parliament. For that reason, a successful initiative with over 1 million signatures is not binding. No EU funding is provided to organizers of an ECI.
The legal basis of the ECI system is laid out in the Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force in December 2009 and amends the Maastricht Treaty (1992) and Treaty of Rome (1957). The Treaty of Lisbon reinforces the right of citizens to “participate in the democratic life of the Union” and outlines the numerous regulations of the ECI program.
The nature of the ECI program means that participation is open and free, although certain restrictions apply. The process is designed to involve EU citizens (i.e., nationals of a Member State); non-EU nationals cannot organize a citizens’ initiative, serve as members of a citizens’ committee, or submit a statement of support. To participate in any part of the process, citizens need to be old enough (though not necessarily registered) to vote in European Parliament elections – 18 years of age, except in Austria where the minimum age is only 16. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) may be members of citizens’ committees but cannot be counted as one of the requisite 7 citizens, meaning that they may not be mentioned on the committee registration form. Participants must also hail from a wide range of European countries to guarantee that ECIs are transnational in scope. The citizens’ committee is required to include members residing in at least 7 different Member States. Furthermore, statements of support must be gathered in at least 7 Member States, as detailed below.
Deliberations, Decisions, and Public Interaction
The first stage in the ECI process is the establishment of a citizens’ committee which must include residents from at least 7 Member States. This body, which cannot be run by organizations, must be composed of EU citizens old enough to vote. It is this committee that officially provides the wording of the proposed initiative to the Commission. The Commission then has two months to either register or reject the proposal. Rejection can be for a number of reasons, including the composition of the committee. The proposal can also be rejected in case it falls outside the powers of the Commission, “is manifestly abusive, frivolous or vexatious”, or is “manifestly contrary to the values of the Union.” In its original formulation of the ECI, the Commission had suggested that registration should take place after a significant number of signatures have been collected to indicate that there is support for the proposal, but it was recognized that the rejection of an initiative at that point could cause considerable public disquiet.
If a proposal is registered and made public, the organizers have 12 months to collect 1 million signatures, formally called statements of support. Nationals of any Member State can sign a citizens’ initiative provided they are old enough to vote in the European Parliament elections. Statements of support may be collected in paper or online, but they must be registered on specific forms which comply with regulations. There was originally some disagreement between the Commission, Council and Parliament and those contributing to consultation on the ECI as to the minimum number of Member States from which signatures must be drawn. The final regulation states that signatures must come from at least one quarter of EU countries, or 7 out of 27. However, to ensure that the 1 million is reasonably representative – and not just from one or two Member States – the initiative must collect a minimum number of signatories from each of the 7 Member States. This threshold is directly proportional to the population of each Member State, following the proportions used for the number of MEPs (and multiplied by 750). Thus the minimum number of signatories from Malta is 4,500 compared to 74,250 from Germany.
Assuming the organizing committee has been able to collect the requisite number of signatures and fulfilled the relevant national thresholds, national authorities then have three months to verify the signatures from their polity. Assuming that the verification is successful, the organizing committee is then in a position to formally present the initiative to the Commission. The Commission has three months to respond, during which officials are expected to meet with the organizers to ensure the details of the proposal are understood and arrange a public hearing at the European Parliament. Having examined the proposal, the Commission is required to communicate an explanation of its response to the initiative, detailing the reasons behind its actions and other decisions. However, it is important to note that the Commission is not obliged to propose legislation as a result of an initiative, even if it collects enough signatures. Their decision is not subject to an appeal procedure.
The final step involves the usual legislative procedure. The Commission proposal is sent to the European Parliament and/or Council. If adopted, it becomes law.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The first ECI was symbolically registered by the Commission on Europe Day – May 9, 2012. This initiative, named Fraternité 2020, is a movement by the Young European Citizens’ Convention to enhance European exchange programs (such as Erasmus and the European Voluntary Service) and increase international solidarity. As of July 2012, six other ECIs had been officially registered, including:
- Stop Vivisection (advocating animal rights and the protection of their welfare in scientific research)
- Let Me Vote (petitioning for the right of EU citizens living in another Member State to vote in all political elections in their country of residence)
- One of Us (arguing for the right to life from conception and denouncing the use of human embryos in research)
- EU Directive on Dairy Cow Welfare (supporting policies to improve the well-being of cows)
- Right to Water (advocating that access to sufficient and clean drinking water is a human right, and that management of water resources should not be liberalized)
- Single Communication Tariff Act (lobbying for the end of roaming fees across Europe)
Signature collection for all of these ECIs remains open because all of them have yet to attain the requisite 1 million statements of support. As a result, the ECI framework has not yet led to new legislation or laws, meaning that it is still too early to evaluate the outcomes of the program.
Analysis and Criticism
In the official press release welcoming the speed of agreement between the European Parliament and Council on the realization of this new democratic innovation, Maroš Šefčovič, Vice-President for Inter-institutional Relations and Administration, stated: “The ECI will introduce a whole new form of participatory democracy to the EU. It is a major step forward in the democratic life of the Union. It's a concrete example of bringing Europe closer to its citizens. And it will foster a cross border debate about what we are doing in Brussels and thus contribute, we hope, to the development of a real European public space.”
The ECI’s early success is largely thanks to its highly participatory system. It is explicitly transnational in its ambition, requiring significant support – 1 million signatures – from citizens from across a number of Member States. It is this feature that distinguishes the ECI from the existing European Parliament Petition (EPP), which can be proposed by a single signatory. In addition, the ECI has been described as extremely innovative; it serves as the most direct route for citizens to influence the agenda-setting process at the highest levels of the EU. Perhaps that explains why, after only a few months since its official launch, the ECI program has already registered numerous initiatives.
Despite significant success so far, the ECI has attracted some legitimate criticism. For one, some critics have decried the amount of personal data that citizens must provide on their statements of support. Signatories need to submit their full name, address, date and place of birth, nationality, and personal identification number (either a passport or identity card number). Regulations exist to ensure that these data are protected and properly used, but there are still respectable concerns about the process, especially with regards to the online collection system.
Just as importantly, many experts and advocates believe that the ECI should be made more citizen-friendly and workable. As opposed to national or regional movements, ECIs are necessarily transnational in scope, so campaigning becomes far more complex. Large geographic distances make it costly and challenging for citizens to meet and plan, let alone gather signatures. Language barriers also complicate the process, especially given that more than 20 official tongues are spoken across the EU. Finally, as the ECI Campaign notes, “the absence of a strong common public space makes it almost impossible to make one’s voice heard Europe-wide through the media.”
The ECI Campaign has expressed satisfaction with the present success of the program, but it views the ECI as only the first step towards direct participation and not as an end in itself. The group has identified some burdensome restrictions which it seeks to remove in 2015, when the ECI is officially reviewed. These proposed changes include:
- Simplifying the signature form. Concerns have arisen over privacy concerns and specifically the requirement for signatories to provide personal identification numbers.
- Extending the time limit for signature collection from 12 to 18-24 months. The ECI Campaign believes one year is too short for smaller organizations without large budgets to raise awareness about issues that are not well understood by the general public.
- Permitting ECIs to propose amendments to EU treaties. Currently, the Commission will not register initiatives which aim to achieve this, although the law on this issue may be open to challenge by the European Court of Justice.
- Citizens' Guide to the ECI: http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/files/guide-eci-en.pdf
- ECI Official Register: http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/welcome
- Description of EU Petitions: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/aboutparliament/en/00533cec74/Petitions.html
- ECI Campaign: http://www.citizens-initiative.eu/
- European Commission and the ECI: http://ec.europa.eu/dgs/secretariat_general/citizens_initiative/index_en...
- Treaty of Lisbon's ECI Regulations: http://eur-lex.europa.eu/LexUriServ/LexUriServ.do?uri=OJ:L:2011:065:0001...