European Citizens’ Initiative: The Countdown has begun!
On 1 April the big day will finally be here! That is the date on which the Regulation on the European Citizens’ Initiative will enter into force. With this in mind, the European Commission invited many interested parties to a large conference held in Brussels at the end of January, in order to explain the procedure and state of play with regard to implementation in the Member States, as well as to present the new website
With the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), part of the Lisbon treaty (Cf. Article 11 para. 4 TEU), EU citizens are being given the opportunity to play a part in the democratic process for the very first time. On 16 February 2011, the Regulation on the European Citizens’ Initiative was adopted (Cf. europeinfos no. 135).
Bringing Europe a little closer to its citizens
It should be said that the ECI is not a legislative instrument –EU citizens are not thereby becoming legislators – as it amounts merely to a tool which can be used to request the European Commission to make a legislative proposal in an area of EU competence. But it does have clear added value for Europe. Even leaving aside the feat of getting the required one million signatures from EU citizens from at least seven different Member States, the ECI brings EU citizens together through the cross-border nature of their discussions on EU issues. In this sense, it can also be seen as a vehicle to bring Europe a little closer to its citizens.
The long road to one million
This important (side) effect should help motivate those who set the process of an ECI in motion along what is otherwise a very long path towards obtaining the one million voices of support. However, after the January conference at the latest, one thing should have become clear to all: namely, that a citizens’ initiative requires, first and foremost, thorough and professional preparation. What remains to be seen is whether the ECI is only something for “those in the know”, i.e. organised groups/initiatives or even lobbies which have enough experience in the field of campaigning. Social media, such as Facebook, Google, Twitter, etc., will undoubtedly take centre stage when it comes to spreading the idea of a concrete initiative, so it is no great surprise that representatives of these kinds of companies were out in force at the conference. Furthermore, an ECI could not manage without a financial budget of some kind, so the organisers are obliged regularly to present the Commission with information about the sources of support and any funding above €500 per annum, as well as information on sponsors.
Registration procedure: In dubio pro European Citizens’ Initiative?
Only when the ECI has been given the green light by the Commission can organisers begin collecting pledges of support, although requirements as to the minimum specifications of the signatories, needed for later checks, may vary from one Member State to another. In Austria, for example, an individual’s personal ID and passport number would both be required, as reported by a representative from the Austrian Ministry of the Interior at the January conference. Moreover, registration of the initiative by the Commission sets the clock ticking for the collection of signatures, which must be gathered within one year. The Commission announced that it wanted to take a generous attitude towards citizens’ initiatives, given the huge significance they have for democratic life in the EU. According to the Regulation, the Commission may only reject an ECI if the citizens’ committee has not been set up in line with the rules or if the initiative is clearly being misused, is unsound or causes offence or even violates the values of the European Union. In addition to this, the initiative may not be clearly outside the framework in which the Commission is authorised to make a proposal for a legal act. This will probably prove to be the stumbling block for some. The question thus arises as to how the Commission will choose to interpret the condition “not manifestly outside”, i.e. whether it will decide in favour of registering a ECI in the event of doubt.
The question as to whether the ECI will really change democratic life in the EU, as recently predicted in a speech given by European Commission Vice-President, Maroš Šefčovič, remains to be seen, due to the considerable amount of organisation in relation to the actual result. In the final analysis, it is the Commission which has the power to seize upon the topic laid out in the citizens’ initiative. This (political) decision is – unlike a negative decision on a registration– not something which can be contested. Everyone is thus eager to see how things pan out in practice! Nevertheless, we are all crossing our fingers that this new tool for participative democracy gets off to a good start!
Translated from the Original German