A troubled start for the European Citizens’ Initiatives
The rejection by the European Commission of the initiative ‘One of Us’ leads to the weakening of this innovatory democratic instrument.
In June 2012, europeinfos (issue no. 150) headlined that the registration of “a promising European Citizens’ Initiative launched for the protection of human life (…) opens up the expectation that the Commission will propose concrete legislation in this field”. After two years and more than 1.7 million citizens’ signatures collected from all over Europe, one can unfortunately only feel frustration and disenchantment, as the European Commission has now refused to put forward any of the legislative initiatives requested.
Lack of justification for not protecting the human being
This European Citizens’ Initiative named ‘One of Us’, called for the ending of EU financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos in areas under EU competence where the protection of human life is very much at stake: for example, in research (e.g. projects making use of human embryonic stem cells – ‘hESC’) and in development cooperation (e.g. abortion, either directly or indirectly financed). It also suggested that a general clause be added to the Financial Regulation of the EU, stating that “no budget allocation will be made for the funding of activities that destroy human embryos, or that presumes their destruction”. Such a clause was refused without any specific justification being given in the Communication which underpinned the decision of the Commission.
As far as research is concerned, the Commission recognizes that under the 7th Framework Programme (2007-2013) 27 projects involving the use of hESC have been funded. However, the Commission argues that the destruction of embryos themselves has not been financed. That does not really add up to a justification for the refusal to act because it misses the point: ‘One of Us’ is absolutely clear in requesting a ban on “financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos” (bold is ours). This is precisely the case for any research project making use of hESC, even if the previous embryo destructive activity, in itself, is excluded from the project being financed by the EU.
Finally, with regard to development cooperation, the Commission admits that during the 5-year period 2008-2012, the EU spent more than 100 million euros in reproductive health care and family planning and that EU assistance contributes “directly or indirectly to the entire spectrum of health services offered by partner countries, which may or may not include abortion-related services to save the mother’s life”. Even if one assumes that the EU financing is restricted to the so-called ‘abortion to save the woman’s life’ and to abortions in countries where these practices are legal, what the Commission totally failed to do, however, was to produce any evidence that such ‘assistance’ “contributes substantively”, as it claims, to a reduction in the number of abortions”: apparently, according to the reasoning put forward and paradoxical as it seems, this was one of the major reasons for the Commission refusing to cease financing abortions.
Summing up, the Communication underpinning the decision of the Commission merely described the current legal framework but did not advance new, consistent arguments to support it and for refusing the requests of ‘One of Us’. Its line of argument is simply not sound.
Uncertainties lying ahead
There is no doubt that the Commission is not legally obliged to propose any legislative initiative in response to a European Citizens’ Initiative [see Article 10/1/c) of the Regulation (EU) No 211/2011 on the Citizens’ Initiative]. Indeed this is the case even when a request for action is addressed to the Commission by the European Parliament (Article 225 TFEU) or by the Council (Article 241 TFEU). Yet, from the legal point of view, what the Commission must not fail to do in any of these instances is to provide sound legal and political reasons for taking, or indeed not taking, any action.
Nonetheless, the present decision raises another cause for concern which stems from the understanding of democracy as now expressed by the Commission. The “decision [is] contrary to […] democratic requirements”, proclaims the Citizens’ Committee of ‘One of Us’, which also suggests a likely appeal to the European Court of Justice.
As a matter of fact, ‘One of Us’ was not the first European Citizens’ Initiative with huge popular support that has not succeeded in provoking any positive reaction from the Commission. Moreover, despite the fact that the European Citizens’ Initiative is an innovative democratic instrument introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, one of the key arguments now put forward by the Commission for refusing to act was apparently the fact that the current legal framework on the subject matter of ‘One of Us’ has been recently approved through the democratic process. Expressed in this way in the Communication, a worrying misleading conclusion might be induced: that there is a conflict between representative democratic instruments and the newer participatory instrument.
On the other hand, as a European Citizens’ Initiative is meant to contribute towards shaping the agenda of the Commission by proposing legislative initiatives to put forward, it does not make sense to refuse to act because there already exists legislation approved by the democratic process. Should it be approved by any other process? Of course not. Or maybe a European Citizens’ Initiative is meant to take place only when the Commission, by omission, has not taken a certain initiative despite its competence (and legal mandate) to do so? The answer again is no.
So all this raises a lot of concerns about the effectiveness and the future of the European Citizens’ Initiative. It is, after all, a significant tool meant to foster public debate and combat the democratic deficit of the EU by bridging the gap between legislators and the citizens they represent.