European Citizens’ Initiative: How to make good on the promise of participatory democracy

European Citizens’ Initiative: How to make good on the promise of participatory democracy

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is an EU measure which entered into force three years ago and is supposed to be an instrument of participatory democracy. The ECI allows European citizens to influence EU legislation by offering a link to political decision-making. What is required is that at least one million citizens from at least seven member states sign a petition to call on the European Commission to propose new EU legislation in any of the areas of EU’s competences.

The number of signatures required varies by country – from 4 500 in the smallest countries to 74 500 in Germany. In Belgium the minimum number is 16 500. 

However, a recent report produced during the previous Latvian presidency of the EU and based on views from stakeholders from EU institutions, member states and civil society during a half-day conference in June shows that the ECI has not met the expectations.

Between April 2012 and June 2015, altogether 51 ECIs were officially submitted but only 31 were registered by the European Commission. Only three ECIs have succeeded.

 “In 2014, ECI use crashed,” the report summarizes. “Currently, only three ECIs are on-going and few signatures are being collected. ECI use is at a standstill.”

Opinions differ as to what extend the ECI achieved its double goals as a tool for policy dialogue between citizens and EU decision makers and an input for change in EU policies and the drafting of new legislative proposals.

“Is the ECI a success?” Bernd Martenzuk from the European Commission asked. “Yes, if you look at how many citizens participated and how many ECIs led to a public debate and increased consciousness and awareness at European level of a particular issue.”

But MEP György Schöpflin does not agree: “If there are only political discussions, you may as well read the newspapers.”

Representatives from the European Parliament and civil society insisted that the ECI must have a concrete impact on EU legislation. Even ECIs with just 100 000 signatures deserve a formal political response.

“It has to influence policies. There cannot be an engagement of citizens if it doesn’t result in any impact. We should strongly oblige the institutions to respond to ECIs,” Sophie Harzfeldt from Democracy International argued.

Near 40 % of all ECIs were refused registration because they failed the legal admissibility check. 

Those who passed the check encountered difficulties in collecting the signatures because of cumbersome procedures and lack of IT support. Personal data requirements differ by country. The on-line collection system is not considered to be user-friendly.

“To encourage participatory democracy, we all agree that there is an issue of complexity,” Carmen Preising from the European Commission admitted. “I hope and expect this message comes through in the reports from all EU institutions.”

Carmen denies that any political considerations are taken by the Commission when assessing the admissibility of ECIs. This however is not the impression of NGOs.

“The Commission has a narrow and strange interpretation of what ECI is admissible. There is a part in that answer that is highly political. The Commission is both judge and jury,” claims Stanislas Jourdan, ECI Unconditional Basic Income.

How can the ECI be simplified and improved? Again, the answer depends on whom you are asking. The Council and the Commission are of the opinion that the ECI can be improved within the current legal framework.

Civil society organizations do not agree and are supported by the European Ombudsman who last April published an own-inquiry report on the effectiveness of the ECI procedures.

“For simplification, what is needed is a revision of the ECI regulation,” Tina Nilsson from the European Ombudsman’s Office said. “The issues are really about the regulation and not the implementation.”

The Brussels Times

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