The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is an innovative measure which entered into force three years ago. It was foreseen in the EU treaty and is described as an instrument of participatory democracy. The ECI allows European citizens to influence EU legislation and offers a link to political decision-making. Taken at face value this should go some way in countering euro-skepticism and restoring trust in the EU.
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. Sounds simple?
But not according to two recent reports published by the European Commission and the European Ombudsman. Both were presented at the ECI Day on 13 April by the European Economic and Social Committee, organized in partnership with Committee of Regions (ECR) and some NGOs.
The European Parliament is also currently discussing the ECI and has published a motion for a parliamentary resolution. A hearing will take place on 11 May. The rapporteur in the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO), Professor György Schöpflin, states that “whatever the success criteria, the ECI has not so far reached them, given that not a single initiative has yet been followed by legislation.”
Two critical reports
The two reports are different in nature but both point to serious problems in the implementation of the ECI. The Commission report is a compulsory assessment report of the first three years of the ECI since the start in 2012 and can be found at: https://ec.europa.eu/transparency/eci_report_2015_en.pdf
As such is it is a self-assessment and its credibility can be questioned. Still it reveals several shortcomings in the regulation and implementation of the ECI. The Ombudsman report is a so-called own-initiative inquiry on the effectiveness of the ECI procedure and can be found at https://www.ombudsman.europa.eu/en/cases/decision.faces/en/59205/html.bookmark.
The main task of the European Ombudsman is to investigate complaints against decisions taken by the EU institutions and issue non-binding recommendations. The new Ombudsman, Ms Emily O’Reilly, is more pro-active than her predecessor. Normally she would initiate an inquiry if she has received numerous complaints in a certain area. Such inquiries could complement performance audits carried out by the Commissions Internal Audit Service or the European Court of Auditors.
In this case two complaints, according to the Commission report, were submitted to the Ombudsman. One of them has been closed by the Ombudsman, showing no maladministration by the Commission. However, six organizers of ECIs have complained to the court and their cases are pending.
The Ombudsman report is written as a dialogue with the Commission. The report is based on an extensive collection of viewpoints from stakeholders and the Commission’s replies to a questionnaire.
The Ombudsman has identified a number of practical-legal problems in the ECI procedures and the way the Commission has implemented the ECI as regards its engagement with citizens. And contrary to an ordinary audit report, the Commission is required to reply in a very short time to the Ombudsman’s report – by the end of May.
The Ombudsman presents a number of basic recommendations aiming at better guidance to organizers of ECIs, stronger involvement of the European Parliament and the Council, and increased pressure on Member States that all citizens can sign an ECI. In particular, she writes that it is not justifiable that some EU citizens, who have made use of their right to move freely within the Union, cannot sign an ECI in whichever other Member State they happen to be.
The Commission, however, seems complacent with the ECI and considers that it has been fully implemented. That may be true in the limited sense of the word. However, judging from its own data, and the feedback received on the ECI Day, there are several problems which need to be solved.
The overall figures show that an estimated 6 million statements of support have already been collected by organizers of citizens’ initiatives for various causes, while 10 % of the registered initiatives managed to reach the 1 million threshold. But looking closely at the figures presented by the Commission demonstrates that not everything is well and good.
Out of total 51 ECIs, 20 did not fulfil the registration criteria. Couldn’t the Commission have explained to them how do it or been more forthcoming in interpreting the regulation that says that an initiative must not manifestly fall outside the competence of the Commission’s powers to submit a legal proposal? The possibility of registering only part of an initiative in the event that the entire ECI is not valid, as will be proposed by the Parliament, could be a good idea.
True, the Commission has a kind of help desk based in the Europe Direct Contact Centre which according to the report answered 1 080 questions since the start in April 2012. That makes on average one (1) question per day. According to the feedback given on the ECI Day the Commission is under-resourced when it comes to supporting ECIs.
Bottle necks in implementation
Once the registration of an initiative is confirmed, organizers have one year to collect one million signatures. Effectively the time is shorter because the collection cannot start before the Commission has admitted the initiative and the member states have certified the collection system. 12 initiatives were closed because they did not manage to collect the signatures in time.
We don’t know how close they were. And there is currently no possibility for an extension of the time (the parliament is proposing an extension to 18 months). Interestingly, an initiative may fail on European level but succeed on national level, in those countries which have their own equivalents of national citizens’ initiatives. A good example of this is Latvia, the current holder of the EU presidency. Why not oblige all member states to allow this?
The Commission admits that the signature requirements vary by country. And indeed it is cumbersome if ID – or passport numbers are required. In e.g. Finland it is easy to verify signatures – only names are required.
Originally the Commission had proposed uniform signature requirements but this was obviously rejected by the Parliament and the Council. It’s possible to sign on paper or on-line, incl. using electronic signatures. However, despite living in a digital age, no-one has reported using electronic signatures.
Currently organizers must build their own on-line collections systems and get them approved by an authority in the member states concerned. Why not using a uniform system certified by the Commission? In fact, the Commission has developed a software for this free of charge but it has also to be validated by the member states.
Member states are also required to verify the signatures and the majority of them do it by random sampling. A verification tool developed by the Commission is for some reason not used by them.
Few success stories
On the positive side, three initiatives made it to the very end and two of them have been subject to public hearings in the European parliament. However, no stakeholders and experts besides those behind the initiative were invited which is a shortcoming.
The “Right2Water” initiative resulted in a commitment by the Commission to a number of actions. The “One of us” initiative on human embryos failed but only because the EU in the meantime had put a new legal framework in place. This shows the importance of learning about the Commission legislative plans before deciding on launching an initiative.
For the sake of transparency, organizers are required to provide information on all sources of funding exceeding 500 euro per year and sponsor. This requirement is more onerous than the rules on political party funding in most countries. Without sufficient budget, organizers have to rely on volunteers.
According to the Commission’s statistics, funding is overall poor. 14 initiatives did not report any funding, 9 reported total funding below 10 000 euro and 8 above 10 000 euro. The two successful initiatives mentioned above reported each about 150 000 euro in funding. It was obvious from the ECI Day that funding is a serious problem and that EU grants would be welcome.
To sum up: Many organizers of ECIs feel frustrated and even accuse the Commission of having deliberately set up a system full of obstacles and therefore deceiving citizens. Even the Ombudsman writes that “the death knell for the ECI project will be any suggestion –overt or implied – from the EU Commission that the ECI is there simply to be tolerated rather than promoted, supported, and critically, be seen to work.”
As Professor György Schöpflin said on the ECI Day: “Commission hasn’t been generous with its discretion. Good will is not enough. Also political will is required. There is a political dimension: The ECI mobilizes citizens to action and provides a link to power. But every time an ECI is rejected, thousands of people become euro-sceptic.”