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The European Citizens Initiative: a tool of its time?

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The ECI is the first transnational direct democratic tool in history. But as we speak the dream of a ‘Europe of Citizens’ is being replaced by a (for some, already nightmarish) Europe divided between lenders and debtors.
Sean Deel
9 October 2012

We cannot assume, ex ante, that more Europe means more democracy. Whether or not it does depends on the current configuration of decision making within and across European nation states. The events of the past year have changed the nature of the ‘democratic deficit’ at the European level, both between member states, where the real poles of European decision making have made themselves very obvious, and between citizens and EU policymakers in Brussels and Strasbourg (a perennially tentative relationship). More discouragingly, in the places where we’ve seen the most obvious force of European mandates - through Troika action (in Greece), through technocratic governments (e.g. in Italy) - we see, correspondingly, a narrowing of democratic options, if we understand democracy to be something to do with citizens being able to determine the political agenda.

So we might even conclude that, given the present constellation of decision-making power in Europe, more Europe means less democracy. Further integration now shifts sovereignty ever further from ‘the people’, or, as Green MEP Gerald Häfler wrote even before the sovereign debt crisis entered its latest acute phase, ‘If we do not succeed in drawing closer to [a Europe of the Citizens], the increasing Europeanisation of politics will result simultaneously in its progressing de-democratisation’.

The crisis of the currency has created a hurried imperative for tighter integration and has led to calls for a closer political union. But most action at the European level has so far focused on tight (even punishing) oversight of national fiscal policy by the European Commission, enshrined in the new Fiscal Compact (the pithier name for the Treaty on Stability, Coordination and Governance in the Economic and Monetary Union) that comes into force on New Year’s Day. The priority from the top is clearly for a fiscal union, which carries considerable anti-democratic potential since voters will have to consider that their spending priorities mustn’t run afoul of European mandates for balanced budgets, about which they were not consulted in the first place. Urgent thinking on how to develop a substantive political union enjoys no such priority. This is not, apparently, a time for participatory politics.

The democratic deficit in the EU has been a low-level worry for a long time, but its real implications have never been as clear as they are since some member states started edging towards default. Coincidentally, on 1 April 2012, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), a new tool for citizen participation in European politics, finally debuted after sitting in the Lisbon Treaty for the past several years. If the date was chosen with tongue-in-cheek, the campaigners who have been behind the development and implementation of the ECI have worked hard to make sure that the ECI will not be treated flippantly by EU lawmakers.

The ECI is the first transnational direct democratic tool in history and allows a group of citizens, with the support of one million others from across Europe, to request changes in European law. This is not a referendum right and does not initiate a popular vote, however it’s also more legally potent than, say, a petition right. While the European Commission retains the right to initiate legislation, an ECI does force a consideration if it successfully completes the steps along the way.

For their part, the groups and individuals who have been active in the conception and implementation of the ECI are under no illusions as to its present weaknesses. They know that in its first implementation – ECI 1.0 – it has a number of nearly fatal flaws, and more become apparent as groups across Europe register ECIs. The European Citizens’ Initiative Campaign (ECIC), a group that campaigned for the inclusion of the ECI in the EU constitution and now closely monitors its use, has enumerated several of these weaknesses, including the need to simplify the signature gathering process (currently each of the 27 member states can set different rules on what information must be collected, including ID numbers); the need for more support for ECI organisers from the Commission; the need to extend the period for signature collection from 12 to 18 or 24 months; and, crucially, the need to allow ECIs which propose treaty amendments to be admissible.

One of the first ECIs to be registered, "My vote against nuclear power" was rejected in the initial phase on the grounds that ECIs cannot relate to treaties (primary law), in this case referring to the EURATOM treaty. The ECIC argues that not only should such ECIs be allowed, since it is within European Commission competencies to propose treaty amendments, but that if they aren’t allowed, many planned ECIs will be disqualified, rendering the ECI considerably weaker as a tool for citizens to set the political agenda.

There are, as of this writing, 10 open initiatives, and some groups have already found themselves stalled at the time-sensitive signature collection stage due to the unclear and cumbersome data security rules governing electronic signature collection and the ‘terrible’ collection software provided by the Commission. When the ECI is officially reviewed in 2015, the Council and Commission can expect to be presented with a long list of demanded improvements.

And there is good reason to think that those suggestions will be addressed. Monitoring groups like the ECIC, and other groups that developed the ECI - like eurotopia, the Initiative and Referendum Institute and Mehr Demokratie e.V., have managed along the way to force enormous concessions, lowering the barriers to completing an ECI that the Council and Commission had suggested. At an early stage in negotiations, for example, the ECI would have required 300,000 signatures to be collected before even being reviewed for admissibility - a barrier to entry that almost no one would be willing or able to take on. This was negotiated down to a requirement of just seven initial signatories from seven member states.

What’s more, the Commission had proposed that once an ECI had gone through the entire process – justifying that the ECI issue falls under the legal competency of the European Commission, registering the Initiative, collecting one million signatures in a particular distribution from across European member states – the Commission would inform the organisers of its decision by sending an email. Again, the campaigners and politicians behind the ECI successfully demanded that a completed Initiative would mandate a public hearing with the ECI organisers at the European Parliament in the company of commissioners, MEPs and the public. Only after the hearing will the Commission make a decision on the ECI. These are both astonishing improvements.

We should neither discount the very hard work over long years that led to its adoption, nor overlook its importance as the first tool of transnational direct democracy in history. Nor should we deny its potential, still not fully tested only six months since its launch, to give citizens a more hands-on role in changing the European political agenda and initiating Europe-wide debates by engaging with millions of fellow-citizens over particular issues. However, it would be a disservice to that effort to celebrate this potential superficially. The ECIC warns, ‘it will be almost impossible for truly grassroots, volunteer-run citizens' campaigns to gather 1 million signatures in 12 months. Only very well-organized and financed lobbies have a chance to succeed, and even they will find it a huge challenge.’ The last thing we need is to open another route – especially one that looks legitimate – for moneyed lobbies to exert their influence in politics.

But apart from the kinks in its design, which can be smoothed out over the next few years, we have to consider that the European political context that the ECI is born into is not the one in which it was conceived. So, while the Lisbon Treaty made a considerable modernising innovation by accommodating the European Citizens’ Initiative (again, not out of benevolence but thanks to persistent pressure by campaigners), it is not enough for the EU to offer new tools for democratic participation. Much more important is to offer a substantial democratic horizon. And in this regard, in recent months, it has proven radically negligent, if not outright oppressive, considering its approach to ‘saving Greece’ by pauperising its citizens.

The dream of a ‘Europe of Citizens’ is being replaced by a (for some, already nightmarish) Europe divided between lenders and debtors. If the EU does not take an active stance to protect the democratic legacy on which it was built, the ECI, for all its potential, is reduced to another technocratic solution to the ‘problem’ of democracy.

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For a list of open European Citizens’ Initiatives, see here.

For an excellent step by step guide to using the ECI and to read about some successful pilot initiatives: see here.

For news of the successes and limitations of the ECI process: see here.  

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