Monday, 22 February 2010

The European Citizens' Initiative: A Democratic Innovation or a Fig Leaf?

Closing the gap between the EU and its citizens is on the agenda today of the European Union during a hearing of the European Commission on the European Citizens' Initiative. Yet, it is not clear how far the Commission and the EU in general are prepared to effectively give their citizens a say in EU policies. At stake is a crucial question for European democracy: Will the EU remain an elite project or will it open up for citizens’ participation?

The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) is a brand new European instrument which will allow citizens of EU member states to influence the legislative activities of the Commission by a kind of petition or weak referendum. Although it is not binding, it forces the Commission to deal with a political topic. Hence, it is designed – at least on paper – to give citizens a direct influence on European decision-making and more particularly on determining with which policies the EU should deal.

Yet, so far the ECI exists only as a project that has to be further specified. And it is by no means clear whether it will in the future indeed improve the democratic fabric of the EU or whether it will just become a democratic fig leaf for a still semi-democratic Union. At issue at the hearing today is right this: How should the ECI be designed in detail in order to make it a more or less effective instrument in the hands of European citizens?

The ECI is an innovation of the Lisbon Treaty (in force since December 2009), which in Artikel 11(4) states:
Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.

Now that the ECI has to be fleshed out more precisely, the crucial issues are:
  • How many citizens in how many member states need to support an initiative in order to influence political agenda-setting by the Commission?
  • How should the collection and verification of online supporters be organized?

If the thresholds are set too high, the ECI will be nothing more than a PR instrument for the EU pretending to be democratic but avoiding real democratic innovations. And it seems to me that there are some tendencies into this direction.

The Commission has launched a green paper and invited comments on that for further specifying how the ECI should look like. The comments are published now on the Commission’s website.

I have looked through the comments on the Commission’s Green Paper and also attended a workshop organized by Gerald H√§fner (Green MEP) in December on the ECI. After all, I am convinced that the ECI needs more public attention, scrutiny, and support in order to become an effective instrument. For it seems that the Commission and some member states are on track of reducing rather than increasing its influence.

These are the reasons:
  • In its green paper on the ECI published in November 2009 the Commission suggests that an initiative is only representative and hence valid if it is supported by a minimum of 0.2 % of citizens in one third (currently nine) of all member states. Many NGOs, parties, and activists, however, believe that this threshold is far too high and will turn the ECI – in the name of representativity - into a useless instrument for improving citizen’s participation in the EU. They argue convincingly that it would be virtually impossible to collect that many supporters in a fragmented public sphere such as Europe. What is more, the ECI is not a legally binding instrument, but it only obliges the Commission to react in one way or another on the initiative. Hence, the Commission might reject it. And even if it initiates a policy proposal according to the ECI the latter might then be changed by the Council of Ministers and/or the European Parliament in the course of EU lawmaking. Hence, there is no need to for a high threshold of representativity. In the end, the ECI is only an initiative or an agenda setting right. It is by no means binding the EU intuitions to the will of citizens.
  • As far as the online collection of signatures and their verification is concerned, the Commission as well as some member states, such as for instance the UK government, prefer to leave the regulations as well as the verification process to the member states. Yet, imagine a European-wide NGO and its problems to collect online signature if there exist 27 different rules for verifying them. Under such conditions European-wide online campaigns are virtually impossible.
Today all those who commented on the Commission’s Green Paper (regional and national governments and parliaments as well as NGOs, including parties and individuals) will have a chance in a hearing by the Commission to further push points of views. The hearing will take place from 9.30 to 17.30 (Room 0D, Centre Albert Borschette, Rue Froissart 36, Brussels) and is streamed live here.