Foreign affairs ministers yesterday asked the Spanish EU Presidency to start negotiations with the European Parliament to enable the regulation to be adopted at first reading.
The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, allows citizens to request new EU legislation once a million signatures across at least nine member states have been collected asking the Commission to do so.
Yesterday's agreement, which sets out the procedures and conditions for implementing the ECI, confirmed that the Commission would only act if the signatories of a petition come from "a significant number" of member states, defined in the regulation as one third.
According to the Council's text, "a proposed initiative must fall within an area of EU competence and be consistent with the Union's values".
Admissibility check after 100,000 signatures
An admissibility check will be carried out by the Commission after 100,000 signatures have been collected to ensure that this is the case. The EU executive will have two months to decide on an initiative's admissibility.
Ministers agreed that support could be expressed either in paper form or online. Once an initiative has passed the 100,000 signatures threshold and been registered as admissible, the organisers have a year to collect the million signatures required for the Commission to table legislation.
The EU executive's draft, tabled at the end of March, had originally suggested a threshold of 300,000 (EurActiv 30/03/10).
Ministers also established a key for calculating the number of supporters necessary from each member state, backing the Commission's view that requiring a fixed percentage for all member states would be unfair given the differences in their populations.
The minimum number of signatories for each participating country should instead "be degressively proportional to the size of each member state," the draft regulation states.
In other words, a smaller state will need proportionally more signatories than a bigger state. This means that the threshold for over half of member states will be lower or significantly lower than 0.2% of the population, whilst for smaller member states the threshold will be higher.
An annex attached to the Commission document specifies the required numbers for each member state, ranging from 4,500 signatories for Luxembourg, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta (higher than 0.2% of the population), to 55,500 for France and 72,000 for Germany (lower than 0.2% of the population).
Once a million signatures have been collected and the ECI formally submitted, the Commission will have four months to examine it, draw conclusions and set out the actions it intends to take in response to it.
In May, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, responsible for administration and inter-institutional relations, told EurActiv in an interview that the EU executive will filter citizens' petitions to make sure that "silly" initiatives like abolishing the EU are blocked (EurActiv 06/05/10).
Commission welcomes agreement
Describing yesterday's agreement in the Council as "highly satisfactory," Šefčovič said "for the Commission it was very important to maintain the approach in our original proposal on examining the admissibility of initiatives".
The Slovak commissioner was particularly pleased with the 100,000 signatures threshold, which he said "will ensure that the admissibility decision does not prevent a genuine pan-European debate from taking place on issues which are of importance to our citizens," while at the same time preventing the system "from being overloaded with a flood of initiatives which lack genuine public support".
Speaking prior to the Council's decision on Friday, Michael Mann, spokesman for Commission Vice-President Šefčovič, told journalists that "we'll say 'no' to an initiative at the registration stage if it is against our fundamental values, or if it is silly or flippant".
"The Commission would prefer to allow the organisers a period to gather signatures and have a debate. The feeling that we got during the consultation was that people wanted to be able to begin the process of gathering signatures before we do the admissibility test," Mann explained.
"We don't want to stifle the debate," he added.
Šefčovič himself expressed hope that the agreement would allow negotiations with the European Parliament to be concluded swiftly.