Commission ignoring the ECI’s positive potential for democracy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Frans Timmermans

Stanisław Pięta, a lawmaker with the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) commented, “Mr Timmermans doesn’t impress us at all." [European Parliament]

The European Citizen’s Initiative was labelled a danger by the European Commission, which has grown wary of its use by Eurosceptic campaigners and set out to weaken the only democratic tool by which citizens may directly influence the EU policy agenda, writes Carsten Berg.

Carsten Berg is coordinator for The ECI Campaign, an independent non-profit organisation that works for the successful introduction and implementation of the European citizens’ initiative right.

President Juncker and the College of Commissioners appear poised to destroy their best chance for restoring citizen trust in the European Union: the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Rather than recognise its democratic potential and make it easier for citizens to use by proposing a full legislative revision, they’ve labelled the ECI a danger and discussed how to further reduce its already minimal political impact. Their reactions seem to stem from limited awareness and misunderstandings of how the ECI has worked in practice.

The ECI is the only democratic tool by which citizens may directly influence the EU policy agenda. Created by the Treaty of Lisbon (article 11.4), it allows one million citizens to invite the Commission to propose a legal act to implement the treaties. At its launch in April 2012, Commissioners hailed it as a democratic innovation to “bridge the gap” between citizens and the EU.

At the 9 December 2015 Commission meeting, Commissioner Timmermans introduced a new ECI procedure. He informed Commissioners of the registration of new ECIs. Previously they were only informed when an ECI succeeded. As it just so happens, the first ECI to be shared in this way, Mum, Dad & Kids, addresses arguably the most divisive social issue of our time: same sex marriage. With such controversial ECIs top-of-mind, the discussion of the ECI instrument that followed seemed to be based on incomplete and misleading information.

According to the meeting minutes, the Commissioners “regretted that…citizens’ initiatives did not always move European law or the European project forward…and ultimately generated Euroscepticism”. What they failed to note was that the ECI has been constrained by an overly strict implementing regulation. Equally problematic have been the Commission’s failure to register numerous ECIs, including Stop TTIP, and to act on successful ECIs. Only three out of nearly 50 proposed ECIs succeeded and none led to legislative change. Any Euroscepticism generated by the ECI comes from the Commission’s own actions that limit citizen participation and increase the gap to citizens, not by the ECI instrument itself.

As for moving the European project forward, multiple ECI campaigns have done precisely this! All serious ECIs united campaigners across borders, brought the EU directly into the daily lives of ordinary citizens and introduced new actors to the EU policy arena. Several ECIs even promoted overt pro-European integration goals, such as Fraternite 2020 to strengthen EU youth mobility programs, For a High Quality European Education for All to expand the EU educational model and Let Me Vote to support EU citizen mobility by strengthening democratic participation. Even ECIs that put EU policy into question help to strengthen the European project by encouraging healthy democratic debate.

The Commission also noted that ECIs tended “to involve highly controversial and emotionally charged issues of greater interest to minorities than to the vast majority of EU citizens”. Are jobs and economic security niche topics? Are health and the environment of no concern to most EU citizens? Act 4 Growth sought support for top EU job creators: female entrepreneurs. Unconditional Basic Income proposed an innovative solution to unemployment and unsustainable benefits systems. The ECI 30 km/h making streets liveable promised to reduce air pollution and traffic deaths through lower speed limits. End Ecocide would protect air, soil and water quality by making their harm a criminal offense. Water quality, plastics waste, soil fertility, wasted electricity and ecosystem health have all been ECI topics.

ECIs on “highly controversial and emotionally charged issues” like abortion (One of Us) and animal experimentation (Stop Vivisection) represent a small fraction of all ECIs. Two have succeeded because they had armies of committed volunteers. Right2Water drew on trade union networks. Most ECI campaigns cannot access sufficient resources to succeed given the ECI’s overly strict rules. The rules are the problem. They must be simplified.

It’s not too late for the Commission to change its mind about the ECI and strengthen EU democracy through active citizen participation. It can enhance the ECI’s benefits and limit its downsides by acting on the European Parliament’s resolution on the ECI, approved overwhelmingly in the 28 October 2015 plenary. According to the meeting minutes, Commissioners “called for a debate on how to rectify this situation”. It can do exactly this through a proposal for meaningful reform of the ECI’s implementing regulation.

The ECI Campaign

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