The European Citizens’ Initiative is the world’s first transnational tool of participative democracy. But the system needs reform if it is to avoid becoming a farce, argues Sophie von Hatzfeldt.
Sophie von Hatzfeldt is the European Campaigns Manager for Democracy International.
This week, the European Commission officially received 1,173,130 validated signatures of the European Citizens’ Initiative “Stop Vivisection”. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) that aims at phasing out animal experiments is the third citizens’ law proposal submitted to the European Commission since the ECI became legally effective on 1st April 2012. This is an astoundingly low rate of success: out of 51 ECIs launched over the last three years, only three have succeeded, including the ECIs “Water is a Human Right”, “One of Us” on the protection of human embryos and, now, “Stop Vivisection”.
This democratic fiasco reflects the many flaws of the European Citizens’ Initiative in practice. Very few Europeans even know of the ECI’s existence. The process poses excessive legal, technical and burdens for campaigners, and once an ECI has successfully passed all hurdles, the Commission is not even obliged to act. The fact that only three out of 51 ECIs have met the thresholds clearly shows that the rules need to be improved.
The upcoming review by the European Commission in April 2015 presents a window of opportunity for improvement. Members of the European Parliament, former ECI organisers and civil society organisations alike are calling for a revision of the ECI to keep the world’s first direct, digital and transnational tool of participative democracy alive.
Combining the EU’s aspirations to be a leading force in the digital age and in democratic change, the ECI could be a tool of innovative experimentation. The European Commission could develop a new mobile app to inform users of all running ECIs, provide an interactive platform for citizens to engage, and so boost the success of the transnational democracy instrument.
Within the next three months, the Commission will have to invite the organisers of the latest successful ECI to Brussels to explain their proposals in more depth, and a public hearing will take place in the European Parliament. Then the European Commission has the leeway to decide whether to adopt new legislation, to propose another course of action, or not to act at all. In the latter case, “successful” ECIs may have been food for thought for policy makers, but the million signatures of Europeans could well just end up as just another file in the EU’s bureaucracy.
Successful ECIs must be given a stronger follow-up by the Commission. Their proposals should be properly examined in inter-service consultations involving all the concerned departments in the Commission. Then the decision by the College of EU Commissioners should be adopted through an oral procedure. Only this will guarantee a thorough and transparent debate. Also the European Parliament must take the debate further and vote on each successful ECI in full plenum. If the EU Citizens’ Initiative is to remain a trailblazer for transnational democracy, we must mobilise and use this window of opportunity for change!