Gross: Citizens’ initiative is a ‘weak’ democratic tool

Andi Gross.jpg

The European citizens' initiative, one of the main innovations of the Lisbon Treaty to engage the citizens of Europe, is too weak to bridge the democratic gap as it preserves the the legislative monopoly of the European Commission, Switzerland’s leading expert on direct democracy said in an interview with EURACTIV.

Andi Gross is one of Switzerland’s leading experts on direct democracy. In 1991, he co-founded the citizens group Eurotopia, which for the first time launched the idea of a European Constitution, including direct democratic tools. The German Greens upheld the idea in their 1994 EU elections’ programme, as did the Italian and the Austrian governments in the preparation of the Amsterdam Treaty in 1996. As such it made its way into the European Convention in 2002, pushed by German and French MPs who convinced European Convention chair Valéry Giscard d‘Estaing of the added value of the citizens’ initiative and to include it in the draft constitution. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

He spoke to EURACTIV Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti.

The EU is going to launch its first citizens’ initiative next April. ECI is seen by many as a democratic innovation with no equal anywhere else in the world. Do you share this view, coming from a country like Switzerland that has built its political architecture on direct democracy?

The specificity of this new EU citizen right is a historic novelty and a democratic innovation indeed. For the first time in history citizens get a supranational participatory right.

But within the direct democratic framework you have to be careful and precise. The real power of the people in a modern direct democracy is the right of a few people (normally 1 to 2% of the electorate) to propose to all citizens any constitutional or legislative change and the right to get an answer from all in a referendum.

The ECI in this context gives only a very weak right to propose any change to the European Commission, which is the body that holds the monopole on the right to launch any legal reform.

In the Swiss wording we would speak about a citizens’ motion and not a citizen initiative because with this term the right to ask for a referendum is essential. But in the EU context, this has to be relativised, because in the thin EU-Democracy even the Parliament cannot launch any legal change and can only propose this to the Commission.

So now the European Parliament is ready to share its powers with one million of EU citizens, which is a remarkable step forward indeed.

What can the EU learn from Switzerland?

Each country can learn from one another. It’s an old idea of mine to elaborate a list of all achievements of every country which could be a source of inspiration for a reformed EU, which should become a new politically stronger but also more citizen based European Community.

Therefore, you need a real constitution which can only start to work after the majority of the people and the states have approved it in a common Europe-wide referendum.

For the development of this new European Constitution, Switzerland can serve as a source of inspiration, because it shows how you can unite diversity without loosing it, without too much centralization and without loosing and marginalising the citizens.

You need to guarantee each state and perhaps even a few regions some autonomy and at the same time allow all citizens to propose and to decide essential constitutional and legislative changes, which would establish a new transnational public sphere.

Public debates unite citizens, transcending their national and cultural differences without destroying or undermining them. Friedrich Dürrenmatt was very wise when he said once that the Swiss like to stay together because they are invited every four months to discuss their differences. Europe does not have to do this as often, but could try it once or twice a year and would benefit enormously from it in many ways.

Do you see any potential shortcomings in the ECI model built by the EU?

I am afraid that there are many and they are minimising the democratic and integrative potentials of the new right.

Firstly, the Commission and perhaps also the Council want to control too much and fail to engage the citizens and encourage them to participate.

Secondly, the European authorities don’t seem to be enough aware that the size of the EU requires a democratic infrastructure, which has to be established by the Commission in all member countries, in order to prevent that the ECI becomes a tool which is only used by the already powerful organisations and lobbying groups.

In order to be make ECI citizen-friendly the Commission has to offer vouchers for translations, meetings, soft-and hardware and travels, for which citizen-groups might have to qualify (by deliver of 50.000 signatures for instance). That would allow citizens to make use of the ECI in a transnational and communicative way, which would help to overcome the distance between the EU and its people as well as facilitate the integration of the EU societies and the establishment of a transnational discourse and ultimately create a European public sphere.

Fair enough, but ECI is precisely designed to bridge the gap between the EU institutions and European citizens. Do you think that design is unrealistic and more wishful thinking?

The more the Commission and the Council are ready to invest in such a strong democratic infrastructure and the more the design and the use of the ECI will be organised in a citizen-friendly way that would challenge some of the old habits of the EU institutions, the more such hopes will be realistic.

But you have to do more and better than what has been decided until now. I do hope that this is work-in-progress and that after the first experiences to be launched next year, there will be a careful assessment, based not on a top-down exercise but rather focused on the views of European citizens.

I am also convinced that the ECI will be used to improve the European democratic polity itself as well, as I am confident in the launch of a new and much less governmentally- designed Convention and Constitution making process as we have seen it developed after the Laeken declaration of 2000, which resulted in the failure of the so-called Constitutional treaty after the two national referendums of France and the Netherlands.

Would that be enough to create a genuine European ‘demos’?

Not yet, I am afraid. It could become the embryo of a European demos, especially enough people are engaged and used it to mobilise and put pressure on the institutions also in spheres which are limited by the treaty. All this goes in the direction of those those leaders admitting that the Lisbon treaty has to be revised.

I think about the former chief economy consultant of the Deutsche Bank, Mr. Walther, a convinced European, who recently wrote in a op-ed to the Frankfurter Rundschau that the EU needs a real constitution like the Swiss Federation.

But there are examples in the history of Democracy where small new, seemingly weak citizen-rights turned out to be much more powerful than expected because the social context changed dramatically and many more citizens used these rights in a innovative way and freed the way towards real big transformative changes many expected to happen and some few powerful guys could not resist anymore.

I am absolutely convinced that you can defeat the increasingly stronger nationalistic tendencies in all European countries, only when you establish a strong and genuine transnational democracy on the European level – “federal” in the German.

That has to happen in a decentralised way and not in the centralistic sense as the US-history coined the English notion! This is source of misunderstandings, which had devastating effects in the debates of the last 20 years because also the Scandinavian countries used the term in the negative US/British sense.

Would you say ECI will have an impact on EU representative democracy – namely the next EU elections? How?

Perhaps not yet in the next, but in the 2019 elections. It will help for sure to sensibilise more Europeans for the polity-shortcomings of the EU and get more Europeans involved in the process to reform and democratise the EU institutions, which would increase the participation in the elections but also galvanise the attention and the engagement in between elections – which is not very difficult because today many feel really excluded.

We should not forget that in the EU you do not have yet a real representative democracy, not to speak of a direct democratic tool which would make it more representative.

For overcoming the legislative monopoly of the Commission, you have to transform the Council in a Senat where the Senators would be elected by the national parliaments (1 for the small, two for the middle size and 3 for the big member-states), and you need a Commission which is elected by the two chambers of the new European Parliament as well as any new European law – binding directive – has to find there a real double majority.

It will be the duty of the elected European Constitution-making body to design this democratic polity in a way which will convince the majority of Europeans. I am confident that enough Europeans will try to use the new ECI to push for such reform processes – whatever obstacles the Commission might put on the way in the next year. And soon the European Parliament will also help to further improve this way!

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