EU opens to first citizens’ initatives amid criticism

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Civil society groups have complained about the prohibitive administrative and security procedures of filing a European Citizen Initiative (ECI) as the EU prepares to venture into participative democracy on Sunday (1 April) by opening the first petitions to registration.

European public sector trade unions will be the first to file a petition on Sunday by demanding that EU institutions declare water and sanitation a human right and keep it out of internal market rules.

Other citizen's petitions in the pipeline include an initiative by the Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament to introduce a financial transactions tax (FTT).

The ECI, as introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, allows citizens to request new EU legislation once a million signatures from seven member states have been collected (EURACTIV 14/01/10).

EU rules coming into force on Sunday are meant to ensure that the names, addresses and signatures of citizens backing a petition are truthful, ensuring the reliability of the data provided.

Despite the upcoming launch of the petitions system, an EU official said three countries have still not formally indicated to the Commission which national authority will verify the signatures of initiatives. These are the Czech Republic, Malta and the United Kingdom. 

Civil society groups have complained about the burdensome administrative process of filing an initiative.

'Useful but flawed'

Greenpeace, the environmental organisation, said the rules are too restrictive, to the point of discouraging participation by individual citizens.

"Data requirements for the citizens’ initiative are far too restrictive," said Greenpeace EU director Jorgo Riss. "Requiring date, place of birth and passport or ID details is cumbersome, unnecessary and risky for data protection reasons," the NGO said in a briefing document on the ECI.

"The ECI is a useful but flawed tool," it concluded.

One year ago, Greenpeace collected one million signatures to request a moratorium on the cultivation of new genetically modified crops in Europe. The group said it ensured that all the data collected – full name, address, nationality and date of birth – were been screened to ensure the rejection of incomplete, invalid or duplicate signatures.

Yet the European Commission said the signatures could not be accepted as an official ECI as it did not respect the formal administrative requirements.

"We cannot accept any requests to register proposals for initiatives before 1 April," said Antony Gravili, spokesperson for the EU Commissioner in charge of institutional affairs, Maroš Šef?ovi?. "Only then, after registering, can citizens start gathering signatures," Gravili told EURACTIV in comments sent by e-mail.

"Therefore Greenpeace cannot even use the signatures it already gathered if it decides to go ahead and propose the registration of a proper European Citizens Initiative after 1 April."

Greenpeace contends that the formal status of its application does not really matter and that the Commission should respond to its petition, because it represents the views of more than a million citizens.

"Of course if any organisation in the past collected a million signatures, we would give it very careful consideration," Gravili replied. But "It's just not a European Citizens Initiative".

Making a great idea impractical

Greenpeace is not alone in finding that the ECI is too cumbersome.

Tech To The People, an NGO which develops open source IT tools to help activists in their advocacy campaigns, said the formal requirements for registering an ECI are so high that they would discourage most civil society groups.

One major issue is that each EU country has the freedom to decide what information they need to validate a signature, said Xavier Dutoit, director of Tech To The People. For example, Bulgarians and Greeks need to provide their father name, Latvians and Slovakians their name at birth, and Italians the issuing authority for their ID.

"This is even more a problem for online signatures," Dutoit said. "I personally won't sign a petition online that requires me to provide my passport number. This requirement makes it impossible as well to integrate well with social networks, and sign using your Facebook account easily for instance."

Another major issue is the excessive online security constraints imposed by the Commission in order to avoid fraud.

Dutoit says those were initially written by Deloitte, a big consultancy company, and included encryption requirements that are more suited to online banking systems or military solutions.

The result is prohibitive costs for civil society groups that want to register a formal ECI.

"I'm not saying that governments – national the European commission – have actively done all they could to sabotage this great idea," Dutoit said. "But if I had to make a great idea impractical, I would certainly use the way the Commission has dealt with this one as an inspiration".

Maroš Šef?ovi?, EU Commissioner in charge of institutional affairs, advised campaigners to get in touch with the 'Europe Direct' network of offices around the EU's capital cities on how to file an ECI. Watch a video interview on EUX.tv:

 

 

 

Staffan Nilsson, head of the European Economic and Social Committee, said in a statement that he believes "in the collective wisdom of European citizens emerging from this democratic participatory practice."

He added, "we see ourselves mainly contributing as communicators, facilitator and, when needed, as a mentor."

Mercedes Bresso, president of the Committee of the Regions, said her organisation would work "to ensure [ECI's] success in order to make it a tool to reduce the gap between the Brussels epicentre and the daily reality of the EU citizens in their specific national, regional and local context."

The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), as introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, allows citizens to request new EU legislation once a million signatures from seven member states have been collected asking the European Commission to do so (EURACTIV 14/01/10).

In January, the European Commission unveiled a new website for registering ECIs and detailed the procedure for accepting them.

Registration itself appears to be relatively easy, requiring submission of an initiative by a committee of seven citizens, each from a different member state.

EU officials stressed that submissions would only be rejected at this stage if they were "manifestly" frivolous, opposed to European values (such as "human dignity, freedom, equality, the rule of law") or fell out of the Commission's legislative powers.

  • 1 April 2012: Official start date for filing a European Citizen's Initiative.
  • The European Commission has two months to respond after a citizens' committee approaches it to request the registration of an ECI.
  • If the Commission decides not to register the proposed initiative, it must set out the reasons why.

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