Swiss expert: Citizens’ initiative is too ‘weak’ to bridge democratic gap

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

“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,” said Andreas Gross, a member of the Swiss National Council and leading expert in direct democracy mechanisms.

The first European citizens’ initiative (ECI) will be registered on 1 April 2012. The Lisbon Treaty establishes that "one million people may take the initiative of inviting the [European] Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the treaties."

“In the Swiss wording, we would speak of citizens’ motion and not a citizens’ initiative, because with this term the right to ask for a referendum is essential,” said Gross.

The political scientist concedes the ECI is still a remarkable step forward for the European Union as the Parliament – which also cannot launch legislative action without first proposing it to the Commission – will be ready to share its powers with one million citizens.

Europe needs a ‘real constitution’ that would work only if the majority of the people and states have approved it in a common Europe-wide referendum, Gross said.

“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 centralisation and without loosing and marginalising the citizens,” Gross added, arguing all citizens will be able to propose legislative changes and that would pave the way for a real transnational public space.

Answering a question on the shortcomings of the European citizens’ initiative, Gross said there are many, including the lack of democratic infrastructure which creates the risk that the tool will be used primarily by already powerful organisations and lobbying groups.

“The more the Commission and the Council are ready to invest in a strong democratic infrastructure, 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,” the Swiss expert said, proposing that the Commission provide vouchers to pay for translations, meetings, software and hardware, and travel to encourage grass-roots activism.

Despite the tool’s weaknesses, there is some hope that the citizens' initiative is turned into a more powerful instrument than expected. For that citizens would need to use it in an innovative way and enact transformative changes in the new social context, Gross said, pointing to increased nationalistic tendencies in all European countries.

EU needs a Senate

Asked if the ECI would have a positive impact on the next European elections, Gross responded negatively for the 2014 vote, but offered some hope for 2019.

“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,” he said.

According to the Swiss expert, the legislative monopoly of the Commission can be overcome by transforming the Council into a Senate, where senators would be elected by the national parliaments and a Commission elected by the Senate and Parliament.

Gross believes a convention for a new European Constitution has to be put in place to design this democratic polity in a way which will convince the majority of Europeans.

Wishful thinking? “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,” he said confidently.

To read the interview in full, please click here

Andreas Gross spoke to EURACTIV's Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti

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