Time for the European Commission to shine 

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

The share of women on supervisory boards in Germany reaches 32.7% in the 190 companies surveyed. The figures for the boards of directors of large companies are even lower: only 12.7% of managers are women (10.5% in companies that have opted for voluntary measures). [Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock]

The latest successful European Citizens’ Initiative, Minority SafePack, is a rare opportunity to take democratic participation seriously, after a number of previous ECis failed to garner enough attention or make an impact on EU legislation, writes Carsten Berg.

Carsten Berg is the director of the European Citizens’ Initiative campaign.

Celebrated as the EU’s most important democratic innovation in recent years, the European Citizens Initiative right (ECI) has raised high expectations.

Civil society organisations across Europe were enthusiastic about the idea that there finally was a possibility to have a say on the political agenda of the Union if an ECI is backed by at least 1 million citizens.

However, nearly ten years after entering into force, all independent assessments on the ECI conclude that the ECI’s legal and political impact has been minimal.

This lack of direct consequences is dangerous as it leaves the ECI potential unexplored and undermines citizens‘ trust in EU institutions. For the first time, after four years, the Commission will soon decide on how to follow up on the new successful ECI Minority SafePack which will showcase how seriously it takes citizens’ engagement and participatory democracy.

While almost 80 ECIs have been registered since 2012, only a handful of them have been able to reach the challengingly high threshold of one million signatures and secure the attention of the Commission.

However, the successful ECIs “One of Us” and “Stop Vivisection” were entirely ignored by the EU’s legislative process.

Similarly, the last successful ECI, “Ban Glyphosate”, only got a few crumbs from the Commission. Despite massive public protests, the Commission refused to phase out glyphosate-based pesticides.

Instead, Commissioners Timmermans and Andriukaitis were only willing to make concessions regarding the transparency rules for the scientific evaluation of pesticides.

Not even the very first successful ECI in the history of the EU – “Right2Water” – can be invoked unequivocally as a positive example. The European legislator adopted a new directive on water quality only in December 2020, i.e. more than seven years after the initiative was submitted to the Commission.

Critics say the legislative revision on water quality had been planned anyway. Nevertheless, EU lawmakers do not miss any opportunity to mention the contribution of “Right2Water”.

It is no surprise that the lack of responsiveness of the Commission has led to a widespread feeling of disappointment and frustration. The ECI is about to become a dead letter. Even worse, it carries the risk that many citizens will turn away from Europe. European civil society asked for bread and so far the Commission has only given them stones.

During the ECI reform debates, MEPs and civil society advocates alike have repeatedly demanded that the ECI rules should be aimed at increasing the chances for citizens to influence EU policies.

Successful ECIs should not be prevented from being considered by Council and Parliament. Without any meaningful obligation to follow up on a successful initiative, the Commission is inclined to ignore and filter out the concerns of the citizens.

Then, however, the ECI’s ‘effet utile’ is undermined and the entire instrument turns into a farce.  Unfortunately, this proposal to improve the follow-up to successful ECIs did not feature yet in the final version of the new regulation governing the ECI instrument.

In doing so, the EU legislator accepted without batting an eyelid that citizens would be less involved in EU legislation.

This shortcoming can now only be addressed at the political level by means of the Commission committing itself to follow up on successful ECIs.

Forwarding a successful ECI to the ordinary legislative process does not automatically imply that an ECI proposal will be implemented, but rather provides for a fair chance for it to be considered by the democratically accountable Parliament and Council of the EU.

Citizens will feel they are being taken seriously if, and only if, they are listened to and if their demands are followed up, at least in part. This is not merely in the genuine self-interest of the EU, but is basically its “raison d’être”.

It is all the more necessary as the Commission itself relies on only a relatively weak democratic legitimacy and is not directly accountable to the citizens in Europe.

The new successful ECI Minority SafePack is a unique opportunity for the European Commission to recalibrate its relations with EU citizens. This ECI, which aims at the protection of cultural and linguistic diversity in Europe, has found unprecedented political support in the Union.

It is the very first ECI that obtained the formal endorsement of the European Parliament – even before the Commission took a position – with an overwhelming two-thirds majority in a resolution of 17 December 2020. In the same vein, numerous regional and national parliaments, be it in Germany, the Netherlands, Hungary, Belgium or Spain, have called upon the EU to act on the Minority SafePack Initiative.

Even high-level UN officials – such as the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues Fernand de Varennes – warmly welcomed this initiative. The Commission can now show that it takes democratic participation in the Union seriously.

Ultimately the question of the appropriate follow-up to successful ECIs must also be addressed in the forthcoming Conference on the Future of Europe endorsed by Commission President von der Leyen.

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