European Citizens‘ Initiative: Commission admits need for improvement

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

The ECI is three years old. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission presented a three-year review on the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) on Tuesday (31 March). Urgent reform is needed to halt its slide into oblivion, writes Sophie von Hatzfeldt.

Sophie von Hatzfeldt is European Campaigns Manager for Democracy International.

Quite surprisingly, the report appeared a day ahead of its due date, the ECI’s third birthday. And contrary to widespread anticipation, the report involved a clear understanding of the impediments to the ECI becoming a meaningful tool of direct citizen participation in EU policy-making. The report underlines that there is still much room to improve the ECI to “make sure it lives up to its full potential”.

Long winding road still ahead

But after all the positive surprises, we should not forget the long and winding road still ahead of us. Over the past three years, the European Citizens’ Initiative has been reduced to an ineffective placebo, and if the Commission does not soon translate the concerns outlined in the report into real reforms, the ECI may very well be dead before its fourth birthday.

Hurdles have just been too high

Since the European Citizens’ Initiative became effective on 1st April 2012, a total of 51 initiatives have been attempted, defending water as a human right, pushing for the restriction of animal testing, arguing that high quality European education should be accessible for all, that media be free and plural, and many other issues. Six million citizens across Europe who have so far supported an ECI have sooner or later all been confronted with their initiative either failing at the high hurdles, giving up, or not being taken seriously enough by the EU. So far, not a single citizen-initiated legislative proposal has made it into EU law. These are the sobering facts of the only tool of direct participatory democracy at transnational level.

One last chance to save the ECI

The recognition by Commission Vice-President Timmermans that the European Citizens’ Initiative is in need of improvement and innovation to ensure a “greater and more effective use of the tool,” combined with the upcoming report of the EU Parliament with its own stance on the ECI, offer the opportunity to constructively address the myriad flaws in its architecture. With concrete changes, not only to the process but also to the rules governing the instrument of direct participation, the ECI can be pulled out of its spiral of decline and eventual demise.

A revision of the ECI must focus on three priorities: (1) greater accessibility to the ECI, both for organisers and for signatories, (2) a more dynamic and citizen-friendly process, and (3) greater impact of successful initiatives. Citizens will only see potential in the tool if it has a real influence on EU policy, therefore it is indispensible to ensure that initiatives that successfully gather over one million signatures will have an impact. The European Parliament should discuss and vote on each successful ECI in full plenum. And the European Commission should provide rejected initiatives with robust and transparent reasons if ECIs are not responded to with a legislative proposal. Also, to ensure that the debate on the ECI’s topic has a large and pan-European character, the EU Commission must exhaust all available public channels to advertise the ECI.

EU Parliament must propose real ECI reform

The Commission has dealt the first round of cards and presented the major problems impeding the ECI’s proper functioning. Now it’s up to the EU Parliament to take up each point and respond with concrete proposals of how to address these.

In the meantime, civil society actors are gearing up for a campaign to save the EU Citizens’ Initiative. Democracy International, the ECI Support Centre, The ECI Campaign, the EESC and many others are mobilising a strong alliance, building public momentum and exerting political pressure from below to prevent purely cosmetic changes and instead institute a deep and consequential improvement of the Citizens’ Initiative. If we don’t use our chance to save the ECI now, we will lose a channel to set the EU’s agenda. And even worse: we will risk having even more people turn their backs on European politics altogether. We must not allow this to happen!

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