The Brief, powered by VDMA – Wanted: A Guardian of Democracy

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

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Last Friday, and without much media coverage, the Guardian of the Treaties dealt the latest blow to European citizens’ shot at direct democracy by rejecting a petition proposing a protection package for national minorities that had garnered 1.1 million signatures across the EU.

This despite the fact that in December, the Minority Safepack initiative, aimed at protecting linguistic and cultural diversity, received overwhelming support in the European Parliament, the institution directly representing European voters, with 524 votes in favour, 67 against and 103 abstentions.

Excluding last week’s communication, in three out of four cases where the Commission has already replied, the EU executive rejected the primary demands of citizens, be that the ban of the glyphosate herbicide, ban of research and development aid to activities that destruct human embryos, or ban of animal experimentation in biomedical and toxicological research.

Nevertheless, Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová said the successful European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) “demonstrates that European citizens feel strongly engaged and want to be part of the public debate on shaping Union policy”.

These words – reminiscent of the usual ad verbum congratulatory-bordering-on-patronising “the Commission welcomes the mobilisation of European citizens” – do little, however, to address the actual demands of citizens.

Introduced after the latest comprehensive review of the European accords with the Lisbon treaty and launched in 2012, the ECI was supposed to create an avenue to request new EU legislation once a million signatures are collected and pre-determined minimum thresholds in at least seven countries are reached.

In the only case where this happened, the legislation that resulted from the first successful initiative, called “Right2Water”, which demanded an EU law implementing the human right to water, came six years after the Commission’s initial reply to the signature drive.

Moreover, critics said the final compromise was, excuse the pun, watered down, and legislative revision on water quality had been planned anyway.

Meanwhile, only six out of 76 registered initiatives since 2012 have reached the threshold of one million signatures, demonstrating the many hurdles those who want to have their demands answered directly by Brussels have to overcome, only adding to reasons why rejections should not be taken lightly.

Some will be fast to point out that these initiatives tend to have a political tinge.

The “One of Us” ECI demanding that the Commission cut off all funding for research on human embryonic stem cells and funding for any organisations involved in the provision of indirect or direct abortion in developing countries was pushed by an organisation with self-described “profound roots in our common Christian Values”. The initiative was labelled by critics as “spearheaded by ultra-conservative, anti-choice movements.”

The Minority SafePack initiative, on the other hand, appears to have been in large part backed financially by Viktor Orbán’s government, probably in its long quest to appear as the protector of Hungarian minorities in neighbouring countries, often with little regard for international values such as non-interference in foreign elections. 46.97% of the collected signatures came from Hungary.

However, such is the cost of democracy — if the required boxes are ticked off and the procedures have been followed, the demands must be heard in full, and perhaps not dismissed with a 21-page response, which boils down to “we are already doing what we can.”

At the very least, the 64 MEPs blasting the Commission are right in saying the rejection of all nine proposals of the initiative shows “a politically damaging lack of concern for the voice of citizens.”

This, let us not forget, comes at a time when public trust in the European Union remains well-below the 2007 level.

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The Roundup

Hours before Joe Biden os to be sworn in as the next US president, EU leaders extended the invitation to cooperate more closely but also warned that four years of the Trump administration had changed the nature of transatlantic ties.

Analysts have tempered expectations about the ability of the new US administration to closely align with Europe on climate change.

Germany’s foreign minister Heiko Maas needs to explain why he remained silent after his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu threatened Greece at a joint press conference earlier this week, Dora Bakoyanni, a prominent lawmaker and former minister of foreign affairs has said.

Montenegro will be pursuing a “zero problem doctrine” with its neighbours, while EU accession remains its main priority, Djordje Radulović, the country’s new foreign minister, told EURACTIV only weeks after the EU hopeful saw its first democratic change of power in 30 years.

The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has dismissed the claim of a Cypriot producers’ organisation who challenged the trademark validation of Bulgarian halloumi-sounding products arguing that they could deceive consumers.

COVID-19 vaccination certificates are “important but not sufficient” to ensure the resumption of free movement within the EU during the pandemic, EU Commissioner for Internal Market Thierry Breton said, adding instead that rapid tests should also be introduced.

Russian authorities have applied for registration of the Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine in the EU, the country’s sovereign wealth fund financing the jab said.

Look out for…

  • US Presidential Inauguration (6pm CET)
  • EU summit on COVID-19 response

Views are the author’s

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