The European Citizens’ Initiative

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The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) is the EU's foremost instrument of direct democracy and the first of its kind in a transnational context. Introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, will be used from 1 April 2012.

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

According to Article 11 of the treaty, "not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of member states 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". 

The European Citizens' Initiative will therefore enable European citizens and civil society organisations to directly influence the political agenda of the EU for the first time in history.

Back in May 2009, the European Parliament adopted a resolution which provides detailed guidelines for implementing the initiative.

On 31 March 2010, the European Commission unveiled a draft regulation setting out concrete steps for how the ECI would be implemented in practice. But MEPs feared that under the Commission's proposals, a conspicuous amount of personal data would be required and specific conditions would have to be adhered to before citizens could propose legislation.

The Council, meanwhile, adopted its general approach to the ECI in June 2010.

The ensuing debate, which focused on issues like admissibility criteria and admissibility checks, how many countries and how many nationals of each member state would be have to sign, and what personal details the signatories would have to provide, went on until the end of 2010.

A final agreement was reached in trialogue talks between the Commission, the Council and the Parliament by December, allowing the European Parliament to adopt an EU regulation governing the implementation of the ECI on 16 December 2010.

The regulation stipulates that an ECI must have the backing of a million signatures from seven countries if it is to be successful.

Smaller countries will need proportionately more signatories than bigger states.

A so-called 'citizens' committee' comprising people from at least a quarter of EU countries – "at least seven persons who are residents of at least seven different member states" – must be set up to register an initiative.

A minimum number of signatures must be collected in each country if it is to count towards the seven, ranging from 74,250 in the EU's largest member state, Germany, to 3,750 in Malta. The figure is calculated by multiplying the number of MEPs in that country by a factor of 750.

At the point of registration, the Commission will carry out a check to determine whether an initiative is "well founded" and has "a European dimension".

Once the EU executive has given an ECI its green light, it is officially registered and the organisers are free to continue collecting signatures.

The Commission will carry out an admissibility check once 300,000 signatures have been collected.  

Excitement is growing in the EU about the European Citizens' Initiative ahead of the likely acceptance by the European Commission of the first petitions next year.

Among those competing to hand the first ECI to Commission President José Manuel Barroso are Greenpeace, which is spearheading a petition for a Europe free of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs) and has already collected the million signatures required, and the Socialists & Democrats group in the European Parliament, which wants to see the introduction of EU legislation on taxing financial speculation.


The idea behind the ECI is to address a perceived democracy gap in the European Union by helping citizens to participate directly in the legislative process. It is also meant to encourage cross-border public debate about EU policy issues.

The EU has previously employed other means to engage with citizens, for example through complaints addressed to the petitions committee of the European Parliament. Over the years this process has resulted in a number of proposals for legislation.

But many MEPs consider petitions as a somewhat negative way of involving citizens in EU politics, as petitioning the Parliament is a formal process to allow people to complain about areas where EU law does not work. 

The ECI, therefore, was hailed as a way of bringing the EU closer to Europeans by allowing them to request EU action themselves.

How will it work?

To be successful an ECI will require a million signatures from at least seven EU countries.

Signatories must be eligible to vote – and be old enough to vote - in European Parliament elections in the country concerned. Smaller states will need proportionately more signatories than bigger states.

A so-called 'citizens' committee' comprising people from at least a quarter of EU countries – "at least seven persons who are residents of at least seven different member states" – must be set up to register an initiative.

A minimum number of signatures must be collected in each country if it is to count towards the seven, ranging from 74,250 in the EU's largest member state, Germany, to 3,750 in Malta. The figure is calculated by multiplying the number of MEPs in that country by a factor of 750.

At the point of registration, the Commission will carry out a check to determine whether an ECI is admissible, "well-founded" and has "a European dimension".

Once the petition has received the EU executive's green light, it is officially registered and the organisers are free to continue collecting signatures.

After 300,000 signatures have been collected the Commission will conduct an "admissibility check" to decide whether an ECI is admissible.

It will be left to member states to verify the authenticity of signatures and governments will be free to decide how to do so.

Two basic principles have to be respected for a proposal to be admissible. It must concern "a matter where a legal act of the Union can be adopted for the purpose of implementing the Treaties" and it has to fall "within the framework of the powers of the Commission to make a proposal," according to Article 8 of the regulation.

Both individuals and organisations are allowed to launch a citizens' initiative. It has to be registered with the Commission, and there is a requirement to publish a transparency report which will contain information about the financial backing for and the supporters of the initiative.

Public hearings

After registering their citizens' initiative with the Commission, organisers have one year in which to collect signatures online or in person, after which time they will be granted a public hearing with representatives of all three EU institutions.

The signatures can be collected "in paper form or electronically" and must be gathered "within a period that shall not exceed 12 months," after which the process would have to start again, says the regulation.

Among the key issues that remain to be resolved are practicalities surrounding the organisation of public hearings with representatives of the EU institutions once organisers have successfully collected a million signatures, as well as the translation of ECIs into the EU's official languages.

Commission not obliged to act

However, even if a million signatures are collected, the Commission is under no obligation to translate the will of the people as expressed in an ECI into European law, as this depends on whether or not it has the power to do so (see previous paragraph on basic principles).

Once the million signatures have been collected, the Commission must decide within three months if it will propose a new law and it will have to make public its reasons for (not) doing so.

Delays in implementing first ECIs

ECIs were supposed to become a reality with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty on 1 December 2009, but it took over a year for the EU institutions to reach a compromise on the details of implementation.

This angered the organisers of initiatives who had begun to collect signatures early, because the eligibility criteria for signatures have changed in the meantime, rendering many previously collected signatures unsable.

The length of the debate was mainly due to differences of opinion between the Commission and the Parliament. The most controversial issues in the debate were:

Admissibility criteria:

  • Whether or not to have an admissibility check after a certain number of signatures have been collected as well as an initial pre-registration check;
  • Whether this check shall take place after 100,000 or after 300,000 signatures;
  • The timeframe for the collection of signatures after initial registration (12 or 18 months);
  • What personal data is required from signatories, and in particular whether postal address and ID numbers are necessary;
  • What details organisers must provide about their background and financing.
  • The minimum age of participants, and;
  • What kind of support the Commission must give organisers (practical guidelines, a helpdesk, software for collecting signatures electronically).

Degree of cross-national support:

  • Number of member states from which ECI signatories must come, and;
  • Number of participants required from each member state.

Many feared that by making the ECI process too accessible, it could become susceptible to fraud or be hijacked by extremists or powerful organisations like lobbying firms, interest groups or political parties, instead of serving the interests of citizens.

Others argued that by not making the ECI user-friendly enough, policymakers were effectively making it useless for its original purpose of introducing more direct democracy, as citizens would be discouraged from using it.

Negotiations on implementing the ECI saw the EU institutions wrestle over a variety of issues, most of which concerned the admissibility criteria.

The European Commission wanted tough criteria for registering an initiative, as low criteria would put the EU executive at risk of being 'swamped' by applications.

The Commission wanted to carry out an admissibility check after 300,000 signatures were collected and also wanted ECI signatories to come from a third of all member states, i.e. a minimum of nine out of 27.

The Council of the EU, which represents member-state governments, decided in June 2010 that the admissibility check should be carried out after 100,000 signatures have been collected, deeming the 300,000 threshold to be too high.

The Belgian EU Presidency wanted an inter-institutional deal on implementing the ECI by December 2010 and sided with the Commission in supporting a minimum threshold of nine member states represented.

The European Parliament wanted to keep the admissibility criteria as low as possible. MEPs suggested scrapping both the 100,000 and 300,000 signature requirement needed to legally file a petition under the ECI.

Some said that pre-registration checks should be enough to determine the admissibility of legislative proposals under the mechanism. They wanted to avoid a situation whereby citizens sign petitions that end up never being admitted.

MEPs variously suggested that signatories should come from a fifth or a sixth of the EU's 27 countries, rather than from one third of member states. They also demanded that the time limit for collecting the million signatures should be extended from 12 to 18 months following after an ECI's official registration date to give organisers more time to reach people.

They also called for all European citizens and residents, regardless of age or nationality, to be granted the right to sign an ECI to help stimulate debate and boost participation.

Welcoming the adoption of the regulation in December, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi?, who is in charge of ECIs at the EU executive, said "I'm delighted that the Parliament and Council have managed to reach agreement on the Citizens' Initiative so quickly".

"The ECI will introduce a whole new form of participatory democracy to the EU. It is a major step forward in the democratic life of the Union. It's a concrete example of bringing Europe closer to its citizens. And it will foster a cross border debate about what we are doing in Brussels and thus contribute, we hope, to the development of a real European public space," Šef?ovi? said.

"This is a milestone in the development of European democracy. I warmly encourage the European public to make use of the European Citizens' Initiative to bring matters of their concern to the top of the European agenda," said European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek after the vote. 

"The citizens' initiative will establish a direct link between the citizens and the European institutions, helping to bridge the gap between them and ensuring that the EU institutions address the concrete problems, which are of importance to them," Buzek said. "The citizens' initiative will constitute a unique exercise in democracy on an EU-wide scale," he added.. 

Before the plenary vote in December, UK Conservative MEP Ashley Fox, the European Conservative and Reformists (ECR) Group spokesman on the AFCO committee, warned that the ECI "must be designed so that it cannot be hijacked by well-funded lobby groups, many of whom receive large amounts of money from the European Commission itself," expressing hope that the rules put in place by the committee would "help to ensure that petitions reflect grassroots opinion and strength of feeling".

"The abstract nature of decision-making across the EU means that lobby groups already enjoy significant access to the decision-making process; now it is time for the people to have their say," said Fox.

"The Citizens' Initiative allows voters to ask for new laws but the Commission must also listen to the public when they call for existing laws to be scrapped or modified, or powers returned to national governments," he said.

"Too often the European Commission has only listened to the people who will tell it what it wants to hear. Now they must listen to everybody, and I hope that they will treat every petition in the same way," the ECR member declared.

"The EU's institutions can be incredibly remote and this initiative should give people an opportunity to make their voices heard," Fox added.

After the adoption of the report, he said the Commission faced a "litmus test" on whether it was truly willing to table legislation that it did not like.

"I want to see initiatives that call for the EU to do less. That repatriate powers to the nation states. I wait with interest to see how the Commission reacts to such proposals. The proof of this pudding will be in the eating," he added.  

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff accused members of the AFCO committee of having voted for a "very restrictive" interpretation of the scope of an ECI and claimed that "the [Lisbon] Treaty provides for a citizens' initiative to demand a revision of the [EU] Treaties themselves".

"That is logical, as it falls well within the Commission's powers to trigger a treaty amendment. Parliament is wrong to seek to deny citizens that option. I hope the Commission itself will insist on its freedom of manoeuvre when it comes to making proposals for changing the Treaties on the basis of popular demand," Duff said.

"Our goal is to make the Citizens' Initiative a simple and easy-to-access tool for all European citizens," French centre-right MEP Alain Lamassoure (European People's Party) said after the adoption of his report:

"The Citizens' Initiative aims to bring Europe closer to its citizens. It should not be complicated by too complex procedures and too restrictive conditions," Lamassoure said, adding that "by limiting the signature of the Citizens' Initiative to natural persons, we wish to come back to the spirit of the proposal, which is aimed at citizens, all citizens and only citizens".

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) welcomed the committee's decision to simplify the procedure to submit an ECI and reserved particular praise for deleting the Commission's original idea of carrying out an admissibility check after 300,000 signatures have been gathered.

"However, I regret that the vote was not as progressive and inclusive as the view of the petitions committee that suggested EU residents (not just citizens) from the age of 16 should be included in order to really engage young people in European policy debate. The Parliament is missing an opportunity to extend a hand to Europe's youth and our future," Wallis said.

Hungarian Socialists & Democrats MEP Zita Gurmai argued that "a fifth of member states is enough to satisfy the Lisbon Treaty's 'significant number' requirement" and said MEPs had "really listened to civil society" in drawing up the report.  

German Green MEP Gerald Häfner said the ECI was "the first example of transnational participatory democracy in the world". "I'm sure the ECI will help foster citizens' participation in Europe, create a European discourse and foster a bottom-up civil society," he added.

"Some member states are insisting that ID cards must be required. The Parliament is adamant that we don't want this and we will go in strong and united to fight for our position. I cannot tell you what the outcome will be," Häfner said. 

Leftist MEPs (GUE/NGL) Helmut Scholz of Germany and Bairbre de Brún of Ireland regretted that lawmakers had failed to extend the ECI to all EU residents and not just EU citizens. "It is important that we do not send out a signal that their views are not wanted or not welcome," they said.

Finnish ALDE MEP Anneli Jäätemmakki, shadow rapporteur in the Parliament's constitutional affairs (AFCO) committee, said: "The European Parliament wanted to make the European Citizens' Initiative as citizen-friendly as possible. We can be pleased with the result. I am especially delighted that the Commission and the Parliament have promised to organise a public hearing to guarantee that a successful initiative will be followed up appropriately. I hope that the European Citizens' Initiative will turn out to be a success and will broaden and refresh the debate on the future of the European Union."

"We warmly welcome the introduction of the ECI. It is the first transnational instrument of participatory democracy in world history. With it, Europe enters a new territory of citizen participation. It is the result of nearly a decade of work," said Carsten Berg, campaign director at the ECI Campaign, a grassroots coalition of democracy advocates and NGOs dedicated to bringing the scheme to light.

The ultimate success or failure of the ECI, however, will depend on how the Commission responds to a successful ECI, Berg warned.

"One million citizens cannot be ignored. A successful ECI must have consequences and lead to political decisions. Only when citizens realize that they are actually being heard will this instrument strengthen the democratic engagement of citizens. Otherwise it will simply lead to more frustration," he said.

"The European Data Protection Supervisor determined that ID card numbers were not necessary and should not be collected from citizens supporting an ECI," argued the ECI Campaign.

It complained that member states had been given "carte blanche" to determine how to verify signatures and what data to collect and pledged to spend the next year urging member states to adopt citizen-friendly signature collection and verification rules.

The European Citizens' Action Service (ECAS) released a statement saying: "Under current rules, member states are expected to set their requirements for signing an initiative. Likewise, they are free to decide how to verify signatures of their nationals, including whether to verify every signature or just a sample."

"In the Council proposal (June 2010), most countries have endorsed an obligatory set of personal information containing “descriptive” data (name, date of birth, address) as well as 'sensitive' data (such as the ID number or equivalent) although the European Data Protection Supervisor affirmed that ID card numbers are not necessary in this case," ECAS said.

"Remarkably, the choice of the personal data required has been done without consulting the end-users of the initiative, the European citizens. Therefore, ECAS has been conducting a survey regarding the Citizens' Initiative ID number requirement (available at The survey has collected 360 responses from citizens of the 27 Member States as well as from citizens of accession candidate countries," the statement continued.

"The results show that a majority of respondents could accept providing their name and place of birth (75.6%) and their personal address (66.2%) when signing an initiative, but showed that there is a strong resistance to providing their identity card or passport number (66.2% were against)," ECAS concluded.

According to a study published by European Movement Ireland, only 14% of Irish people have heard of the European Citizens' Initiative, leading some to say that an awareness-raising campaign is required it the scheme is to achieve its goal of enhancing a sense of ownership of EU policy among the European public. 

  • 2003: NGOs successfully lobby for inclusion of direct democracy tool in draft Constitutional Treaty.
  • 2006: NGOs successfully lobby for inclusion of European Citizens' Initiative in Treaty of Lisbon.
  • 7 May 2009: MEPs approve resolution which provides guidelines for implementation of ECI.
  • 1 Dec. 2009: Entry into force of Lisbon Treaty
  • End Jan. 2010: Deadline by which stakeholders and general public had to give input on implementation to European Commission.
  • 31 March 2010: Commission unveils regulation on implementing ECI.
  • 14 June 2010: European governments outline a 'general approach' to European Citizens' Initiative.
  • 2 Sept. 2010: S&D group announce plans to use the ECI to tackle financial speculation by introducing Europe-wide Financial Transaction Tax.
  • 6 Oct. 2010: Greenpeace anti-GMO campaign collects a million signatures.
  • 29 Nov. 2010: MEPs in AFCO committee decide on less stringent conditions for ECI.
  • 30 Nov. 2010: EU institutions reach agreement on admissibility criteria.
  • 1 Dec. 2010: First anniversary of entry into force of Lisbon Treaty; date by which Belgian Presidency wanted to secure agreement on ECI.
  • 9 Dec. 2010: Greenpeace hands over a million signatures against GMOs to EU Health Commissioner John Dalli.
  • 13 Dec. 2010: AFCO votes to formally adopt regulation.
  • 16 Dec. 2010: Plenary vote on report (adopted by 628 votes to 15, with 24 abstentions).
  • 31 Dec. 2010: End of Belgian EU Presidency.
  • 16 Feb. 2011: Council adopted regulation; Implementation of required national legislation to be carried out by member states within a year.
  • 29 June 2011: German Green MEP and ECI Rapporteur, Gerald Häfner, organised a conference ‘European Citizens’ Initiative: How to get it started’ at the European Parliament.
  • ?26 Feb. 2012: The Commission launched the ECI online Official Registry and the open source collection of support software at the conference “Warming up for the Citizens' Initiative”, hosted by Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi? in charge of ECI.
  • 20 March 2012: Civil Society is responding to the EU Institutions state of readiness at the conference ‘European Citizens’ Initiatives: on the starting line’ organised by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) and Democracy International.
  • 30 March 2012: Joint conference "European Citizens' Initiative: time to act!" organised by the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.
  • 1 April 2012: First citizens' initiatives can be registered.

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