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 www.ecas-europe.eu). 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.