EU institutions close in on citizens’ petitions


Representatives of all three EU institutions this week outlined an agreement on implementing the European Citizens' Initiative, paving the way for the first petitions to be accepted next year once outstanding issues have been ironed out later this month. 

At a trialogue meeting on Tuesday evening (30 November), officials from the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council, which represents EU member states, agreed on admissibility criteria for the Commission to accept a petition.

The tentative deal met most of the demands set out by MEPs the previous day following a vote in the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee (EURACTIV 01/12/10), paving the way for the final adoption of what is seen as one of the main democratic advances of the Lisbon Treaty.

First, they agreed that the minimum age for signing a petition should be the European election voting age in the country concerned.

Second, the three institutions agreed that a check will be carried out to determine whether an initiative is admissible at the point of registration.

To ensure that ECIs are "well-founded and have a European dimension," a so-called 'citizens' committee' of at least seven members coming from seven member states will be set up to register an initiative, as requested by MEPs prior to the trialogue meeting.

This means that a previous admissibility threshold of 300,000 signatures has been scrapped.

ECI deal 'greatest homage' to Lisbon Treaty

"The goal of the Lisbon Treaty is to promote a more democratic, effective and transparent Europe closer to its citizens. That is now a reality," said Belgian State Secretary for European Affairs Olivier Chastel following Tuesday's agreement.

"Confirmation of the citizens' initiative is the greatest homage we could pay to the Lisbon Treaty," Chastel declared.

Under the terms of the trialogue deal, signatories of an ECI must come from a minimum of one quarter of EU member states. The Commission had initially proposed that this threshold be one third, while the Parliament wanted a minimum of one fifth.

"Since our last informal meeting of 17 November, significant progress has been made – with a discussion in the Permanent Representatives Committee, which enabled the Council's position to be clarified, and the unanimous vote […] in the AFCO committee of the European Parliament," said Belgium's Chastel after Tuesday's trialogue talks.

The Commission will also help the organisers of an initiative by providing a user-friendly guide and setting up a help desk.

It was also agreed that it should be left to member states to verify the authenticity of signatures and that governments would be free to decide how to do so. Countries will thus have some flexibility in choosing which personal information is required from signatories.

The Parliament is keen to make sure that signing an ECI is as easy as possible, primarily by ensuring that only a minimum amount of personal data is required.

The institutions hope to put the finishing touches to the agreement in ongoing talks ahead of a meeting of national experts on 8 December.

Outstanding issues

One key issue that remains to be resolved include 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, EU sources told EURACTIV.

Uncertainty also surrounds the timing of the regulation's entry into force, with sources suggesting that it may not come into effect for another year.  

Once finalised, the deal will be submitted to a vote in the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee on 13 December with a view to formally adopting the regulation on implementing the ECI during the Parliament's plenary session on 16 December.

"We're pleased that an agreement looks to be close and are optimistic that it will be finalised by the middle of December," Michael Mann, spokesman for European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi?, told EURACTIV, adding that the Commission was playing the role of an "honest broker" in the talks.   

"I welcome the agreement in principle reached […] on the regulation's items. Our legal experts will finalise the text in the coming days with an eye to a definitive political agreement being reached during another trialogue meeting and then to an adoption during the European Parliament plenary session of 16 December," said Belgian State Secretary for European Affairs Olivier Chastel after Tuesday's trialogue talks.

French centre-right MEP Alain Lamassoure (European People's Party), who drafted the AFCO committee's report on the ECI, said the aim of the trialogue talks was "to simplify the implementation of the citizens' initiative, while taking into account the specific constraints of the member states".

Hungarian Socialists & Democrats MEP Zita Gurmai, another of the Parliament's rapporteurs on the ECI, said "I'm glad to see that […] we took a big step towards fulfilling our aim: to get this regulation ready for the first anniversary of the Treaty of Lisbon."

"In particular, I'm happy that the regulation goes in the direction of being user-friendly [and] simple, and it enhances transparency and aims to avoid abuse," said Gurmai.

UK Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe), who is also steering the dossier through Parliament, welcomed the deletion of "the Commission's original idea of a late admissibility check after 300,000 signatures have already been gathered".

German Green MEP Gerald Häfner, the Parliament's fourth rapporteur on the file, stressed that MEPs had fought to ensure that all the improvements they had approved by adopting the AFCO report were "included in the final legislation, so we create a citizens' initiative that is meaningful and user-friendly for all Europeans". 

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". 

  • 8 Dec.: Expected agreement of national experts in COREPER.
  • 13 Dec.:  Vote on deal in European Parliament's constitutional affairs committee.
  • 16 Dec.: Final vote on implementing ECI in Parliament plenary.  

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