EU’s first attempt to frame citizens’ initiative


The European Commission launched a consultation yesterday (11 November), calling for advice on how to implement the citizens’ initiative, one of the key democratic innovations of the Lisbon Treaty.

“The participation of the citizens in decision-making is indispensable for democracy,” said Margot Wallström, Vice-President of the European Commission in charge of Inter-institutional Relations and Communication Strategy. 

“The Lisbon Treaty will provide a means for people to express themselves and to have a direct influence on EU policy-making,” she added. 

With the citizens’ initiative, the EU is trying to bring in new instruments of direct democracy to bridge the gap between the citizens and its institutions. In recent European elections, fewer and fewer citizens have turned out to cast their ballot (EURACTIV 8/06/09). 

To tackle the lack of interest and citizens’ disengagement, the EU has included in the Lisbon Treaty a few innovative instruments to enhance participatory democracy, not the least the citizens’ initiative. 

In a nutshell, the idea is to give the possibility to one million citizens to address the Commission a request to consider legislative proposals. In a recent interview with EURACTIV, Commissioner Wallström said “it will not be easy to follow up on the citizens’ initiative, but it is a fantastic opportunity with a number of details that need to be worked out (EURACTIV 7/09/09). 

Indeed, the Treaty does not spell out the procedures and conditions to implement such an initiative, leaving much work to be done before a regulation is approved. 

Earlier this year, the European Parliament has adopted a resolution, which gave a valuable contribution to the debate on the initiative’s procedures: minimum number of signatures per member states, minimum number of countries, eligibility criteria, requirements for collection of signatures, verification, timing, and last but not least the registration of the proposed initiatives. 

This latter point is seen as key as the Commission considers necessary to give the green light to an initiative before the collection of signatures begins, in order to avoid misunderstandings on the admissibility criterion. Indeed, the initiative has to be within the framework of the EU’s competences. 

The Union has used other means to engage with citizens, for example through complains addressed to the petitions committee of the European Parliament. This process has resulted over the years in proposals for legislation. But many MEPs see it more as a negative way of involving people as it is a formal process to complain on matters where EU law does not work. 

“Most of us want a positive instrument,” said liberal MEP Diana Wallis, noting that the citizens’ initiative provides exactly that kind of tool. “In a way the citizens’ initiative will allow citizens to become involved in pushing the legislative button,” added Wallis. 

Stakeholders and the general public will have until January 2010 to give their advice to the Commission on how to sort out the implementation procedure as the EU executive hopes to have the regulation in place by the end of next year.

First attemps of citizens’ initiatives have already been seen. In 2007, the European Disability Forum has launched a campaign to further anti-discrimination legislation in Europe and collected over one million signatures.

Reacting to the launch of the consultation, liberal MEP Andrew Duff  said "the Commission's Green Paper asks all the right questions about how to promote, run and respond to the new citizens' initiative. It will be important to strike a balance between technical verification and political expediency."

Duff, who is also President of the Union of European Federalists (UEF), continued: "ALDE wants the procedures to be as permissive as possible and for them to be put in place by December next year. This important new instrument of participatory democracy will be used by very many citizens to stimulate united democratic action across Europe  

"The ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is a key step towards stronger social dialogue, said Conny Reuter, president of the Social Platform. "For the first time, an EU treaty would recognise that the involvement of citizens beyond traditional representative democracy is an important democratic principle." 

Elements of the treaty, such as the citizens' initiative, will "make people feel that the EU cares about what they have to say and what they want," he insisted. 

The Treaty of Lisbon, which will enter into force on 1 December, seeks in particular to reinforce the democratic fabric of the European Union. One of its major innovations is to introduce the European citizens' initiative. 

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 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 (ECI) would therefore enable European citizens and civil society organisations to directly influence the political agenda of the EU for the first time in history.

The European Parliament earlier this year adopted a resolution on the citizen's initiative. On 7 May 2009, MEPs approved the resoution which provides details guidelines for the implementation of the European Citizens' Initiative.

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