EU to kick off citizens’ initiative with tougher rules

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A conspicuous amount of personal data will be required and specific conditions adhered to before citizens can propose legislation under the citizens' initiative introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, according to a new regulation seen by EURACTIV, set to be presented by the European Commission tomorrow (31 March).

The principle of the new citizens' initiative is that "whilst it does not affect the Commission's right of initiative, it will, however, oblige the Commission, as a college, to give serious consideration to the requests made by citizens," reads the draft regulation, which the EU executive will make public on Wednesday.

Citizens will therefore be empowered to directly participate in the legislative process. The EU institutions hope the new instrument will help to address the democracy gap which they have put in the spotlight, especially by repeatedly saying 'no' in referenda on the Lisbon Treaty.

However, the promoters of one of the most publicised EU-wide petitions, a campaign to make Brussels the only seat of the European Parliament, have no plans to use the new instrument, which they deem too complex to use despite already claiming to have attracted over 1,270,000 signatories to their initiative.  

The Commission hopes that the instrument will favour the development of a genuine European public arena. "I strongly believe that this new instrument will […] foster greater cross-border public debate about EU policy issues by bringing citizens from a range of countries together in defending one specific issue," the commissioner in charge of the initiative, Maroš Šef?ovi?, in a hearing at the European Parliament last week.

To do so, a number of conditions have to be met.

The Commission's draft regulation

As already stated by the Lisbon Treaty, any citizens' legislative initiative has to be supported by at least one million signatories. Moreover, in the document to be published tomorrow, the Commission will specify further conditions.

The one million signatories must come from at least one third of EU nations – nine countries as long as the bloc remains at 27 members – the same number needed to trigger 'enhanced cooperation' between states willing to speed up their integration process on certain issues.

The option of lowering the threshold up to one quarter of the EU members was ultimately ruled out by the Commission.

In addition, Brussels will propose a minimum number of signatories for each participating country. This number "should be degressively proportional to the size of each member state," the draft regulation states.

In other words, a smaller state will need in proportion more signatories than a bigger state. In an annex, the document specifies the required numbers for each member state, ranging from 4,500 signatories for Luxembourg, Estonia, Cyprus and Malta (higher than 0.2% of the population), to 55,500 for France and 72,000 for Germany (lower than 0.2% of the population).

Each citizens' initiative should be first registered and then subject to an admissibility check by the Commission, once the organisers have collected at least 300,000 statements of support. The EU executive will have to assess the admissibility of the proposal within two months.

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," reads Article 8 of the draft regulation.

The signatures can be collected "in paper form or electronically," provided that they respect a number of specific parameters. They must be gathered "within a period that shall not exceed 12 months," after which the process should start again.

If a citizens' initiative is presented according to the rules, the Commission will have to issue a communication within four months of submitting the initiative. But the EU executive is not legally obliged to trigger any legislative action in response to the collection of signatures.

Too much personal data required?

Each signatory of a statement of support will have to provide a variety of personal data, including name, street address, email address, date and place of birth, nationality and personal identification numbers (passport; ID card; and social security). All this is needed to prevent fraud.

The draft regulation underlines that the data provided by the signatories will be subject to strengthened protection, and will be destroyed "at the latest one month after submitting that initiative to the Commission or 18 months after the date of registration of a proposed citizens' initiative, whichever is the earlier".

However, the information required makes life difficult for campaigners. "We do not plan to use the new instrument," Anders Ekberg, one of the promoters of the 'Oneseat Campaign', told EURACTIV.

The 'Oneseat Campaign,' launched in 2006, wants to bring an end to the so-called travelling circus which makes MEPs, their staff, journalists and lobbyists travel 450km from Brussels to Strasbourg for twelve four-day sessions a year. The two-seat parliamentary operation costs taxpayers an estimated €200 million per year (EURACTIV 22/10/06).

The promoters claim to have reached almost 1,270,000 signatures.

However, the requirements of the regulation on the citizens' initiative make these signatures unusable. "As far as I know, the rules will require the street addresses of those who sign. We only have email addresses," Ekberg said.

"This seems to be a way for the Commission to make sure that is more difficult to reach one million of signatures and also another evidence of how old=fashioned they are," Ekberg added.

Congratulating the European Commission on the content of the regulation, UK Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duff, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) coordinator on the European Parliament's constitutional affairs committtee, said "in the legislation we will need to strike a balance between expediency and bureaucracy. If the formal process for the citizens' initiative is too cumbersome it won't work and will fuel public cynicism."

"Parliament and Council must now work hard to bring this important experiment in participatory democracy into being by 1 December -- the anniversary of the entry into force of the historic Lisbon," Duff said. 

UK Conservative MEP Syed Kamall (European Conservatives and Reformists group), vice-present of the Parliament's constitutional affairs committee, urged the Commission to ensure that the citizens' initiative "remains a grassroots instrument, rather than a tool of lobbyists or interest groups".

"We need to ensure that the citizens' initiative encourages direct democracy. It must not be hijacked to push the agenda of interest groups," Kamall warned. 

"Organisations will undoubtedly be involved in coordinating the collection of signatures but they must be completely transparent regarding their funding, particularly if they receive taxpayers' money," he added.

"This initiative should give power to the people, not to lobbyists and interest groups," the Tory MEP said.

"The admissibility safeguards should ensure that the EU cannot legislate on areas best left to national governments. However, it should not be used as an excuse for the commission to avoid addressing difficult issues that might be raised," Kamall concluded.

The Treaty of Lisbon introduced the European citizens' initiative, a major innovation to strengthen the democratic fabric of the European Union.

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 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 in 2009 adopted a resolution which provides detailed guidelines for implementing the initiative.

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