As direct democracy experts begin to step up their preparations for 1 April 2012, when the first European Citizens' Initiatives can be registered, much uncertainty remains as to how the scheme will work in practice even after the adoption of a specific regulation.
"We have to help the child take the first step," said UK Liberal MEP Diana Wallis during a conference organised by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) last week (17 March).
At a time when people around the world are fighting for more democracy, experts see the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) as an historic tool to establish a more democratic European Union. "But if we don't succeed, then it will mean the end of democracy," warned German Greens/European Free Alliance MEP Gerald Häfner, one of the Parliament's rapporteurs on proposal for a regulation.
According to Wallis, ALDE group rapporteur, it is a difficult time fore elected politicians, and such initiatives can prompt politicians to do more with citizens and revive political engagement.
Right of initiative or right of petition?
However, there is the risk that the initiative, which is not binding on the Commission, would turn into just a right of petition, some say.
Paolo Ponzano, research fellow at the European University Institute, is one expert to believe so.
"The European Citizens' Initiative neither deserves to be called 'initiative', nor should it contain the term 'citizen' in it its name. At the best it remains European," said Ponzano, arguing that the instrument in fact resembles more of a petition system, such as that directed at the Parliament, than an initiative.
It remains unclear in the ECI provisions how a successful initiative would bind the Commission to act to respect it, and it is also unclear to whom the promoters should turn to if they feel that the EU executive has not responded adequately, added Ponzano.
Inter-institutional dialogue during the formulation of a regulation tried to partially address concerns that it would not be seen as a credible instrument by making it non-binding in nature.
The European Parliament pushed to secure the holding of a public hearing at which ECI organisers will be given the opportunity to present the initiative in the presence of the Commission.
"The idea is to give more weight to the citizens' position and help manage expectations on both sides," said Tony Venables, ECAS director, who sees grounds for optimism in the ECI and expect that the Commission will respond positively to requests from citizens.
Venables and other experts concur that the compromise regulation, adopted on 16 February, is a first step towards a functioning instrument, which can be reviewed every three years, starting from 1 April 2015.
"Even if the criteria for registration at the outset do not commit the Commission to introducing legislation […], they are a relatively open invitation," repeated Venables, who has prepared a full-fledged analysis of the regulation.
Participatory and representative democracy go hand in hand
Speaking at the ECAS conference, Bruno Kaufmann, president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe, said the European Parliament would potentially serve as guarantor in ensuring that ECIs be considered, because of the strong role the EU assembly played during the legislative process.
"The European Parliament has shown a willingness to share its own right of initiative," echoed Venables, adding that the two concepts of representative and participatory democracy co-exist and ECI organisers would be able to rely on the support of MEPs.
Bumpy road ahead
Still, the road ahead is lined with potential obstacles. One of these relates to signatories having to present some form of ID in most member states, which some say could hamper signature collection.
"The single greatest weakness of the final ECI regulation is that member states may require their residents to provide ID card numbers in order to support a citizens' initiative," said Carsten Berg, director of the ECI Campaign at Democracy International.
The regulation stipulate that the ID data required for a signatory to participate in the initiative should be decided upon by individual governments on a country-by-country basis — some are demanding details of residence permits and others just a passport or identity card number, while others like the UK, Germany and Belgium require no personal identification.
As up to 20% of signatures could be invalidated by national authorities due to incomplete or inaccurate information, experts consider that demands for ID could represent one possible hurdle to reaching one million signatures within a year (see 'Background').
Most member states (18 countries) currently plan to ask for IDs, but fortunately, countries may remove this requirement at any time and for any reason. However, they are unlikely to do so without pressure from pro-ECI activists working at national level, said Berg.
To make ECIs more user-friendly the Commission is planning to spread information through its contact points in the member states and the launch of a website to facilitate the collection online, which Berg insist will be entering into new territory.
Publicity is indeed another stumbling block, experts stress. The European Disability Forum, which succeeded in collecting over one million signatures in 2007 to push for rights for people with disabilities to be increased in all aspects of life, has argued that sometimes a good network is better than publicity.
This, however, defeats the purpose of having single citizens starting and running an initiative. "An ECI is not for MEPs, not for NGOs, but for all citizens," Wallis stressed.
According to German Liberal MEP Alexander Alvaro, one of the organisers the 'One Seat' campaign website, reaching one million signatures in one year is not Mission Impossible. "It all depends on the topic," he said.
So far 20 citizens' initiatives have been launched, but only five reached the target of one million.
A clear framework also giving initiators legal advice on whether the issue has a clear basis in the Treaty and EU competence is needed, insisted Kaufmann.
Indeed, the extent to which the regulation is user-friendly depends also on the technical provisions for putting it into practice.
One year to carry out this technical work may seem like very little time, but the Parliament, the Commission and stakeholders seem ready for the challenge, even if they know much will be decided on the basis of compromises.