The European Commission has dismissed as impractical suggestions by MEPs to scrap the 100,000 signature requirement needed to legally file a petition under the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI).
Diana Wallis, a UK Liberal Democrat MEP, said pre-registration checks should be enough to determine the admissibility of legislative proposals tabled under the mechanism.
"The admissibility of an ECI should be verified once by the [European] Commission, directly following registration," reads a draft working paper presented by European Parliament Vice-President Wallis to the EU assembly's petitions committee last week (15 July).
The paper – seen by EURACTIV – calls for the 100,000 signatures requirement adopted by governments in June to be scrapped.
The European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, allows citizens to request new EU legislation once a million signatures across at least nine member states have been collected asking the European Commission to do so (see ‘Background’).
"If […] a decision on admissibility by the Commission is taken swiftly following registration, this will mean that the organisers have the certainty from the outset that if they are able to fulfil the one million signatures from several member states [requirement], their initiative will ultimately be properly considered by the Commission," the working paper states, suggesting that the threshold should be one fifth, or six, of the EU's 27 countries.
Commission rejects proposals
According to a draft regulation on implementing the citizens’ initiative, tabled by the Commission in March (EURACTIV 30/03/10), each ECI should be first registered and then subject to an admissibility check by the EU executive as decreed in the Lisbon Treaty (see 'Background').
"We have been very clear that we want to maintain the two-step approach: first registration and then an admissibility check at a later stage," Michael Mann, spokesperson for the commissioner responsible for the ECI, Vice-President Maroš Šef?ovi?, told EURACTIV when asked to respond to Wallis's working paper.
"This would avoid the danger of the system getting bogged down by us having to do a detailed admissibility check on initiatives which aren't serious and don't have broad backing," Mann said.
It would also benefit the organisers by allowing them to "get a real cross-border debate going on issues of interest to them, without them being rejected from the word 'go'," he said.
"We look forward to working with the Parliament to get a good solution," he said in response to Wallis's demands.
The Commission originally wanted the admissibility check to take place after the organisers had collected a minimum of 300,000 signatures, mindful of the potential for less serious petitioners to seize upon the admissibility ruling as a publicity stunt.
Keen to stay out of court, the EU executive believes the threshold must be high enough to ensure that the organisers are serious and have broad enough public support to achieve their goals before it is called upon to rule on an initiative’s admissibility.
In June, EU governments responded to the Commission's plans by deciding that the admissibility check should be carried out after 100,000 signatures have been collected, deeming the 300,000 threshold to be too high (EURACTIV 15/06/10).
Governments decided that once 100,000 signatures have been collected and an initiative registered as admissible, the organisers have a year to collect the million required to trigger the Commission to act.
Ministers agreed that support could be expressed either in paper form or online.
"The Council supported an admissibility check at 100,000 signatures," said Commission spokesman Michael Mann, adding: "Some member states wanted no threshold at all, which the Commission could not accept. [100,000] is a compromise we can live with."
Make ECI 'as accessible as possible'…
Making the case for abolishing the signatures requirement, Lib Dem MEP Wallis, co-rapporteur on the draft working paper alongside German Green MEP Gerald Häfner, said "putting forward ideas on behalf of the petitions committee, our whole idea has been to make this exciting new instrument as accessible, as citizen-friendly and as simple as possible whilst acknowledging that this is a serious tool allowing citizens to set the EU policy and law-making agenda".
Their paper further suggests that the time limit for collecting the million signatures should be extended to 18 months following the official registration date.
"Transnational initiatives need enough time for communication, meetings, travelling, translation and mobilising support in a significant number of states," it states, concluding that "one year is probably insufficient".
The paper also calls 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, rather than just those eligible to vote in European Parliament elections as proposed by the Commission.
"The objective is to increase participation, not restrict it, and young people especially have a huge role to play in that process," it states.
…and hold public hearings
Once an initiative has passed the one million signatures mark, the Commission should be obliged to hold a public hearing with the organisers to discuss the proposals and how it could act to achieve them, the draft working paper argues.
It then suggests holding a separate hearing, hosted by the European Parliament's petitions committee, bringing the organisers together with MEPs and Council officials as well as Commission representatives.
The EU executive should then be obliged to communicate the conclusions of the public hearings to all parties, "setting out the type of legislative or regulatory action to be taken and in the event of no action being proposed, to give clear reasons why not," the paper states.
The full Parliament is due to decide on the working paper by the end of the year, on the basis of reports to be drawn up by the constitutional affairs and petitions committees in the coming months.