MEPs discussed Thursday (26 February) reforming the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), whose three-year review is planned for this year.
During a public hearing organised by the Constitutional Affairs and Petitions committee, a number of stakeholders criticised the ECI as flawed.
Citizen participation initiatives brought by the Lisbon Treaty, like the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), have struggled with a number of organisational and technical glitches.
Presenting the experiences of ECI users at Thursday’s hearing, Carsten Berg, coordinator for The ECI Campaign, summarised challenges encountered by early ECI campaigns detailed in the publication, An ECI That Works.
“The ECI Regulation is fatally flawed. It lets the Commission limit free speech by rejecting ECIs for questionable legal reasons,” Berg said.
“It makes ECI organisers use burdensome procedures. It frightens away citizens by demanding sensitive personal data. Then it lets the Commission dismiss successful ECIs, with no real action. Campaigners tell us that the ECI must be redesigned or it won’t be used,” he added.
The ECI allows one million citizens to invite the European Commission to propose a legal act to implement the treaties. Set out in article 11.4 of the Treaty of Lisbon, it has been in use since 1 April 2012.
Speaking at the hearing, Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, admitted that the ECI has not worked well enough and took personal responsibility to improve it so that it does not disappear. He described the ECI as one of many building blocks to create more trust between citizens and EU institutions. He also expressed a desire for the ECI to become a platform for political dialogue and not only a legal instrument.
The Commission will submit a report on its implementation to the Council and Parliament before 1 April 2015.
“The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a keystone of participative democracy but the shortfalls in its implementation and in its follow-up could waste its potential”, said Constitutional Affairs Committee chair, Danuta Hübner during the hearing.
“I am afraid that we have not yet quite absorbed this new reality in which citizens are co-equal to the EP and the Council with respect to asking the European Commission to initiate a legislative proposal which is, in fact, a Copernican Revolution in the European institutional landscape,” she insisted.
In 2012 and 2013, interest in the ECI was high. Over 46 ECIs were submitted to the Commission, but only 26 were registered, three succeeded, and none led to any meaningful action. Consequently, in 2014, the ECI’s use collapsed. Only three ECIs are now active.
“The EU itself loses the most when the ECI isn’t used. Early ECIs helped to create public dialogue, enhance cross-border understanding and bring new ideas and voices to Brussels. A reformed and re-launched ECI could further democratise the EU by improving decision-makers’ interactions with and responsiveness to citizens, Berg insisted.
“The EU Commission argues that dialogue takes place. The problem is that the dialogue is not structured and not transparent. The treaty change is an opportunity to come up with a legal base,” said aid Alexandrina Najmowicz, director of the European Civic Forum.
Campaigners called on EU leaders to tear down the walls blocking participatory democracy, reform the ECI and let in fresh thinking and new perspectives.
“Ultimately, that’s the only way to sustain the Union,” Berg said.
NGOs and civil society organisations demanded “a new wave of inclusiveness” and more citizens’ participation in EU decision-making in July last year, pushing to put treaty change back on the political table.
The platform Europe+ gathers several prominent EU level NGOs around the discussion table. They include the social NGO network Solidar, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), the European Movement International (EMI) and several of its national sections.
Debate on reforming the ECI will continue on 13 April 2015 with The 2015 ECI Day hosted by the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, and co-organised with the assistance of The ECI Campaign.