Stakeholders are stepping up their preparations for the launch next year of the European Citizens' Initiative, the EU's first attempt at cross-border direct democracy. But the lack of funding and progress made on putting in place national systems to manage the tool is threatening to delay the first petitions, which are slated for registration from 1 April.
"We want to open the doors of Brussels to citizens and break the closed circle," said German MEP Gerald Häfner (Greens/European Free Alliance), who is in charge of the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI) for the Greens in the European Parliament.
"But we'll need to make sure that it is implemented in the most accessible manner," Häfner told a hearing in the Parliament on Wednesday (29 June).
"We're seeing at the moment in Athens and Madrid how important it is to make sure that citizens have a voice," he added.
The first petitions can be lodged with the European Commission as of 1 April 2012.
Fears over readiness for first petitions
But this depends on all member states having established the legal framework required to implement the ECI by then. Progress made so far has been patchy and it remains far from certain whether this deadline will be met.
Indeed, concerns were mounting among conference participants that the EU institutions themselves may not be ready on time.
"I am really concerned that it could collapse. We don't have a budget. We don't have the manpower in the European Commission. We need money and resources, and we need to take this seriously because it's coming," warned Häfner.
"Many member states seem reluctant and are moving slowly. Ministries are passing the buck between themselves. It is not obvious who is in charge. Many countries haven't appointed the people responsible yet," he complained.
One reason for the delay is the lack of a coherent strategy for verifying the signatures of petitioners. Responsibility for doing so lies with member states, and some countries are insisting that signatories give their passport or ID numbers.
Many commentators are concerned that such stringent requirements are a deliberate ploy to put people off signing petitions, while there are also concerns about the protection and retention of such sensitive data online.
"We'll need the rest of the time ahead of us until 1 April 2012 to implement the ECI. We're only just starting to get a much clearer idea of what it will be like," said Robert Stein, head of the electoral affairs department in the Austrian Interior Ministry.
"The ECI sounds nice but we've got to be able to actually do it. In Austria we think we're going to have to amend our constitution. Many others will need to change their constitutional law," he revealed.
Who's going to pay?
Member states will have to appoint agents responsible for implementing the ECI. Stein predicted that data protection would be a "massive responsibility" for petition organisers and warned that proper mechanisms would have to be put in place to prevent fraud and duplication of signatures.
Financial concerns are also likely to come to the fore once member states begin to consider the implications of the initiative's imminent launch.
"Implementing the ECI will cost money. No-one has spoken about the money yet, but trust me they will," said Stein.
"Member states will need to verify signatures. We and many other countries wanted the Commission to take care of it all. If I'm going to develop a verification mechanism I'm going to need money, and I'll be asking the EU institutions who's going to pay for all this," he added.
Among the ECIs currently in the pipeline are a bid to recognise water as a human right and public good, a petition for a nuclear-free Europe, a drive for EU legislation to protect media pluralism and an effort to ensure that roaming charges are fair.
Others include a plan to establish a European Education Trust for more European schools, a bid to get the EU to sign the European Landscape Convention and an initiative in favour of more intra-EU exchange programmes like Erasmus.
"But many of these groups are still figuring out how to achieve their goals. ECIs cannot push for treaty change: they can only propose legislation based on what is already in the treaties," recalled German MEP Häfner.
On this basis it would appear like the bid to abolish nuclear power in Europe is destined to fail, given that doing so would contravene the Euratom Treaty.
Risk of disillusionment
"The biggest ideas will have huge problems passing the admissibility check. Whenever you bring a new idea that is not part of current EU policy I think there'll be a problem with admissibility. That's a shame," said Häfner.
Indeed, he predicted that with many petitions destined to fail on the grounds that they are inadmissible, disillusionment with the EU might actually increase. "That's not really what the ECI was trying to achieve," he said.
"We have to make this initiative a success. Imagine if 70 or 80% of initiatives aren't accepted and the Commission refuses to act on the ones that are. It would lead to even more frustration among citizens," Häfner warned.
The European Commission, meanwhile, was keen to keep a lid on expectations.
"Let's be honest: we don't know whether the current framework is the right one. That's why we have a review clause," said Jens Nymand-Christensen, director for parliamentary and inter-institutional issues at the European Commission, explaining that the EU executive would assess the need for improvements in 2015.
"The ECI is new and exciting, but it doesn't change the architecture of the EU or its institutional profile at all. The Commission remains the sole initiator of legislation. The EU is a huge bureaucracy and we can't legislate ourselves out of that, but the ECI is an opportunity for us to prove we are listening to citizens," Nymand-Christensen said.
The EU executive is currently developing software for online signature collection and is working with member states to help them figure out how to verify signatures.
Nymand-Christensen played down concerns that procedural considerations would deter people from taking part. "The ECI is a political process, not a counting exercise. I think that if the Commission has the verified signatures from six countries and one is lagging behind, we may be able to proceed nevertheless."
"It's a discretionary process. But that should not be taken by member states to mean that they needn't work on this," he added.