A Revolution in Disguise: The European Citizens’ Initiative

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Despite being undiscovered by many, the European Citizens' Initiative plants the seeds for the creation of a common European sphere and genuine European parties, write Dominik Hierlemann and Anna Wohlfarth in an August commentary for the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

The following is an extract from a commentary authored by Dominik Hierlemann and Anna Wohlfarth of the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

"For many years citizens in the EU merely existed in the form of what tended to be referred to as 'organised civil society,' which, as the years went by, was increasingly consulted in a variety of ways by the EU decision-making bodies.

However, what could be depicted to the European public as a strengthening of civil society or even of democracy as such was basically nothing more than incorporation into the classical and often clandestine committee-based policymaking under the supervision of the European Commission.

This has changed as a result of the European Citizens' Initiative, even if most people have not as yet noticed it. In fact, the Citizens' Initiative has for the very first time given EU citizens the opportunity to make themselves heard in the European policy debate on a subject of their choice. A million EU citizens is all it takes to force European policymakers to engage in a specific debate.

The critics point out that genuine participation is quite different, and feel encouraged in their demands for referendums. The European Commission is in fact under no obligation to translate the partial will of the people that finds expression in a Citizens' Initiative into European law. However, those who have a low opinion of the Citizens' Initiative (and such views are shared by many MEPs) have failed to understand the dynamism which it may well unfold.

The European media will no doubt publish reports about the initiatives, if only because their simple form is so strikingly different from the tangled web of issues and decision-making which prevails in Brussels. And the initiators themselves, EU citizens, will create a wholly new kind of cross-border communication. So no matter what the issue happens to be, it will not be possible for it to be incorporated into the classical and often clandestine committee-based policymaking under the supervision of the European Commission.

The Commission proposals include a requirement that signatures for a Citizens' Initiative must come from at least a third of the member states (currently this would be nine). The lower limits in the case of the smaller member states would be slightly more and in the case of the larger member states slightly less than 0.2% of the population.

Both individuals and organisations are permitted to launch a Citizens' Initiative. It has to be registered with the Commission, and there is a requirement to publish a transparency report which will contain information about the financial backing for and the supporters of the initiative. After registering a particular Citizens' Initiative with the Commission, the organisers have one year in which to collect signatures online or in person.

This makes it ideally suited to large pressure groups such as the European Trade Union
Confederation, with its 60 million members. Yet participation in itself is not always automatically democratic. For this reason, when it comes to implementation, it is important to ensure that it adheres to democratic norms.

For example, it should be inclusive – every EU citizen should be able to launch an ECI without intransparencies over its procedures. Do the EU institutions really support the idea that EU citizens should be allowed to participate in the decision-making process?

The EU is still a democracy without a 'demos' or people. However, a European 'demos' is now beginning to materialise, and it will receive added support from the Citizens' Initative.

The European Citizens' Initiative is an experiment, and the European Union is once again embarking on an institutional innovation. However, when one compares it with the nation states, the EU has actually demonstrated its ability to adopt reforms despite having to grapple with a number of tortuous debates.

At the same time the Citizens' Initiative should be no more than one of the many elements that are making a contribution to the ongoing democratisation of the EU. In other words, the development of European democracy and new forms of citizen participation has certainly not reached the end of the road."

To read the commentary in full, please click here

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