A turning point for the European Citizens’ Initiative?

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

The ECI is the only way for citizens to participate directly in European policy. [Dominic Alves/Flickr]

As the only tool for public participation in the EU’s democratic process, the European Citizens’ Initiative must be revised and improved as soon as possible, writes Sophie von Hatzfeldt.

Sophie von Hatzfeldt is the European campaigns manager for Democracy International.

On Monday 28 September 2015, Europe came one minuscule step closer to its citizens. The European Parliament’s Committee on Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) collectively agreed on proposals for improving the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) and called on the European Commission to urgently revise the regulation governing the ECI.

This vote sets a positive signal for the future of the European Citizens’ Initiative in a context of strong disillusionment with the instrument and growing distrust toward the EU institutions. The ECI was introduced in April 2012 to bring citizens closer to the EU institutions by giving them the opportunity to directly influence EU policy.

But three and a half years later the public’s resentment at how the instrument is handled by the authorities is soaring and the ECI seems to have lost virtually all its credibility and vitality. With merely two initiatives launched in 2015 (compared to 23 ECIs proposed in 2012), the failed aspirations of the ECI can all but be ignored.

Proposals adopted for the ECI revision

Given this, the decision of the parliamentary committee to adopt manifold proposals to make the ECI more user-friendly is a major forward-looking step. Proposals adopted by AFCO in the Report on the European Citizens’ Initiative address three types of reforms: first, technical and procedural enhancements; secondly, broader access to take part in the ECI; and lastly, a marginal increase in the political response to successful initiatives.

Proposals that were accepted in order to improve the ECI process include better guidance and legal advice for ECI organisers from the early stages on, greater flexibility in the registration and the commencement of the signature collection process, and free translations of all ECI texts. To increase accessibility, AFCO proposed to lower the participation age to 16, to make ECIs available in minority languages, and urged all member states to harmonise the data requested from citizens who sign ECIs.

ECI report does not go far enough

It has become widely acknowledged by the European Parliament and forcefully emphasised by civil society and past ECI organisers that the ECI will not regain its credibility unless it becomes better integrated into the democratic process and unless successful initiatives are sure to have a significant political impact. And yet, the political follow-up to ECIs adopted in the report is very restrictive. It was decided that successful ECIs should be debated and voted on in the Parliament’s plenary, if necessary, and that the Commission must present a legal act on successful ECIs within one year, but only if the Commission first issues a positive opinion.

A further issue that has been utterly neglected in the report is the permission for ECIs to deal with changes to the Lisbon Treaty – that is, a 400-page document regulating almost every aspect of EU policy. Clearly, the European Parliament (though elected by the citizens to represent their interests) is hesitant to give citizens greater influence over the law-making process, for fear of politically sensitive topics being advocated by future ECIs. But when will our policy-makers understand that mere technical and bureaucratic improvements are no longer adequate to address the fundamental flaws in our democratic system? And when will they recognise that politically unfavourable opinions amongst citizens will not be suppressed merely by disregarding them?

The bumpy path toward reform

Although the Parliament ought to have been more progressive in the ECI report by giving citizens a real influence over the EU legal process, its competent committee has at least made the unanimous decision that the ECI requires reform. This sends a strong signal to the remaining members of the European Parliament, who will make a final vote on the ECI report in the plenary at the end of October. And this will set the tone for the ensuing negotiations with the European Commission and Council regarding a revision of the ECI.

Quite contrary to the Parliament, the other EU institutions show a clear preference for the old-school closed-door politics between elites; to them the European Citizens’ Initiative seems to serve as a fig leaf rather than a real commitment to EU democracy. The ECI has been lauded as an exemplary tool of participatory democracy crucial for bringing citizens closer to the EU, and yet the Commission has expressed its strong unwillingness to address the pressing concerns through a revision of the instrument. Also in the Council there is disagreement between national delegations as to whether the ECI should be thoroughly revised or merely face cosmetic changes.

The disadvantaged citizen

The negotiations between the decision makers about the future of the ECI (which will take place in early 2016 between the European Parliament, Commission and Council) will clearly not be to the favour of citizens. Has there for example been an official public consultation by the Commission on what revisions are needed in the ECI to save it from extinction? Did the members of the Parliament’s AFCO committee respond to any of the 70,532 emails that were sent to them in recent days by supporters of Democracy International, urging them to vote for a stronger initiative right for citizens? Are the delegations in the Council discussing this important democratic conundrum in their own countries?

It seems that other crises currently engulfing Europe – the refugee crisis, Grexit and youth unemployment among others – are more important than the profound democratic crisis. But what the European Citizens’ Initiative and these many crises have in common is that they all reveal just how distanced politicians have come from the realities of the people. They each reveal the lack of solidarity and the incapability of decision-makers in Europe to act. What we need instead is a shift in discourse: we need more participation, solidarity and respect in Europe.

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