European Citizens’ Initiative – the 11th hour for a reform
By Katja Tuokko, Board Member of the European Movement International
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) was launched in 2012 with fanfares and plenty of attention. The new instrument was meant to bring the European Union closer to its citizens and to offer a direct channel of influence through which EU citizens would be able to propose legislative initiatives to the European Commission to take up. Five years after the launch of the instrument, the Commission has not made a single legislative initiative based on an ECI and after mounting pressure in September 2017 has finally come out with a proposal to reform the instrument. What has gone wrong with the European Citizens’ Initiative?
The European Citizens’ Initiative, a novelty of the Lisbon Treaty, shares many common characteristics with national citizens’ initiative instruments. A Citizens’ Committee of citizens from different EU countries first registers an initiative in which it suggests new legislation at EU level. The themes of the initiative registered so far range from protection of animals rights (Stop Vivisection) to liberalisation of e-cigarettes legislation in the EU as part of the Tobacco Directive (Free Vaping). If the Commission first of all assesses that the initiative falls under EU jurisdiction, the suggestion is accepted as a registered citizens’ initiative. After the approval, the hands-on work of signature collections begins: within twelve months, the Citizens Committee will have to collect one million signatures for its initiative in at least seven different EU countries. If the campaigners manage to gather the required number of signatures, the European Commission is to consider whether it the ECI should be taken forward as a legislative proposal.
With more than 30 registered initiatives, three citizens’ initiatives have reached the required number of signatures. The collection of millions of signatures has proved to be a massive workload for grassroots operators. Only traditional and organized movements such as trade unions and the Catholic Church have received the support of one million EU citizens required behind their own initiatives.
Even this respectable achievement has not led to genuine opportunities to influence policy-making as the European Commission has not taken the ECIs forward. The lack of concrete influence has discouraged campaigners and citizens who have been taking forward their proposals as EU legislation through a citizens’ initiative. After initial interest, less and less initiatives have been registered each year as campaigners and citizens’ lose faith on the impact fullness of the tool of direct democracy.
Why has the European Citizens’ initiative so toothless? Campaigners have repeatedly brought to light the evident problems the instrument has and listed a dozen of concrete suggestions to improve its functionality. There have been a number of technical and legal issues which had made the instrument both burdensome and difficult to use ordinary citizens: among other issues data collection rules upon signing the ECI differ from one EU country to the other causing an additional administrative burden for the campaigners. The twelve-month period of signature collection, starting from the moment when the Commission either approves or rejects the registration as ECI, has also been considered too short for a grassroots a civic movement to organise itself across Europe, put together a communications plan and gather necessary funding. The EMI has also underlined the need to address the apparent problems in its e-democracy position paper.
In September 2017, after mounting pressure, the Commission has published a proposal to reform the ECI. It includes many suggestions for improvements and will next be debated in EU institutions.
The European Citizens’ Initiative has encouraged many new players to take action at the EU level especially for the first time in newer EU member states in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe. Now with the proposal for renewal published, the EU Member States and the European Parliament should take the opportunity to reform the European Citizens’ Initiative. A working tool of direct democracy could genuinely bring the EU closer to its citizens.