Democracy International – Power to the people!
Democracy International campaigns and advocates for the strengthening of participative processes in decision-making all around the world. In Europe, a major focus of our work has been the introduction and strengthening of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which was anchored in the Lisbon Treaty as a means to give people the right to directly participate in setting the legislative agenda of the European Union.
Democracy in Europe is increasingly under pressure. A fundamental disconnect between citizens and the European Union is threatening the legitimacy of the EU institutions, plummeting the public’s trust in EU governance, and risks bolstering populist, anti-European sentiments right across Europe. In this European Year for Development there have been a plethora of challenges to the fundaments of European unity. Now more than ever is the time for Europeans to pull together. If the European Union is to stand as a values community able to project itself onto the world stage, we need to ensure that its democratic legitimacy is airtight. That means focussing on working with its citizens.
Open up decision-making processes
Renewing Europe’s democratic system will require electoral reforms that transnationalise its representative democracy and, more importantly, reforms that foster participation and direct democracy. Opening up decision-making processes to the participation of citizens will lead to higher levels of public debate and ownership, as well as to more informed and legitimised policy-making. The European Citizens’ Initiative allows citizens to directly request the European Commission to propose new laws, provided it collects one million signatures from at least seven member states. This tool has been welcomed as a crucial channel to bring the European institutions closer to the citizens and to make citizens’ voices heard, thus strengthening our democracy.
Campaigning for reform
However, significant flaws in the ECI regulation and a lack of political willingness have made the ECI largely unsuccessful so far. Problems in the current design include legal and technical drawbacks. Very few Europeans even know of the instrument’s existence. And there is near-to no guarantee that a successful initiative will have an impact on EU policy. The fact that only three out of 51 ECIs have managed to meet the threshold of one million, and not a single one has led to any legislative change, clearly shows that the rules need to be improved.
The current review of the ECI by the European institutions presents a window of opportunity for improvement. In this context, Democracy International has campaigned for a more user-friendly and politically powerful ECI. We analysed the procedure, assessed practical challenges and developed concrete recommendations for reform. Parliamentarians that worked on drafting the ECI report received thousands of emails from individuals across Europe calling for a strengthening of the participation tool. And together with our partners Mehr Demokratie Germany and WeMove.EU we handed a petition with 76,397 signatures to the European Parliament before it voted on the ECI.
Experimenting with EU direct democracy
It is clear that the road to more democratic governance in Europe still has a long way to go. The ECI is a first step but it must be embedded in a deeper development of transnational democracy. A future endeavour would be to upgrade the ECI to trigger Europe-wide referenda on central decisions, such as changes to the Treaties. For the European Union to fulfil its role as a model for democracy, reforms that innovate and modernise its democratic system and that experiment with direct democracy are indispensable.
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