Domestic citizen initiatives – a safeguard to the subsidiarity principle?

elias-vartio-modifiedYesterday, the 25th of April 2013, was considered historic among many political commentators in Finland. The enthusiasm was caused by the Finnish Parliament (Eduskunta, Riksdagen) starting its debate the first citizen lawmaking-initiative, which is proposing a banning of the fur production in Finland. Since 1st of March 2012 Finnish citizen have been able to draft and initiate proposals on new laws. If the threshold of 50 000 signatures is reached within a period of six months, then the Finnish Parliament has to take the proposal into consideration and vote on it. Even if no laws are passed or revised, valuable discussion can be born on topics that ordinary parties or individual MP’s might not dare or want to bring forward. This was also noted by the parliamentarians responses; while many rejected the current content of the law proposal, nearly everyone greeted the new form of citizen democracy as a very welcome development. From a European perspective allowing for domestic citizen initiatives is also valuable bearing in mind the subsidiarity principle of the EU – it would be odd if citizens could only have a say on the European level (through ECI:s), but none on the domestic level.

On the the same day the law on citizen initiatives became effective(1st of March 2012), also the Open Ministry (Avoin Ministeriö) started operating online. The idea of the website is that anyone can draft laws and receive support, comments and expertise by other persons also interested in contributing to the effort. In many ways it’s similar to the original law making process, but it has been taken from the government and parliament cabinets to an online environment where anyone – at least in theory – can influence the law making process. The possibilities to really influence the laws being drafted is real and not theoretical, but so far reaching the threshold has required a well coordinated organized effort. So far only an initiative on animal rights and an initiative on an equal right to marry regardless the gender have passed the threshold. Both of these initiatives were backed by several actors in the civil society and were very successfully executed campaign wise. For instance, the campaign on the initiative on equal rights to marry was launched in full scale only after the lawmaking committee of the parliament had rejected the same initiative made by parliamentarians, claiming that there were more urgent matters requiring more attention. Once the campaign was launched by a joint effort of the civil society and Student Unions in March, the initiative reached more than 50 000 signatures already during the first 24 hours and has now received signatures nearly 150 000 signatures. Having the option to promote certain initiatives in this way on the domestic level makes sense. On the one hand, the threshold for getting the initiative through is much lower than on the European level and, on the other hand, the democratic reform also gives more room to more country specific concerns. In my view, “equal” opportunities to initiate law proposals on both European and domestic level better takes into account the concept of subsidiarity. One can only hope that more European countries will start providing this possibility for its citizens.

In Finland it still remains to be seen what weight the MP:s will give to the citizen initiatives in its law-making procedure. One thing is nevertheless certain. While a single citizen now can start an initiative, the proverb found on the American buck still remains largely true even in this matter: United we stand and divided we fall. Without popular support and a coordinated effort by the civil society no laws will pass the threshold on even the domestic level of any European country.