The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), the only tool of direct and participatory democracy at supranational level that allows European citizens to channel their ideas into EU decision-making process, turns three years old.1 By collecting one million signatures from at least seven member states within one year, an ECI invites the European Commission to consider the proposal. Throughout the past three years 51 European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECIs) were launched, however the European Commission declared 20 of those inadmissible. 28 ECIs did not make it to collect the required one million signatures within one year. Only three ECIs managed to do so, yet the Commission has turned none of these into EU law. So, we do not celebrate the European democracy!
Bearing in mind that the ECI was response on the criticism that European Commission is not enough democratic and that citizens couldn’t participate in EU decision-making, it was the first step toward increasing direct democracy in the European Union. Three years after, the conclusion of many civil society organizations and initiatives across the Europe is that ECI has not met expectations. Why? First, there was a great expectation about this unique instrument for transnational participatory democracy and then it has brought a lot of disappointment. Only three ECIs managed to collect the required one million signatures and submit a proposal for a legal act to European Commission. Three years after the entry into force of the ECI, the citizens of the EU are not so familiar with the mechanism of the European Citizens’ Initiative. It is important to say that in the last three years there were five million signatures of citizens of the European Union on different kind of ECIs. It means that five million people were directly engaged somehow into EU policy making process. It is more than zero before 2012, but still quite a bit from what was expected, and that is the real effect. Second, there are technical issues to be dealt with the open source software for online signature gathering developed by the European Commission. The online collection system is not user-friendly and does not let campaigners’ access email addresses of signatories to keep them informed. Third, there is little guarantee that a successful ECI will have an actual impact on EU legislation. The European Commission has no obligation to implement it in the legislation even if the initiative passes. The Commission may or may not propose new legislation in line with the citizens’ initiative submitted. So, the initiative is limited in its actions in terms of what can be achieved with it even when it passes.
One of the most famous refused request was the “STOP TTIP”2. The proponents of this initiative wanted the Commission to make a recommendation to the Council to cancel the negotiation of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and not to complete the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA). The reason behind the refusal of the initiative was its aim not being in line with the Commission’s powers. In the response to the organizers, the Commission stated that “the preparatory Council decisions authorizing the opening of international negotiations or repealing such authorization do not fall within the scope of the Regulation”. The alliance of organisations behind this initiative have submitted a complaint in the European Court of Justice against this decision of the European Commission.3 The lawsuit is directed against EC’s weak and politically-motivated reasons for rejecting the Stop TTIP ECI. But the Court’s decisions could take years to be issued. However, this case could be some kind of the milestone for the future of the European citizens’ initiative.
The ‘self-organised’ European Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP and CETA is currently supported by over 290 organizations from across Europe. So far, it has collected one million and 600 thousand signatures. Initiators want to show that EU citizens care about this agreement and that the majority of citizens believe that the contracts are not good. It shows that the collecting signatures across Europe, as well as cross-border cooperation could be strong politically powerful instrument.
Let us recall the first ever successful European Citizens’ Initiative “Right to water”4. This initiative is carried out the redefinition of the water as a public good. It successes to change EU’s mind-set from its current focus on competition and completely market-based approach, to a public service attitude and a rights-based approach. Today, the water is a public good fundamental for life and health. It has far-reaching political consequences. It is not only a technical issue. It has returned citizens in policy and shows that ECI has the potential to become a policy creating instrument that will improve citizens’ influence in the EU political context by reinforcing the exchange of civic competence.
The Commission admits that the ECI still needs to be improved, and I fully agree, but the European Commission should take more seriously ECI as a method to open a real political debate. The ECI regulation requires a revision of the instrument in the next months and the EU Parliament and Commission will decide on the future of this instrument. This is a window of opportunity. European citizens have to do everything they can to avoid obstruct their democratic right. Re-designed and re-launched, the ECI could make Europe the driving force for more participatory democracy. It could show EU citizens that the EU can be a positive force in their lives. Hopefully in one year time there will be a reason to celebrate!
1. The European Citizens’ Initiative was launched on 1 April 2012 when Regulation 211/2011, based on the Treaty of Lisbon, Article 11(4) TEU, entered into force. The Regulation determined the main criteria for registering, running and presenting an ECI
2. A self-organised European Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP and CETA
3. European Citizens’ Initiative against TTIP: Submission of complaint in the European Court of Justice
4. The first ever successful European Citizens’ Initiative is “Right to Water”