The European citizens’ initiative was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty as a new form of public participation, enabling citizens to directly shape the European policy and to improve the development of its legislation process. On 1 April 2012, more than 10 years after the EU leaders declared the will to make the Union more democratic, the citizens’ initiative came into force and started to operate.
With regard to the citizens’ initiative Article 11(4) TEU states that “not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its power, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where the citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties”. Regulation 211/2011 was adopted in February 2011 in order to set out the procedures and conditions required for such a citizens’ initiative. Nevertheless, many doubts have come up and the public and institutions are waiting to see how this new instrument is going to develop.
The European citizens’ initiative enables one million citizens from at least seven different EU Member States to invite the European Commission to bring forward and propose legislation in areas where the Commission has the power to do so (see the official guide published by the Commission). The citizens’ committee, i.e. the official “organizer” of a citizens’ initiative, has one year to collect the signatures, which have to be certified by the competent national authorities in each EU Member State where the statements of support have been collected. After an initiative has received the required number of signatures it is submitted to the European Commission which has three months to examine the initiative and to decide how to act on it.
With the introduction of the European citizens’ initiative the European Union has taken the first significant step towards making the Union more democratic. By implementing the citizens’ initiative and enabling the citizens to shape the European debate and the development of its legislation, the Union has dipped its toe into the unpredictable world of participatory democracy. This may have both negative and positive effects on the Union which will be seen in the future.
The Pros and cons of the European citizens’ initiative
The EU Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič in his Foreword to the official guide published by the Commission asserts that the citizens’ initiative will open a new chapter in the democratic life of the Union, since it will provide “a direct gateway for EU citizens to make their voices heard in Brussels”. The new right, according to Vice-President Šefčovič, will bring about lively cross-border debates about EU issues.
The advantage of the European citizens’ initiative is clear. The citizens’ initiative strives for participatory democracy which enables citizens to make the political system more open to individual issues of particular interest to them.1 As of 1 April 2012, EU citizens have the opportunity to influence the legislative agenda of the European Union, a possibility that never existed before at a supranational level.
There are however some difficulties with the citizens’ initiative. As mentioned above one million signatures from at least seven different EU Member States are required for the an initiative to be considered by the European Commission. This obligatory requirement shows that a lot of effort is needed from the citizens’ committees. Even though we live on the same continent, EU citizens living in different countries may have different priorities. Something that could be importantin Eastern Europe is perhaps not considered essential in Sweden or Germany. The above mentioned rules will make it difficult to fulfill the requirements set out by the Regulation.
Another difficulty that emerges from the legal framework of the citizens’ initiative is the system used for counting the statements of support, i.e. the signatures. For an initiative to be approved by the Commission there has to be a significant quantity of signatories from each EU Member State: e.g. 74 250 signatures are required in Germany, while only 4 500 signatures are required from Malta (see Annex I of the Regulation). The problem, however, is not the setting of a minimum number of signatories for every Member State to be accepted, but rather the lack of homogeneity when it comes to the political and legal systems, as well as legal cultures and traditions etc. The European states are not homogeneous at all. They have different cultures and interests, different legal and voting systems where some countries have simpler rules in regards the voting and the gathering of signatures than others.
The one year time limit within which the citizens’ committees have to collect one million signatures may also be criticised, hence it is quite hard to collect so many signatures across the Union under such a short time span. Not only is it hard to promote a question in one single country but it also takes a lot of time and effort to collect signatures, which of course leads to the urging question of how it is possible to promote an initiative and collect signatures across a whole continent in just one year. Since nothing impedes to the citizens’ committees to re-propose the same question (the Regulation does not exclude it), this could also bring to a cyclic problem, which forces the citizens’ committee to start the procedure all over again.
The fact that the different EU Member States have different legal systems and different traditions as well as interests when it comes to arising political issues, the gathering of signatures could be easier in some European countries than others. Thanks to the newly developed online social networks it is nowadays easier to participate, spread and share information across the continent, which will facilitate and have a positive impact on the European citizens’ initiative. The Arab revolution that took place at the end of 2010 is an example of how social networks can influence the public. During the Arab Spring internet and online communities showed to have a great power when it came to the spreading of information, agenda setting and policy-making.
The main purpose of the citizens’ initiative is to involve the individuals in lawmaking. The European Union wants to democratise its work and its approach to different political and legal questions. In order to enable the citizens to take initiatives, promote their interests and make their voices heard in Brussels, can lead to a more democratic European Union. Opponents to the European citizens’ initiative argue that the Union does not have to become more democratic, hence there are already representatives sitting in the European Parliament who directly represent the interests of the people. The advocates of the citizens’ initiative, on the other hand, argue that the European Union has to be more open for the individuals, and that this new instrument is a first step towards including the individual in the legislative agenda of the Union, and consequently towards achieving a more democratic Union. The European citizens’ initiative is an opportunity for the citizens to put pressure on the politicians and to make the political system more open to individual issues of particular interest to them. The European citizens’ initiative is supposed to move citizens away from a complete dependence on their political representatives.
To put it in a nutshell, the citizens’ initiative has both advantages and disadvantages. This newly established instrument could also be manipulated by the special interests of the more powerful EU Member States or by politically engaged elites. As such, the citizens’ initiative may become a vehicle for dominating the European Commission’s attention and agenda. At the moment, however, this is just a speculation. The actual application of the European citizens’ initiative will be seen in a couple of years after it will have been given a chance to operate. Although it is quite uncertain whether the citizens’ initiative will be able to make a breakthrough in the decision-making process of the Union. One fact is clear: it will depend both on the conditions set out by the Member States concerning practical implementation and on the citizens’ response to it.
Mathieu Delsol, Marijela Kokalovic, Airton Valente, and Samiya Warsame
1 Damian Chalmers, Gareth Davies & Giorgio Monti, European Union Law, 2nd ed., 2010, Cambridge University Press, at 136.