The most apparent way of making your voice heard in the EU is by voting in the European Parliament election. An alternative is launching a European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). The ECI is a tool that since 2012 allows European citizens to actively participate in the policy-making process of the EU. A successful European Citizens’ Initiative can lead to a legislative proposal by the European Commission and in the end to an EU legislative act. Although, unlike the Swiss system of referendums, the European Commission is not obliged to adopt a successful initiative. As written in an earlier blog post on this topic, the ECI is a step towards making the EU system more democratic. But, how is the system working in reality? What are the results so far, three years after the ECI entered into force? Recently (31st of March 2015) the Commission published a Report on the subject.
What is the European Citizens’ Initiative?
The notion of EU citizenship, on which the ECI emerged, was first introduced in the Maastricht Treaty. Provisions similar to the current system were initially included in the draft Constitutional Treaty (Article 47(4)). While the Convention Praesidium rejected these provisions in the final text, intensive efforts of civil society organisations allowed them to be preserved. Following the failure of the ratification process for the Constitutional Treaty, similar provisions were reinserted in the Lisbon Treaty. Nowadays, the right to submit an ECI is recognized under Title II of the Treaty on European Union (TEU). Article 11(4) TEU enshrines the basic framework and Article 24(1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) sets out the general principles for a regulation which defines the concrete procedures and conditions.
A European Citizens’ Initiative must be supported by at least one million EU citizens, coming from at least 7 of the 28 Member States. On top of that, there is a requirement of a minimum number of signatories from each of the 7 Member States. The signatures must be collected during one year and the citizens’ initiative must be within an area where the Commission has the power to make legislative proposals. These requirements can be found in Regulation No 211/2011 on the citizens’ initiative and if all of them are fulfilled, the Commission is obliged to formally discuss the citizens’ initiative and respond to it in the form of a communication. In this communication the Commission should clarify what, if any, action it will propose and the reasons why. However, the Commission is not obliged to make a legislative proposal. If a proposal is made, the legislative procedure required by the treaties in that policy field will begin.
One initiative per 10 million citizens and declining
On the official website of the ECI one can find information about all the initiatives made since the start in 2012. There have been 51 initiatives in total and as pointed out by the Commission’s Report the amount of initiatives seems to be declining on a yearly basis. 20 of the 51 initiatives were refused by the Commission for the same reason:
“The proposed citizens’ initiative falls manifestly outside the framework of the Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for a legal act of the Union for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.”
22 out of the 31 initiatives accepted by the Commission were either withdrawn or failed to acquire sufficient support. Of the remaining 9 initiatives 3 are still open to signatures and 3 are closed but have not been submitted to the Commission yet. One initiative has been submitted but is still awaiting answer and two initiatives have been answered, namely One of us and Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity!, both have already been discussed by the Commission but only the latter has made it further in the legislative process. These results can be seen positively, although we have yet to see a citizens’ initiative becoming an EU legislative act. One could say that the system is working, as there are initiatives that have proposed legislation straight from the citizens in a way previously impossible. However, one could also look at these numbers in a more critical way. In the European Union, with over half a billion citizens, there have only been 51 attempted initiatives in over three years – one per 10 million citizens. Out of these 51 initiatives only 3 have actually made it to the Commission, which is ultimately only the first step in the process of becoming a legislative act.
Living up to the prophecy
A considerable amount of initiatives (20) were disqualified, as they were not within the scope of the Commission’s competence. The citizens initiating these appear to wrongly believe that their cause is valid for the ECI. At least this would explain the high portion of disqualifications. It could be that the initiators lack proper information about the ECI? Another, perhaps even more serious, problem is that very few citizens have tried to launch an initiative. As stated above the amount of initiatives per capita is extremely low. What could be the possible reasons behind this? It is likely that very few EU citizens know that the ECI exists and those who know of it might lack trust in the ECI. The EU could be better at informing the citizens that they have the opportunity to actively participate in the policy-making process of the EU. As the initiatives have yet to yield any legal act and the vast majority have died along the road, it is not to far fetched to consider that the citizens, wishing for change, seek alternative ways of achieving it (e.g. lobbying). This problem might fix itself once an initiative becomes truly successful – which is yet to happen.
The two initiatives that have been answered by the Commission both raised significant funding (over €140 000 each). Although the third initiative, yet to be answered, has a more modest funding of €23 651, one could certainly ask if large amounts of money are necessary to generate a successful initiative. As of today, it seems like this is the case, which provide yet another barrier for the citizens to overcome.
The Commission’s Report from March 2015 interestingly points out some of the same weaknesses of the ECI as identified by the authors of a post (The European citizens’ initiative took off on 1st April: not an April Fool) on this blog three years after the post was published. The divergences in requirements for signatories between different Member States and the one-year time limit were problems identified by the authors and later confirmed by the Report. The Report furthermore mentions additional concerns, such as the problem to raise funds and the amount of initiatives falling outside the scope of the Commission’s competence. To conclude, the Commission’s Report shows that clearly there are some problems with the ECI system. However, one should take into consideration that the Commission also stated that it is still too early to assess the long-term impacts of the ECI on the EU institutional and legislative process. And therefore, perhaps we should tolerate that the ECI system is still suffering from childhood diseases as it has only been in force for three years? However, it is apparent that modifications are needed for the system to become a more frequently used tool and genuinely successful.
by Thomas Johansson, Lisa Nyström and Julia Sandgren