April 1st marked the third anniversary of the beginning of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Even if its implementation was foreseen already in the Lisbon treaty (which entered into force in 2009), the enforcement of the ECI was postponed until 2012. The ECI was presented as an important instrument for EU citizens, that would allow them to influence and directly shape the EU legislation. What did the ECI really bring and can we be satisfied with it?
THE INITIATIVE IN BRIEF
The European Citizens’ Initiative represents a form of direct democracy. It allows one million of EU citizens from at least seven different EU countries to urge the Commission to prepare legislation that falls under EU competence. Before the collection of the support signatures, the initiative’s promoters have to establish a Citizens’ Committee, made of at least seven members from at least as many EU countries. This Committee than presents the initiative to the Commission. If the Commission finds that the initiative falls under EU competence, the signature collection can start. For this task the Committee has 12 months.
If the Committee manages to get enough signatures, the Commission has to meet the Committee’s representatives, who can then present the initiative and the reasons for it. The organizers can then present their initiative at the European Parliament. After that the Commission has to prepare an answer in which it presents the potential measures that would be prepared.
In the past three years, the Commission got 51 different initiatives. Among them 20 were rejected as inappropriate, while 10 were withdrawn by the organizers themselves. 15 initiatives ended with the signature collection, while 3 are still in the collection process. Until now only 3 initiatives made it to the finish line – two already got the Commission’s answer, while one is still waiting for it.
Even if the ECI represents a kind of “sui generis” instrument (as a lot of things on EU level), we can find similar instruments also on national level. In Slovenia, for example, the citizens have a theoretical better instrument, as 5.000 voters can prepare and present to the National Assembly a law proposal to be debated. In the ECI case there is no guarantee that a legislative proposal will be made, as the Commission is not obliged to prepare anything else than a feedback report.
THE “HEALTH STATUS” OF THE ECI
Regulation 211/2011 who, together with article 11(4) of the Treaty of the EU, represents the basic legislation for the ECI implementation requires the Commission to prepare a regular report on the implementing of the ECI every three years. The first report was published the day before the third anniversary of the ECI.
In the report the Commission highlights the main problems that came out during the implementation and the ones pointed out by the organizers themselves. The Commission therefore highlights the problems regarding the indefinite legal status of the Citizens’ Committees, the different requests regarding the signature checks made by the different EU countries, the problems linked with the translations (the committees can in fact choose into which EU languages they will translate the text of the initiative) and the problems linked with the on-line signature collection platform.
Beside this problems the Commission considers that the ECI is fully implemented and at the same time warns that it is still too early to make any conclusions regarding the impact of the ECI to the EU legislative process.
Beside the EC, the EU Ombudsman also prepared her own report. In it the Ombudsman suggests to the EC to be more carefull in the preparation of the rejection decision, as they should be more consistent and comprehensible. Moreover, the Ombudsman also pointed out the problems that some EU citizens living outside their own countries within the EU can’t express their support. Therefore, the Ombudsman stressed the EC to stress the member states to simplify their requirements and, if needed, to propose a change of the regulation to uniform the requirements.
HOW WERE THE CURRENT INITIATIVES SUCCESSFUL
Among the 31 registered initiatives, only three made it to the finish line – the initiative requesting the respect of the human right to water “Right2Water”, the initiative requesting the stop of financing the research and other activities that request the destruction of human embryos “One Of Us” and the initiative to abrogate the legislation regarding the protection of animals used for scientific purposes “Stop vivisection”. The first two already obtained an answer, while the third is still waiting for it.
In the case of the “Right2Water” initiative the Commission has committed to adopt and implement several actions. Among them, the EC already launched a public consultation regarding the Drinking Water Directive from 1998, with which it wanted to obtain feedback regarding the need to change the directive. The directive is still under examination by the EC, who should soon publish a timeline regarding the next steps to be taken.
The “One Of Us” initiative was less successful, as the Commission report stated that the current legislative framework for this topics is adequate. Because of that the Citizens’ Committee is challenging the report at the Court of the EU.
The third successful initiative “Stop vivisection” is currently waiting for the Commission’s answer, that should be delivered by the 3rd of June.
WHAT ARE THE NEXT STEPS FOR THE ECI
As many of the things on EU level, the ECI is far from being perfect. We also shouldn’t have the illusion that the ECI would narrow the democratic deficit of the EU and that the EU citizens will be able to shape directly the EU legislation. However, it represents a good starting point that could wake up the civil society and trigger the highly needed public debates on how to change things.
More than the (direct) Commission’s reaction, I think that the real potential of the initiatives lies in the triggering of the public debates about the topics they represent. This could be specially valid for the initiatives that were unable to get the necessary amount of signatures that would request a Commission reaction. However, this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be taken into consideration for a public debate. These initiatives should also have the possibility to obtain their “15 minutes of fame” in front of the European Parliament and the MEPs who could than, if interested, put the initiative’s ideas into action.
Finally, the rejected initiatives also remind us that we don’t know the EU and that the democratic deficit could be narrowed already with a better knowledge of the EU. This knowledge could be increased only with a bigger public debate on the EU and its meaning.