Commission Unlikely to Revise ECI Regulation This Year
High hopes for reform of Regulation 211/2011 implementing the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) were raised on 28 October 2015 when the European Parliament overwhelmingly approved a resolution asking the Commission to make the ECI more user-friendly. Those hopes were completely dashed on 22 February 2016 during an ECI hearing at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) when a Commission representative made it clear that the ECI Regulation would not be revised this year. This comes on the heels of the release of minutes of the December 2015 College of Commissioners’ meeting where Commissioners described the ECI as a potentially dangerous tool that endangers European unity and needs to be limited.
At the EESC hearing, speaker after speaker shared how the rules and procedures required by ECI Regulation 211/2011 make the ECI unnecessarily difficult to use and frustratingly limited in its impact. The Commission representative, Carmen Preising, admitted that there was “very little divergence of opinion” on both how difficult the ECI is to use or how it could be improved. However, there is a clear lack of political will for ECI reform within both the Commission and Council. Tellingly, neither Commissioner Timmermans nor any members of either his or President Juncker’s cabinet spoke at this hearing.
Number of ECI signatures collected per year
Citizens’ support of registered ECIs has crashed since 2014.
Ms. Preising suggested that demands for “ideological changes” to the ECI would reduce the chances of the ECI Regulation being revised. These “ideological changes” include allowing ECIs to ask for treaty amendments and increasing ECI impact by requiring the Commission to respond to successful ECIs with a legislative proposal within 12 months. Even though all legislative proposals go through normal legislative procedures, the Commission wants to retain complete control over follow-up on ECIs. She said that the Commission has taken more action on successful ECIs than is publicly known, but further confirmation of this is needed.
She instead suggested that ECI reformers limit their demands to what she called “pragmatic changes”, such as raising public awareness of the ECI and providing better guidance to potential ECI organisers. However, no specific budget line related to the ECI is funding the Commission’s ECI unit. So it is unclear how it could do anything more than it does now. Some legal advice and a non-binding opinion on legal admissibility are already provided to potential ECIs via Europe Direct.
While the ECI Campaign has called for a removal of the legal admissibility check at registration in order to maximise public debate, this was not supported by the Parliament and has been completely rejected by the Commission. Ms. Preising insisted that ECI registration decisions are made on purely technical grounds by the Commission’s legal service. However, the College of Commissioners is now informed of all ECI registration requests, not just those that are rejected. It is unclear why this new procedure was started or what impact it might have.
ECI advocates were simultaneously enraged and perplexed upon learning that, although there is near universal agreement on both the implementation problems and the democratic potential of the ECI, the Commission still delays proposing reform of the ECI Regulation. While Ms. Preising said that a revision is still theoretically possible, it was clear that key decision-makers within the Commission and Council wish to postpone any serious consideration of this option for the foreseeable future.
At potentially the most dangerous moment in the EU’s history, when governments of several Member States are pushing the Union apart, the ECI presents an ideal tool to bring the EU’s citizens together across borders around shared values, goals and aspirations, and to bring EU institutions closer to their citizens. Rather than allowing the ECI to die by benign neglect, EU leaders should instead be doing everything they can to ensure that the ECI is effective, influential and used!