Council position on ECI revision detrimental on two issues
On 26 June 2018, the Council of the European Union announced that it has concluded its own internal work on the legislative revision of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) and is ready to enter into interinstitutional negotiations. Unlike the Parliament’s proceedings, the Council’s work has been largely shielded from the public view, but now that its negotiating mandate is published, we can observe a Council that largely supports the Commission’s proposal but deviates on two critical issues: the involvement of 16- and 17-year olds and the provision regarding individual online collection systems.
The Council rejects the Commission’s proposal to lower the minimum age for co-signatories of ECIs to 16 EU-wide. This proposal would give an additional 10 million young EU citizens the opportunity to directly participate in agenda-setting processes in the EU by means of signing citizens’ initiatives. In a time when the electoral engagement of young people is increasingly deteriorating, the ECI is an excellent opportunity to involve young people in the democratic life of the Union. The Council’s rejection of this proposal is disappointing and it fails to recognise that the ECI instrument is of particular value for young people, who are increasingly organised around concrete issues rather than ideologies. Sticking to the voting age for European elections as the minimum age for signatories (16 in Austria, but 18 in all other EU Member States), as the Council proposes, is an unnecessarily rigid position, in particular because of the non-binding character of the instrument.
The other issue on which the Council deviates from the Commission’s proposal is even more worrying, as it proposes to take us a step back relative to the current ECI regulation and state of affairs. The Council wants to take away the free choice of ECI organisers to either use the central online collection software, developed and offered by the Commission, or to use an alternative, so-called “individual online collection system”. Currently, there is one alternative to the Commission software – the OpenECI software, developed by Campact and The ECI Campaign – which, however, is in frequent demand of ECI organisers and also offered for free. The Council defends its position by reference to a ‘lack of proportionality’ and ‘administrative burden’. These arguments are highly debatable. The main reason to maintain the status quo is that it fosters a healthy competition between the official Commission software and the software developed by others – which needs to be certified by a competent national authority and thus equally meets all official criteria. In fact, this competition fosters the further development of the software, thus resulting in the best possible end product – and a free choice – for ECI organisers. If anything, this open market for ECI software creates more efficiency and the costs going into certification is a low price to pay.
Beyond these two issues, the Council also takes a slightly different position on the question of data that citizens need to submit in order to sign an ECI, requesting the submission of all the digits of citizens’ personal identification number for nationals of Member States that choose to be included under part B of Annex III. The Commission proposed that this requirement remains limited to the last 4 digits of citizens’ personal identification number.
On all these three issues, the European Parliament’s position is in line with the Commission’s proposal. Interinstitutional negotiations between the three institutions are starting in September 2018 and are expected to be concluded by the end of the year. The new regulation is expected to come into force on 1 January 2020.