European Citizens’ Initiative: take it or leave it. Guest blog by Isabel Báez Lechuga

2015-07-27 News

The European Citizens´ Initiative (ECI) was created with great expectations. It was supposed to be the key tool to become a main driver to get citizens into EU affairs, and the way forward. In fact, it has just become another instrument to inflate the already long list of existing direct-democracy instruments.

The ECI is a great instrument to serve proactive citizens who want to deal with EU legislation, who show interest in having a word on EU issues. ECI legislation contains among the most progressive rules in the world. However, the ECI is not making a difference: its use is completely marginal,shown by the fact that only 4 ECIs have reached one million signatures and only one is being considered by the European Commission.

The point of this article is that legislative changes can come into force but these changes face difficulty modifying the current panorama: the ECI is an under-utilized democratic tool unknown by most parts of society. Only civil society associations and lobbies are using the ECI, distorting its original objective to be an instrument for the citizens, not for civil groups.

In spite of being one of the most advanced legislation in comparison with others, the current regulation does not help the ECI become the much hoped-for instrument to solve the problem of legitimacy in Europe. Many changes are needed in order to consider the ECI as a realistic instrument to serve its purposes. Some of them are:

  • To allow the ECI to rule on primary law.
  • To give the ECI power not only to suggest new legislation, but also to remove it.
  • To guarantee data protection in each Member State.
  • To give legal status to the organisers.
  • To reduce the discretional nature of the European Commission when evaluating an ECI or to set an external, impartial committee which can judge ECI proposals.
  • To solve problems with the online system which impede with the effective use of the ECI.
  • To reduce the legal age of signatories to 16 years old.
  • To allow residents – not only nationals – to take part in the ECI.
  • To guarantee a political response (in the plenary by a debate or a resolution, or in the European Parliament by a report on the initiative) to initiatives that reach one million signatures but did not fulfil all the technicalities.
  • To introduce more transparency in the phase after the presentation of an ECI. Today, we know little about what happens in the EC after an ECI has reached one million signatures.
  • To offer public financing to ensure everyone equal chances and to foster ECI use among organisers.
  • More EC communication with citizens, more campaigns, more publicity.
  • To oblige the EC to draft a legal text on a successful ECI.
  • To help ECI organisers translate their proposals into other languages, including regional languages. The Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee have already offered to help with this.
  • To apply just one part of the ECI in case another part has been rejected.
  • To allow organisers to be able to choose the starting date to collect signatures.
  • To extend the signature collection period to 18 months.

Now, the question is: will these modifications solve the problem of the ECI’s under-use? In my opinion, this is not the case. The modifications suggested above are just one step forward but this cannot neglect that European citizens have shown no interest towards this instrument. Just a very small part of the population proposed/signed initiatives: experts involved in EU issues, politicised people, and lobbies. The rest, the vast majority of the population, ignores – or does not know about – the existence of this instrument.

This fact, however, does not make the ECI a useless instrument at the service of lobbies and experts. On one hand, we cannot pretend modifications of the current legal obstacles would single-handedly enable the ECI to be used as a real democratic instrument at the disposal of the citizens. On the other hand, we need to change the roots of the democratic game to allow the ECI to be used. The ECI is not going to change the establishment, but it’s only by doing so the citizens will use the ECI.

We were wrong in our approach. Legal modifications are already a step to move forward, not only to change the ECI, but to change the status quo. Once this is done, we will be able to talk about a real instrument and to re-imagine the power of citizens in the decision-making process.

Isabel Baez – PhD from UNED in law. She wrote her doctoral thesis on the European Citizens’ Initiative. Assistant to Guerrero Salom Enrique, Member of the European Parliament.