EP Proposals Make ECI Easier to Use…But Not More Impactful
On 29 October 2015, Members of European Parliament (MEPs) will vote in plenary on a report to reform the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). This report was adopted unanimously by the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) on 28 September 2015. It contains many helpful changes which, if implemented, could make the ECI much easier to use. However, it doesn’t do enough to make the ECI a meaningful tool of participatory democracy. In particular, it does little to make registration decisions less restrictive and does not go far enough to ensure that successful ECIs result in a meaningful legal response.
Provided there is sufficient cross-institutional support, an official revision of ECI Regulation 211/2011 would likely begin in early 2016. It requires a proposal by the European Commission that will be negotiated then by Parliament and Council.
The European Parliament (EP) has been reviewing the ECI’s implementation since February, drawing on a Commission analysis, Ombudsman’s report and a preliminary Council position, as well as the experiences of ECI organisers and opinions of participatory democracy researchers shared in hearings and events.
Throughout this time, The ECI Campaign has repeatedly asserted that the ECI is in grave danger of falling into disuse and proposed 12 reforms to ensure its survival. While most of these reforms have been incorporated into the EP’s report, the three most important points are either missing entirely or risk being watered down so as to be meaningless. Below is an initial assessment of which points in the EP report merit a thumbs up (included), thumbs down (absent) or thumbs sideways (caution).
|1. Make the registration procedure less restrictive.
Despite charges, including from respected legal scholars, that the Commission has occasionally misused its registration decisions to eliminate ECIs it does not like, no changes were suggested to this process. The EP leaves it up to the European Court of Justice to rule on specific cases. In the meantime, it seeks to increase the number of ECIs registered by providing better legal advice to ECI campaigners and suggesting that the Commission register parts of ECIs.
|2. Allow ECIs that require treaty amendments to implement.
AFCO members were deeply divided on this point. Unable to come to agreement, they opted to leave this decision to the EU Court of Justice (CJEU). Unfortunately, none of the six cases before the CJEU challenging Commission registration decisions concern ECIs that would require treaty amendment.
|3. Ensure that the Commission takes successful ECIs seriously.
This is the most contentious and still unresolved aspect of the EP’s report. The initial report “calls on the Commission to revise the wording of Article 10(c) of Regulation 211/2011 to allow proper follow-up to a successful ECI, including a parliamentary debate in plenary followed by a vote on the ECI; urges the Commission to start preparing a legal act on successful ECIs within 12 months of their acceptance.”
An S&D / EPP amendment limited this to ECIs on which the Commission had “issued a positive opinion”, rendering this point meaningless.
|4. Simplify and harmonise personal data requirements and procedures.
The EP report “calls for the introduction of a uniform procedure for making statements of support by amending Annex III to Regulation (EU) No 211/2011 in order to standardise the nature of the data collected in the Member States”.
Standardisation would help tremendously to simplify campaigning. However, it’s vital that standardisation does not result in the addition of personal data requirements in countries that now have few.
|5. Eliminate ID number requirements.
The EP report helpfully “encourages the Commission to negotiate further with Member States with a view to reducing the number of data requirements, removing – accordingly – the requirement for personal identification numbers and making them more user-friendly”. However, ultimately, this is still up to the Member States to implement.
|6. Redesign the online signature collection system.
Bravo to the EP for recognising the importance of simplifying the technical regulation governing the ECI’s online collection system. Member State and NGO technical experts agree that they are excessively burdensome. Specifically, the EP report “calls on the Commission to undertake, as soon as possible, a comprehensive revision of the ECI Regulation and of Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 1179/2011 in order to eliminate all remaining obstacles and create clear, simple, user-friendly and proportionate procedures."
|7. Allow the collection of e-mail addresses within the ECI support form and permit ECI organisers to contact signatories.
The EP report recognises the importance of emails to creating a two-way dialogue between citizens and EU institutions. It asks “to simplify and revise the technical specifications for the online collection of signatures so that e-mail addresses can be collected on a non-mandatory basis on the same screen as the support form but stored in a separate database”.
|8. Let ECI campaigns choose their own start date.
The EP report will ensure that ECI campaigns will have 12 full months to collect signatures as it “underlines its position that the automatic link between the registration of a Citizens' Initiative and the starting date of the twelve-month period for the collection of statements of support should be removed”. This point is uncontroversial, but does require a change to the Regulation.
|9. Lower the age of ECI support to 16.
The EP has both recognised the advisory nature of the ECI and the importance of involving youth. It therefore “calls on the Commission to amend Regulation (EU) No 211/2011 Article 3 and to recommend to Member States lowering the age of the ECI support and participation from 18 years to 16 years”.
|10. Offer an ECI support infrastructure with legal advice, translation and funding.
The report “calls on the EU to organise publicity and promotion campaigns to give the European Citizens' Initiative a higher profile in the media and among the public.” This is a uncontroversial point that does not require any changes to the Regulation.
|11. Provide a legal status to protect citizens’ committee members and allow fundraising.
The EP report helpfully “proposes, (…), that citizens' committees should be able to acquire legal personality”. It also suggests limiting the personal liability of ECI citizens’ committee members.
|12. Increase public and media awareness of the ECI.
The report “calls on the Commission to provide appropriate and comprehensive guidance as early as possible to the organisers of ECIs”, as well as the possibility to organise an ECI campaign in one’s mother tongue. Like #10, this is uncontroversial issue that does not require any changes to the Regulation.