Conclusion from 26.02.15 Public Hearing on the ECI in the European Parliament: “The ECI Needs Reform!”
On 26 February 2015, the Constitutional Affairs (AFCO) and Petitions (PETI) committees of the European Parliament organised a public hearing on the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). This marks the official start of debate on the review of the ECI Regulation. The European Commission will release its official report on the implementation of the ECI Regulation 2011/211 by 1 April 2015.
Despite security restrictions limiting attendance, the hearing attracted a standing-room only crowd. Present were key ECI stakeholders: the European Commission, Parliament and Council, EESC, civil society organisations and ECI organisers. The 3 ½ hours of discussion led all participants to one clear and unequivocal conclusion: the ECI needs reform.
MEP Danuta Hübner, AFCO chair, began the hearing by noting that support for ECIs shows that EU citizens are indeed interested in what the EU does. MEP Cecilia Wikstrom, PETI chair, added that the ECI has great potential, but the energy around it is fading. Both stressed that making the ECI work will be their priority during the reform period.
Commissioner Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission responsible for the ECI, expressed a sense of personal responsibility to improve the ECI so that it does not disappear. He cited the concerning issue of distrust between citizens and EU institutions and society. Although the ECI alone won’t solve this problem, it is one of the building blocks. He also would like to take a more political approach to the ECI, giving more space to debate vs. legal impact. He promised to listen to ECI stakeholders and find innovative ways to tackle their concerns – with the caveat that the Commission’s actions are limited by the treaties.
Representatives from three different ECIs (one that completed the full process, one that failed to collect sufficient signatures and one that was denied registration) shared their experiences. Pablo Sanchez Centellas from the “Right2Water” ECI, which collected almost two million signatures, insisted that ECIs should be legally binding. He said that if the Commission can brush aside ECIs it doesn’t like, that widens the gap between citizens and EU institutions. Prisca Merz from the “End Ecocide” ECI explained just how difficult it is for grassroots initiatives to collect signatures, especially with strict data requirements. She insisted that the ECI still has real potential to promote dialogue on important issues, but it must become much more user-friendly. Ernst Johansson from the “Minority Safepack” ECI described how the Commission refused their ECI with almost no explanation. He stressed the need to improve transparency related to decisions on ECIs. Commissioner Timmermans listened politely to and acknowledged the campaigners’ concerns, but regretted that the EU treaties limit the Commission’s action.
Ian Harden, Secretary General of the European Ombudsman’s office, linked the ECI to the broader issue of participatory democracy, including citizens’ right to petition the Parliament. He said that the ECI has not fulfilled its potential and needs to be more transparent and citizen-friendly. However, he insisted that, given the limits of the ECI Regulation, the Commission had done the best they could to administer the ECI. He felt it was important for the ECI to lead to debate and the Parliament to play the primary political role.
Anne-Marie Sigmund from the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) outlined the EESC’s services to support the ECI, including an annual ECI Day event, an ECI help desk offering translation and advice and an ECI brochure that has been the most successful in the EESC’s history (60,000 copies distributed). The ECI creates a needed European public space to debate about important issues and vent frustration.
Three EU legal experts shared their views on the impact of the ECI on EU decision-making. Jean-Luc Sauron, University of Paris-Dauphine, cited the reduction in the size of the EU legislative agenda and wondered if the ECI was irrelevant or threatens the Parliament’s role. He proposed having the Council discuss all successful ECIs once a year. Tamás Molnár, Corvinus University of Budapest, described the ECI as an under-achieving legal tool of participatory democracy. Not only is it too bureaucratic, but its topics have been unnecessarily limited in the ECI Regulation to those within the Commission’s competence vs. all topics in the treaties. Philippe Poirier, University of Luxembourg, challenged the centrality of the Commission in the ECI process and suggested that registration should be decided instead by the European Parliament and that the ECI have a binding impact.
The ECI Campaign’s Carsten Berg showed how the use of the ECI declined dramatically in 2014 with only three ECIs now active. He insisted that the ECI needs to be significantly reformed or it will stop being used. The three most important reforms are: registration must be far less restrictive, the Commission must take successful ECIs seriously and personal data requirements must be simplified and ID numbers eliminated. Other important reforms include redesigning the online signature collection system and facilitating two-way dialogue with ECI supporters. He directed listeners to www.citizens-initiative.eu for more details.
Francisco Polo from the online petitions platform Change.org stated that citizens want to participate in public policy, but will only do so if it is simple and actually makes a difference. Citizens want to know what happens to the initiatives they support. Facilitating two-way dialogue between EU institutions and an ECI’s supporters is crucial for the ECI’s success.
Susana del Rio Villar from Upgrading Europe stressed the communication power of the ECI. However, it her opinion, the instrument must be simpler and more user-friendly.
Two of the four co-rapporteurs in the European Parliament responsible for the ECI Regulation 2011/211 were in attendance: Diana Wallis and Gerald Haefner. Ms. Wallis stated that the ECI’s strength was allowing citizens to “push the start button” on EU legislation. It still has the potential to engage citizens and promote dialogue with EU institutions. But, it is not as clear, simple, and user-friendly as the Parliament intended. Importantly, its implementation has not allowed for two-way communication, which is frustrating for citizens. Mr. Haefner added that only two Member States actually need to collect ID numbers, although 18 collect them. All agreed to reduce personal data collected from supporters to just name, address, and nationality by 2015. Why has this not happened?
Carlo Casini, former chair of the AFCO committee, cited how the Commission’s refusal to act on the successful ECI “One of Us” has pushed its supporters away from the EU, rather than bringing them closer.
MEP György Schöpflin, rapporteur on the ECI for the AFCO committee, insisted that we can build on what exists to improve the ECI. Specific improvements could include a dedicated ECI office in each Member State, lowering the number of required signatures below one million and the use of EU digital signatures. He said the ECI should be a tool for both citizen mobilisation and legal/political impact. The legal climate should therefore be favourable to the ECI and the ECIs should be heard by a neutral committee like AFCO or PETI.
MEP Beatriz Bercerra Basterrechea asserted that all proposals will be taken into consideration and that the ECI should be much more transparent and user-friendly. She mentioned challenges regarding translations and unification of data requirements.
MEP Danuta Hübner concluded the hearing by asserting that the ECI, like the EU itself, is indeed at a difficult crossroads. Upcoming reforms on issues such as economic governance will require legitimisation by citizens. The ECI is one of the few tools for citizen involvement that the EU has, so we must take care of it. MEP Cecilia Wikstrom added that the ECI is a fantastic tool to enhance dialogue, but that it cannot oblige the Commission or the Parliament to act. Certain limits and rules must be respected while making the ECI more efficient and user-friendly.