The European Parliament’s Public Hearing on ECI Reform What message we sent to MEPs
On Wednesday, February 21, the European Parliament committees on Petitions and Constitutional Affairs jointly organized a public hearing on the revision of the European Citizens’ Initiative. We were invited to speak and share our views on the Commission’s proposal, along with several other relevant experts, stakeholders and institutions. Below you can read our contribution* and you can watch the recording of the public hearing here.
Dear ladies and gentlemen, members of the European Parliament,
Thank you very much for inviting us to speak. My name is Maarten de Groot, I am the Brussels-based campaign coordinator of The ECI Campaign, an organization that has existed for over 15 years with the exclusive aim to establish a successful European Citizens’ Initiative, the world’s first-ever instrument for transnational, participatory and digitally facilitated democracy. We have worked very closely with members of your Parliament, first to push for its introduction in the treaties, and then for its effective implementation. However, all is not well with the ECI – to say the least – and at this crucial point in time we look once again with high hopes at your Parliament to rescue the ECI from a slow and painful death. We believe that your role will prove to be a crucial one: the ECI is an excellent opportunity for you to engage, debate and collaborate with EU citizens in between European elections, and the ECI needs you in your collective role as European Parliament, the peoples’ direct representatives, to take significantly more ownership of the instrument in order to safeguard the future of the ECI.
In my contribution, I will first aim to sketch what we believe to be at stake during this legislative revision; secondly, I will discuss our assessment of the Commission’s proposal and what we believe to be crucially missing there; thirdly, I will present our most important proposals for improvement of the Commission’s proposal.
In order to start with the first, what is at stake during this legislative revision, I would like to mention the bare data: since its introduction in 2012, 69 ECIs have started, 48 have been registered and only 4 of them have reached the 1 million threshold. From the in total 8-9 million signatures collected since 2012, over ⅔ were collected by the 4 ‘successful’ ECIs. After the first wave of ECIs, with 3 successful ones in 2013, we have seen only the Stop Glyphosate ECI being successful within the last 4 years. The Commission has rejected two out of these 4 ‘successful’ ECIs. When it comes to the other two – Right2Water & Stop Glyphosate – the Commission is developing legislation which they argue to be in direct response to these two ECIs. Mr. Boogert from the Commission referred to this ‘track record’ of 50% during the last Constitutional Affairs Committee meeting. However, a brief glance at the responses of successful ECI organisers to such Commission decisions and actions tells a different story [here and here]. Not only successful ECI organisers from the rejected ECIs were greatly disappointed by the follow-up, also many organisers from Right2Water and Stop Glyphosate were. The Stop Glyphosate organisers referred to the Commission response as a ‘dressed up rejection’. To sum up: only very few ECIs managed to reach the necessary number of signatures, and from the so-called ‘successful ECI organisers’ we have only received signals of great disappointment, if not outright disillusionment with the follow-up on their ECI. Many of them believe it is was not worth their efforts and investments. The picture that emerges is that the Commission claims to listen to a successful ECI and act on that, but citizens do not feel heard, not taken seriously. If this trend continues, the ECI will completely lose its attraction as an official, high-profile instrument for participatory democracy at EU-level.
Let me now move to the Commission’s proposal for ECI revision. In this slide you can find our 12 ECI reform proposals that we have been calling for already for several years. By means of colour-coding, I have aimed to indicate which of our proposals are taken on board by the Commission (in green), which show some improvement (yellow), and there where we see no progress whatsoever (red). As you can deduce from the slide, we believe that the Commission draft regulation – if turned into law – would solve several relevant technical, administrative, logistical and communication problems, which currently limit the user-friendliness and accessibility of the instrument. However, the Commission crucially fails to address the more fundamental and politically salient issues which threaten the future viability of the instrument. In order not to lose time on complimenting the Commission for the good parts, I will focus exclusively on the aspects that the Commission proposal crucially failed to even address – the red issues.
Let me first of all turn to the issue of the scope of the ECI.
- The Commission has the power to propose to the Council to amend the treaties, and the ECI instrument is designed around the Commission competences. Reflecting the Court ruling on the Stop TTIP ECI, the Commission needs to understand the concept of ‘legal act’ in the broadest possible manner in accordance with the Commission competences in order to develop the full democratic potential of the instrument. This means that (at least certain types of) ECIs calling for treaty amendment should be rendered acceptable.
Secondly, and crucially, the issue of follow-up on successful ECIs. The relevant question to be asked here is: how can one do justice to the civic energy that a particular successful ECI has mobilized and how can one give ECI organisers and supporters a fair chance of making a political impact?
- Receiving your mandate directly from European citizens, the European Parliament’s collective, standardized involvement in the follow-up on successful ECIs is the single most crucial improvement that the ECI needs. This is supported by experiences with national citizens’ initiatives in Latvia and Finland. In order to give the Commission strong direction on how to follow up on a particular successful ECI, the European Parliament should hold a debate on it, develop a report and vote on it in plenary.
- Secondly, we call for the stronger involvement of the Member States in the follow-up phase, notably through the national parliaments. Many ECIs touch upon policy areas in which the competences between the EU and the Member States are shared, and the role of Member States in EU decision-making is crucial. A central objective of the ECI is to foster transnational debate on European issues, but even for successful ECIs there is very limited attention at national level. In order to exploit the full potential of the ECI and to give visibility to the important role that Member States play in EU decision-making, national parliaments should be invited to send a delegation to the public hearing in response to a successful ECI and to issue a recommendation to the Commission on the desired follow-up actions.
- A successful ECI represents the voice of a significant minority of EU citizens, but is not necessarily representative of the diversity of the EU population. In order to inform EU policy-makers about the informed opinions of a representative sample of EU citizens, each successful ECI should be subjected to an independently organised Citizens’ Initiative Review: a randomly selected and demographically balanced group of EU citizens come together to fairly evaluate the content of a successful ECI on the basis of expert input.
- While the Commission’s decision on the legal admissibility of an ECI at the registration stage is subject to judicial review by the General Court of the EU, the same does not apply for the decision on the follow-up to a successful ECI. While the regulation obliges the Commission to communicate “its legal and political conclusions on the initiative, the actions it intends to take, if any, and its reasons for taking or not taking action,” political accountability should still be organized. Next to the hearing before the Commission decision, it should be standard practice to have another hearing after the Comission published its decision, during which the Commission can present their decision in-depth, and at least both ECI organisers and MEPs have the chance to ask questions about it. Beyond reasons of accountability, such a hearing ensures the continuation of dialogue on the topic with all relevant players involved.
Thank you very much for your attention, and I look forward to continuing our discussion and collaboration.
* Please note that the above text consituted the speaking notes of our contribution, and thus does not correspond 1-to-1 with the spoken text.
Credit image: Arnaud DEVILLERS / © European Union 2018 – Source: EP