How the European Citizens’ Initiative Came to Existence A group of citizens managed to convince the European Convention in 2002

June 27, 2003 News

Michael Efler from Mehr Demokratie, Lars Bosselmann and ECI-Campaign Coordinator Carsten Berg with the support of many individual citizens have been campaigning and collecting signatures in the European Convention 2002/03 for the European Citizens’ Initiative. Read the amazing story written down by Michael Efler how the European Citizens’ Initiative found its way into the draft version of the “European Constitution”.

Step one: paving the way

From March 2002 to November 2002 our work was concentrated on discussing our concrete proposals and on individual meetings with Convention members. At the end of March, IRI Europe founded a network of interested Convention members and NGOs. The report “Voices of Europe – the growing importance of Initiatives and Referendums in the European integration process” was sent to all Convention members, MEPs and national parliaments. A conference organized by IRI Europe in mid-September brought together almost 100 hundred participants from 20 countries and demonstrated the growing and broad interest in the issue. After much deliberation, we decided to push for two ideas: first (also the first priority), a referendum on the European constitution; and second, the introduction of far-reaching elements of direct democracy (a right of citizens’ initiative including citizens’ referendums and obligatory referendums for constitutional amendments). Our strategy was not to reduce our demands at the beginning.

It is interesting to note that in our first discussions, especially with MEPs, there was broad support for a Europe-wide referendum on the upcoming constitution regardless of the legal constraints (such a referendum would have required a prior amendment of Art. 48 of the European Union Treaty before adopting the new constitution, and that requires unanimity). We faced strong opposition to our proposal for national referendums in every member state on the same day, which we considered from the outset as the only legally possible and politically feasible way. But we stuck to our ideas, because we saw that some MEPs especially held a totally unrealistic and sometimes ideological view of that issue. Some of them look at the constitutional process from a solely European perspective and ignore legal, political and logical barriers.

Step two: the breakthrough dinner

In December 2002 we wrote two short articles for the draft constitution (amendments) and we decided to initiate a working process within the Convention. But how could we do that as a couple of small NGOs (More Democracy/democracy international, IRI Europe)? So we tried to find co-inviters for a working dinner in the European Parliament scheduled for Jan. 20.

And we got support from nearly all the political groups: Heidi Hautala (Greens, Finland, MEP), Diana Wallis (Liberal, UK, MEP), Prof. Jürgen Meyer (Social Democrat, Germany, Convention member) and Alain Lamassoure (EPP, France, Convention member) agreed to be co-inviters, in addition to Bruno Kaufmann for the Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe and myself for More Democracy and Democracy International.

This working dinner was a great success and in retrospect the breakthrough for our efforts. More than 10 Convention members from several different countries and from all the political groups attended the meeting; a lot more showed their interest by e-mail. Both federalists and EU-sceptics were represented. The atmosphere was very focussed. After introductions by Andreas Gross (Vice-President, Council of Europe), Bruno Kaufmann (IRI Europe) and myself, a profound discussion took place. The referendum on the European constitution was at the centre of the debate whilst the initiative process played only a minor role even in our own contributions. All but one speaker (a Convention member from Portugal) spoke in favour of a referendum. At the end of this meeting it was agreed that John Gormley, an alternate Convention member and leader of the Irish Green party, would draw up concrete draft texts for the referendum and the direct democracy ideas to be discussed at another meeting.

Step three: an “informal” working group surprises the Convention

Two meetings were needed to reach agreement on a text on the referendum. The only concession we had to make was that in those countries whose constitutions currently do not allow referendums at least consultative referendums should be held. Our original aim was to encourage these countries (such as Germany) to change their constitutions to allow binding referendums. But with regard to the second text we were unable to reach a consensus. Some favoured creating high thresholds for citizens’ initiatives, others didn’t want to interfere with the European Commission’s exclusive right of legislative initiative and we suggested only covering the basic principles and instruments of direct democracy, in order to avoid complicated debates on procedures and numbers. At the end of that meeting (on 27 February), only 5 minutes were left to discuss these differences – impossible to reach a consensus. It was not clear either who should be responsible for coordinating the whole process and especially for collecting signatures in the Convention. We discussed these problems and decided to coordinate the process ourselves in close cooperation with Jürgen Meyer and Alain Lamassoure. We started collecting signatures among the Convention members that day. It was very unusual for members of NGOs to collect the signatures of elected representatives, but no-one questioned our right to do so and we felt obliged to fight for our ideas and for the agreed text. We left Brussels on Friday, 28th February, with 8 signatories for the referendum proposal.

But how to proceed with the citizens´ legislation? After nearly one month of discussions with individual Convention members, we decided to seek support for a text that introduced the instruments of the citizens´ initiative, citizens´ referendum and an obligatory referendum only in the case of constitutional or treaty amendments, without specifying the procedure, the majority requirements or the number of signatures that had to be collected. When we started to push for our second text we had already collected 33 signatures for the referendum – most of them at the Convention meeting on March 17-18 which six of us attended, and some by the federalist intergroup in the Convention.

Between the meetings we distributed our text to a lot of Convention members by e-mail and fax and phoned them over and over and over again… It was a very hard and sometimes frustrating job because it was much easier to contact the politicians directly in Brussels, but on the other hand it was not possible to contact them all directly. On 31st March Alain Lamassoure sent the referendum text – signed by 37 members, alternates and observers – as a contribution to the Convention secretariat. At that time we had only 3 signatories for the second text.

Step three: an “informal” working group surprises the Convention

Two meetings were needed to reach agreement on a text on the referendum. The only concession we had to make was that in those countries whose constitutions currently do not allow referendums at least consultative referendums should be held. Our original aim was to encourage these countries (such as Germany) to change their constitutions to allow binding referendums. But with regard to the second text we were unable to reach a consensus. Some favoured creating high thresholds for citizens’ initiatives, others didn’t want to interfere with the European Commission’s exclusive right of legislative initiative and we suggested only covering the basic principles and instruments of direct democracy, in order to avoid complicated debates on procedures and numbers. At the end of that meeting (on 27 February), only 5 minutes were left to discuss these differences – impossible to reach a consensus. It was not clear either who should be responsible for coordinating the whole process and especially for collecting signatures in the Convention. We discussed these problems and decided to coordinate the process ourselves in close cooperation with Jürgen Meyer and Alain Lamassoure. We started collecting signatures among the Convention members that day. It was very unusual for members of NGOs to collect the signatures of elected representatives, but no-one questioned our right to do so and we felt obliged to fight for our ideas and for the agreed text. We left Brussels on Friday, 28th February, with 8 signatories for the referendum proposal.

But how to proceed with the citizens´ legislation? After nearly one month of discussions with individual Convention members, we decided to seek support for a text that introduced the instruments of the citizens´ initiative, citizens´ referendum and an obligatory referendum only in the case of constitutional or treaty amendments, without specifying the procedure, the majority requirements or the number of signatures that had to be collected. When we started to push for our second text we had already collected 33 signatures for the referendum – most of them at the Convention meeting on March 17-18 which six of us attended, and some by the federalist intergroup in the Convention.

Between the meetings we distributed our text to a lot of Convention members by e-mail and fax and phoned them over and over and over again… It was a very hard and sometimes frustrating job because it was much easier to contact the politicians directly in Brussels, but on the other hand it was not possible to contact them all directly. On 31st March Alain Lamassoure sent the referendum text – signed by 37 members, alternates and observers – as a contribution to the Convention secretariat. At that time we had only 3 signatories for the second text.

Step five: High noon in the presidium

In the first week of June we got clear indications from members of the presidium and other Convention members that our far-reaching text on direct democracy would not achieve a consensus in the presidium (not a great surprise to us) and we agreed with Jürgen Meyer to formulate a compromise text that would give citizens the right to present proposals to the European Commission, which would then have to decide whether to take legislative action or not. This is a very small first step in the right direction, but it should not be underestimated. It is a citizens’ initiative right similar to that which exists in Austria and which is very often used by the people. The Convention plenary on 5th-6th June was a rollercoaster that I will never forget. First we received the information that a huge majority of the national parliament delegates in the Convention had accepted the compromise text and that Jürgen Meyer had gathered more than 30 new signatures for the new text. At the end it was signed by 72 Convention members. In a consultation with the national parliamentarians, President Giscard announced to our total surprise that he was in favour of the citizens´ initiative and that the presidium would find a way of endorsing it. Totally happy and full of optimism we went to the Place du Luxembourg in front of the European Parliament and had some drinks. Then we met a member of the presidium who told us that the presidium had just rejected the proposal by a huge majority and that Giscard was not present at that meeting. The trip back to Berlin was a very sad one indeed …

After some days of feeling quite depressed, I called Jürgen Meyer and told him about the latest developments. We agreed not to give up and to try to get a different decision in the presidium. Democracy International activists sent hundreds of e-mails to the presidium members; I sent faxes to all of them, too, and in Brussels on 12th June we used our last opportunity to “catch” some of them for a direct discussion.

After several meetings of the presidium and two joint meetings of the European parliament and national parliament delegates they agreed a joint position on “last minute amendments” of the draft constitution. One of these seven points was the introduction of the citizens’ initiative. The last presidium meeting took place at 3.00 pm on 12th June, and the results were presented by Giscard at 7.00 p.m. in the great plenary room of the European parliament. At that point of time we had absolutely no idea what the presidium had decided. We were all very glad when we heard Giscard speaking about the citizens´ initiative and stating that the presidium had included the proposal in the draft constitution (leaving open the fixing of the concrete procedure by a European law).

There are still several hurdles to be jumped before Europe-wide citizens’ initiatives are really possible. Firstly, the Intergovernmental conference must concern itself with the draft constitution. This will happen beginning in October 2003. Then the draft constitution must be ratified by the member states, be it by popular vote or by vote of parliament. This can take until 2005, so that the constitution might possibly enter into force on 1.1.2006. Parallel to the ratification process we will try to discuss with positive-minded MEPs, as well as with members of the European Commission, the draft of a European law that implements Art. I-46 (4) of the constitution, so that this can be decided on as soon as possible after the entry into force of the constitution..

Michael Efler