European Commission Finally Unlocks ECI Reform Last but not least...

2017-04-29 News

The European Commission finally announced that it would revise the European Citizens’ Initiative regulation by 2017 – a long overdue decision which we have been demanding for two years.

On April 11th, the European Commission’s Vice-President Frans Timmermans announced that the European Commission will present proposals for a revision of the European Citizens´ Initiative (ECI) later this year, after launching a public consultation.

The announcement was made during a panel discussion at the ECI Day, an annual event co-organised with the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), which brings together all the stakeholders and citizens interested in the ECI. Timmermans announced that the Commission will make proposals later this year, based on lessons learned in the five years since the Regulation came into force, and drawing on a public consultation to be launched before the summer.

I want to make the ECI more accessible and citizen-friendly. I want the ECI to become a popular and living instrument, one that citizens are familiar with”, Timmermans said.

In his closing words, Mr Timmermans made it very clear that the success of the revision was dependent on the sense of responsibility of national leaders, who must also recognise their role in the ECI.

Long overdue commitment

The ECI in force today has so far failed to deliver on its original promise, which is why we, together with our civil society partners and the citizens who have tried to use the ECI, have all been pushing for its revision over the last three years. The announced reform of the ECI is thus long overdue.

The ECI Campaign and its partners were instrumental in pushing for this new democratic tool in the EU, but we always made it clear that citizens’ rights must be further strengthened if the ECI is to have a real impact on democratizing the EU from the inside and lead to a genuine Europe of the citizens.

Unfortunately, for two years the EU Commission had dashed all hopes that the ECI regulation would be revised, despite all the evidence that the existing ECI regulation is flawed, and despite the initial understanding that the ECI would be reviewed after the first three years of its practical experience.

Already in 2016 we had expected the European Commission to make the extremely burdensome and bureaucratic ECI rules user-friendly, as a means of attracting more initiatives. Many citizens had been waiting precisely for this to happen before launching such an enormously challenging enterprise as running a one-million ECI.

In fact, we were optimistic about reaching this goal in 2016. Our clear and evidence-based campaign call for reform raised high hopes for changes to Regulation 211/2011 implementing the ECI, especially after the Commission’s own staffers indicated the need for reform and after we were able, in 2015, to convince the European Parliament, which overwhelmingly approved a resolution asking the Commission to make the ECI more user-friendly.

Those hopes were disappointed in early 2016, however, during an ECI hearing at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), when a Commission representative made it clear that the ECI Regulation would not be revised in 2016. This came on the heels of the release of minutes of the College of Commissioners’ meeting, in which Commissioners described the ECI as a potentially dangerous tool which threatens European unity and which needs to be restricted.

We immediately challenged this claim in a public Euractive article which was broadly appreciated in the ECI community and beyond. We received equally full support from the European Ombudsman, Emily O’Reilly, who spoke at the “ECI DAY” event in April 2016. She declared the ECI to be in a dangerous “existential crisis” due to the European Commission’s unfair and unsupportive attitude towards citizen participation in Europe.

Throughout 2016 we increased public attention on this unresolved problem and co-organized a large petition to “Save the ECI”, with more than 40,875 supporters from across Europe, whose signatures were submitted directly to the Commission. As in past years, the Commission staffers remained very friendly (see the Secretariat General’s response to our petition here).

Nearly everyone agreed that the ECI needed reform – except for the main political decision-maker: Mr. Frans Timmermans. The Commission’s VP remained silent on the ECI in public for nearly two years. This was what made the situation so challenging and, quite frankly, many of us felt outright desperation.

In early 2017, the parliament’s constitutional affairs committee (AFCO) agreed to produce a legislative initiative report to force the Commission’s hand, after the Commission restated publicly that it had no intention of reviewing the ECI legislation.

New regulation expected in 2019

Two years have been lost through the total inaction of the Commission. It will now take another two years until the new ECI regulation proposals go through the co-decision procedure (which requires the agreement of the European Parliament and Council). European citizens who want to use the ECI will thus have to endure the current ineffective and flawed framework until 2019.

While many citizens had been hoping for ECI reform, they now feel forced to use an unreformed ECI instrument simply because there is virtually no alternative to the ECI instrument at the EU level – and because their many political issues can no longer wait. The result is that there are now more registered ECIs in 2017 than in 2016. In fact, many of them are currently asking us for advice and are looking into using our openECI online collection software.

Nonetheless, we welcome Commissioner Timmermans’ intention to reform the European Citizens’ Initiative. The Commission must now come forward with proposals that will genuinely break down the barriers between citizens and those who decide on the laws that affect them.

We will need a clearer obligation by the European Commission to follow up successful initiatives. In the past, the lack of meaningful action has undermined confidence in the ECI instrument. Citizens need to know that their efforts have a genuine likelihood of being turned into real action.

As usual, we will actively monitor the upcoming revision process and participate in every possible way to help make this revision a success for participative democracy in the EU. Please join us!