Reform or Die: A Summary of the “ECI Legal Framework – Need for Reform?” Conference
On 10 December 2014, The ECI Campaign joined the conference “ECI Legal Framework – Need for Reform?” organised by the European Citizen Action Service (ECAS) and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels. Summarised below are key conference themes and takeaways.
Analysis shows ECI legal decisions to be inconsistent and lack transparency
Mr. Onno Brouwer from the law firm Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer presented his detailed legal analysis of ECI registration requirements and rejected initiatives. However, the study only takes into consideration the ECIs presented before 1 July 2014, therefore, the latest ECIs refused registration (“STOP TTIP” and “Vive l’Europe sociale!”) are unfortunately not considered.
He noted that, with the current ECI framework, it is nearly impossible to start an ECI without support from a specialised lawyer. For this reason, organisers should be provided with official legal guidance to make the registration process easier and more democratic. Mr. Brouwer also observed that, of 49 proposed ECIs, some ECIs with similar subject matter were registered while others were rejected. The Commission’s legal admissibility decisions clearly need more consistency and transparency. He also questioned the Commission’s assertion that the ECI cannot be used to propose treaty amendments. This issue is likely to be one of the most controversial in ECI reform.
Commission insists ECI registration decisions have been legally justified
Representing the European Commission, Ms. Charlotte Rive expressed concern that 20 ECIs have been refused registration and that few new ECIs are being submitted. The Commission would like to reverse this trend but no plans for changing the Commisison approach to ECI registration were presented. The Commission does provide non-binding legal advice to potential ECIs, but has only received 15 questions so far, and the Commission believes that no dialogue is possible with ECI organisers once the submission has been made.
Ms. Rive emphasised that the Commission’s decisions to register an ECI are based purely on legal criteria and she outlined a defence for the majority of the Commission’s registration decisions so far. Furthermore, each decision is made on a case-by-case basis. She also said that, even if an ECI cites an incorrect legal basis, it can still be registered. In reference to the Commission’s refusal to register the Stop TTIP ECI, she said that the ECI could be used for non-binding recommendations, but that it could not be used to prevent a legal act. Ms. Rive made no comment on the Commission response to the successful ECI proposals that have been presented to them.
She admitted that the Commission needs more analysis of the ECI’s functioning. To this end, they commissioned a study on the ECI’s online signature collection system (OCS).
The ECI could make Europe more democratic, but will die without reform
Member of European Parliament Sylvia Kaufmann agreed that both legal and technical changes are needed to the ECI. However, publicising the ECI and raising its awareness among European citizens should be a priority.
Bruno Kaufmann from the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe (IRI) asserted that “The ECI is in danger and can die a slow and painful death!” His words were echoed by Madi Sharma from the ECI ad-hoc group in the EESC. As a former ECI organiser, she finds the current functioning of the ECI to be demotivating. Nevertheless, she strongly encouraged all efforts to create a better and more user-friendly ECI to make Europe more democratic.
Michel Cermak from the STOP TTIP initiative described the current status of their “self-organised” unofficial ECI which was launched when their ECI was refused official registration. He quoted Commission staff as saying that the new Juncker Commission would have probably registered their ECI, although the Barroso Commission rejected it.
Philippe Grosjean, representing the ECI New Deal 4 Europe, criticised the Commissions’ attitude toward the ECI and proposed that ECIs should be addressed to the European Parliament, which directly represents EU citizens.
Professor Louis Bouza from the College of Europe stated flatly that “citizens do not trust the ECI”. Trust in the instrument must be rebuilt. On a positive note, the ECI brings new types of organisations and new issues to the EU level. It could also attract more attention to EU issues in national media, but this is still weak. He also echoed Mr. Brouwer’s suggestions that ECI organisers need independent support and legal counsel.