The Countdown is on – ECI process about to be launched

2011-11-07 News

The time has now come for the final countdown towards the launch of the first real European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). More and more people across Europe are already preparing the first official transnational ECI campaigns on a very diverse range of issues – from environmental to social to institutional topics. At the same time EU member states are still in the process of implementing the juridical and practical arrangements at the national level to make the ECI work. Last but not least, the EU institutions in Brussels still have to fine-tune the process and prepare themselves to receive the first ECIs. At the ECI Campaign, we are monitoring this decisive phase. We are identifying potential risks that could be harmful for the ECI process and make proposals how to overcome them.

ECI Update

1. ECI organizers are getting ready

2. Preparations in Member States

3. EU Institutions preparing themselves

4. Events

1. ECI organizers are getting ready

In recent weeks we have been receiving more and more calls from future ECI-organizers asking for information about both the implementation rules for the ECI and how to design a successful citizens’ initiative campaign. Pan-European campaigning directed at ordinary citizens is something brand-new, so only a few understand its often underestimated challenges. At the ECI Campaign, we advise and encourage citizens to make use of the ECI by: providing check-lists for phase I: advice on deciding to use the ECI and phase II: advice on preparing a detailed ECI Campaign Plan, see here.

The problem of issue exclusion

One of the biggest practical problems facing everyone working on the ECI is related to the admissibility question. Many potential ECI organizers’ proposals directly or indirectly imply amendments to the existing EU treaties (“primary law”), but the Commission has stated that it will not register ECIs which propose amendments to EU treaties. However, the regulation on this issue is unclear and open to challenge by the European Court of Justice. It must be emphasized again that it was never the intention of the authors of Art. 11 (4) to restrict the ECI to purely secondary legislation. EU treaties are very detailed and complex. In contrast to national constitutions, they include numerous specific policies, tools, and instruments that, in member states, would be part of lower-level legislation (“secondary law”). To exclude treaty amendments would thus prevent European citizens from playing an active role in some of the most important political issues. It would not only contradict the very usefulness of the citizens’ initiative as an instrument to “reinforce citizens’ and organized civil society’s involvement in the shaping of EU policies”, as the Commission itself expressed it in its Green book, but also contradict Article 1 of the Lisbon Treaty, according to which “decisions are taken as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen”.

There is no doubt that the subject-matter of an ECI must lie within the areas on which the European Commission has the right to make proposals. However, as the Commission itself is entitled to propose amendments to treaties, it should also be possible to launch initiatives which relate to treaty amendments.

2. Preparations in Member States

EU member states are currently preparing the juridical and practical implementation of the ECI at the national level. This includes two important tasks: a) the certification of online collection systems; and b) the verification procedure for signatures and statements of support. The ECI Campaign is monitoring the implementation of the ECI in the 27 member states as far as possible.  In some countries, such as Finland, Austria and Germany, a special legal framework is needed for designating which specific national authorities will be responsible for the certification of online collections systems and the verification of statements of support. Other countries such as France, the Netherlands and Portugal, do not need any such extra legislation. In other countries the position is still unclear.

The German government initially suggested a highly problematic approach; it proposed to charge every ECI organizer up to 50,000 euros for the certification of the online collection system. This would have been a strong deterrent to running an ECI, especially for ordinary citizens and small NGOs. Fortunately, in August the ECI Campaign was able to persuade the responsible officials in the German Government to offer this service for free, as is the case in all other EU member states. More details on this here.

Similarly, we were able to convince German officials not to apply overly strict verification rules. According to the draft law any citizen’s statement of support would have been automatically invalidated if only a small detail was incomplete or unreadable (for example if the street name was unreadable or incorrect). The new regulation provides that every signature is valid as long as a supporter can be identified based on the given data. This means that an ECI will not fail just because of small formal errors in the collection of signatures. These questions of fine detail are part of what the ECI Campaign is calling for: a European Citizens’ Initiative right which is designed in a citizen-friendly way.

Last not least ECI Campaign keeps up its goal to simplify the signature form and eliminate ID number requirements. Eighteen member states still plan to ask their citizens for personal identification numbers when signing an ECI. Such intrusive personal data requirements are frequently unnecessary, may deter supporters and raise privacy concerns. As this aspect is dealt with in the Annex of the ECI regulation, it still can be changed by every individual member state. But we will also bring it this issue up again when the ECI regulation is officially reviewed in 2015. More information here.

3. Preparations in Brussels

In parallel with preparations in the member states, the fine tuning of the ECI process in Brussels is underway. The EU Commission is currently preparing an implementing regulation laying down the technical specifications for online collection systems. According to Article 6 of the regulation (EU) No 211/2011 on ECI, the Commission shall have finalized the implementation by 1 January 2012.

Unfortunately, the current proposals appear to be very complicated and demand disproportionately high standards for ECI organizers. For example, the network requirements (such as a dedicated LAN with a firewall) would mean that EC organizers would have to spend hundreds of Euros per month merely on the necessary infrastructure. This is something which urgently needs to be changed. We continually emphasize the fact that the ECI will be the first citizens’ initiative right in the world with such wide online signature-gathering options which will play a major support role in organising the huge signature collections. Any non-essential restrictions and burdens on ECI organizers would weaken the entire instrument.

The ECI Campaign also regrets that the required certification of online-collection systems cannot be done before April 2012. Thus, if you have been planning to start your campaign on 1 April 2012 you should reconsider your start date. According to the regulation, all ECI organisers will have to have the complete solution (presumably both hardware & software) certified, even if they are using the software provided by the European Commission. Certification will be carried out by each country (based on where your host is located).

How to organize the public hearing?

In addition, the European Parliament and the EU Commission have to agree on how exactly to organize the public hearing that must follow every successful ECI. While the regulation foresees that such hearings take place in the European Parliament, we at the ECI Campaign have always campaigned for the EU Commission to be the appropriate place for such a final public hearing. According to the Lisbon Treaty, the EU Commission is the first and only addressee of an ECI and the Commission is the only EU institution that has the right to launch a legislative initiative.  By contrast, the European Parliament can only adopt a resolution.

There is a risk that the EU Commission is trying to avoid its responsibility. Initially, the Commission did not want to commit itself in any way to such a response procedure. The final regulation now foresees that such a hearing in the EP will take place with “the Commission represented at an appropriate level”. In other words, it remains unclear who will be there from the Commission. Will it be a civil servant from the respective department, with little power? If the Commission wants to show that it is really taking citizens seriously, we submit that it is the responsible Commissioner and the President of the Commission who must be present at the hearing to give the Commission’s response to the successful ECI and answer questions.

Who will organize the ECI hearing within the European Parliament?

Another open question is who exactly will deal with ECI hearings in the European Parliament. We suggest that the hearings should be dealt with at the highest level possible i.e. by the President and the Conference of Presidents of the European Parliament in a joint and combined committee meeting that shall be appointed on a case-by-case basis:

a) If the ECI proposal refers to secondary law, the Petitions Committee + the Committee with responsibility for the issue should run the ECI hearing;

b) If the ECI refers to treaty amendments, the Committee of Constitutional Affairs should be the appropriate arena, and the Committee with responsibility for the issue should run the ECI hearing.

In no way should it be the case that only one Committee deals with an ECI, as several MEPs in the European Parliament are currently suggesting. This would decrease the significance of the ECI tremendously and potentially reduce it to the status of a mere petition.

4 ECI Events

The European Commission will be organising a one-day Conference on the European Citizens’ Initiative, to be chaired by European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, on 26 January 2012, in Brussels. The Conference programme and information on how to register will shortly be available on the European Commission’s website.