The Impact of the European Citizens’ Initiative on EU policies – New ECI Conference Report

January 17, 2014 News

ECI Conference Report by Romain Gaillard

On 8 January 2014, the European Citizenship Group, composed of ten students from the European Affairs Master’s Programme at the Strasbourg Institute of Political Studies in partnership with the European Economic and Social Committee, organized a conference on “The Impact of the European Citizens’ Initiative on EU policies”.

The conference is the result of a long-term academic process about this transnational democratic tool. Over 80 participants from all over Europe attended the conference, including campaigners for diverse European Citizens’ Initiatives, politicians, officials from EU institutions, as well as lobbyists, associations, researchers and numerous students. Five different speakers – Henri Malosse, President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), Anne-Marie Perret, Madi Sharma, Olga Kurpisz and Gerald Häfner – took the floor during the three and a half hours of the conference to set out their point of view on the subject and to debate with the audience. As the moderator of this conference I would like share with you some key aspects of this conference:

The often described democratic deficit remains an important issue and especially on the eve of the European elections. The feeling of their own disempowerment among EU citizens clearly has to be tackled if the gap between the citizens and their institutions is to be overcome. It is with this purpose that the European Citizens’ Initiative has been included in the Lisbon Treaty and implemented by the Regulation 211/2011. As Mr Häfner emphasised, the real impact of the ECI concerns its very existence. It has a legal impact, recognising participatory democracy at a transnational level. As underlined by our speakers, this tool has the potential to influence the political agenda of the EU. But to do so, the Citizens’ Committee had to overcome several obstacles:

– Respecting the competences of the EU implies juridical knowledge about the European political and institutional framework

– The linguistic skills needed

– The huge costs generated by an efficient campaign

– The complexity of the process of the signatures collection

– The short time available to collect signatures and to campaign

Thus, even if our speakers emphasised the central role of citizens in the process of an ECI, it seems obvious in view of all these difficulties that this tool has not been well designed for proposals made by any citizen of the EU, but only by really well organised citizens on the European level as the Commission’s Officer recognised a difference between small and large organisers and the Commission’s will to have ECIs displaying a certain representativeness. Has the ECI been implemented in order to directly empower EU citizens or more to enhance the creation of European networks with whom the European institutions might be able to discuss? Is the ECI a kind of institutionalisation of “civil society” which indirectly empowers the people through the prism of the new representatives of this “civil society”? This tool is not yet perfect and the aim of empowering directly EU citizens is far from being achieved. But like every democratic instrument, the ECI is and has to be improved. “We were the pioneers” said Mrs Perret and the ECI is constantly being improved by all those involved. However, the keys of participatory democracy should not only be in the hands of an elite and we must never forget for whom the ECI has been created. The key to its success therefore lies in the gradual involvement of every EU citizen, by constantly promoting the tool and forging easier access to it.

Speaking about organisation and impacts, I would like to underline that the ECI does not only have an impact on the European level, but that it also has influences and interrelates with the local national and international levels. The example of the ECI “Right2Water” and its success in Germany is very telling since debates on this topic were held before thanks to local participatory democracy. It would be really interesting to analyse if an interrelated multilevel participatory democracy system would be more efficient and thus necessary to improve the ECI.  The ECI seems to be used as well in order to reach the international level beyond the EU. Mrs Perret showed her determination to spread the campaign and try to impact people and institutions beyond Europe. And if we look at Mr Häfner’s ambition to promote participatory democracy in every international organisation, we might see that the ECI can also be used as a springboard to develop ideas and projects globally.

Concerning the relation between the ECI and the European institutions, we can already state that all the European institutions try to have a “citizen-friendly” approach towards the ECI as far as the tool increases their legitimacy.  The European Economic and Social Committee has proved its determination to support ECIs’ organisers, and the European Parliament too has positioned itself in favour of the ECI.  But one striking aspect is the central role of the European Commission in the life of an ECI. The institution decides if the claim made by an ECI will be followed by political acts – i.e. an official legislative proposal – or not. This gives rise to substantial uncertainties regarding the future of an ECI. The political power of the European Commission over the ECIs as well as the impact of its decisions on future initiatives is significant and was not left unacknowledged by Mrs Kurpisz in her speech. As it has been underlined by Mr Malosse, the multiple efforts of committed citizens during the difficult campaigns must be followed by actions from the European institutions if they do not want to create too much frustration and widen the gap between citizens and institutions. But according to Mrs Sharma, officials do not even seem to know how to deal with successful ECIs which might explain current hesitancy and the clear lack of communication about the ECI from the national and European institutions.

In this view it will be especially interesting to follow the first hearings of the Citizens’ Committees by the European Parliament and the European Commission, and to see whether, on 20 March 2014, the European Commission will decide to pursue Right2Water’s goals or not. It would be most interesting to continue to monitor the development of this tool in the long run, and especially to examine the revision of the ECI Regulation planned for 2015. Some questions still remain unanswered concerning this tool, so the ECI needs to be monitored in future. Thus a deeper analysis is needed, research on this tool and its impact needs to be promoted.

However, there is reason for optimism, as some of the campaigns have already had an impact at European level, and this may have repercussions and create further interaction at the local, national and international levels. Last but not least, the ECI’s potential might increase gradually depending on the EU institutions’ reactions, but also as a result of EU citizens’ commitment.

Romain Gaillard