Download this article (PDF)

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is framework that allows EU citizens to call on the European Commission to propose legislation regarding a particular issue, following the gathering of at least 1,000,000 signatures of support from citizens of at least 7 member states. By removing the requirement for collaboration of individuals from at least 7 member states during the initial submission phase of a proposal, and by providing a user-friendly online platform for collection of signatures of support, the European Commission can greatly extend the accessibility of the ECI to the average EU citizen. The implementation of checkpoints for early promotion or responses to promising proposals will further increase the effectiveness of the ECI framework, promoting the establishment of new, transnational social associations among EU citizens.

Introduction

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) was implemented by the European Commission in an effort to bridge the gap between the European Union (EU) central governance and the peoples of member states. This new process enables a group of citizens to call on the European Commission to propose legislation, following the gathering of support in the form of 1 million signatures. The first such citizens’ initiative was registered on May 9, 2012.

As previously discussed (Watson 2012), the lack of a strong democratic link with many of the EU governing bodies has already led to what may be viewed as a distorted representation of EU citizens, especially in light of the initial decisions surrounding the fiscal reform of indebted European nations. As a result, the prospect of a tool for direct democracy, embodied by the ECI framework, is a welcomed turn of events. However, deeper assessment leads to the realization that the ECI’s promise of active democratic involvement is, to a great extent, problematic.

The ECI could have been designed as a more robust version of the White House (USA) online petition platform, called “We the People” (https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions), which comprises a veritable endeavor to bring the governed closer to the governors. It allows any US citizen over 13-years-old with an Internet connection to easily login, support, create, and promote a petition directly on the White House web site. Submitted petitions call on the federal government to act on a variety of issues, and demand an official response from the White House if 25,000 signatures are collected within 30 days.  97 petitions have received responses as of January 27, 2013, on diverse issues from civil liberties to space exploration, establishing the online platform as a promising democratic tool for Americans. Moreover, similar to the elegant document its name is derived from, “We the People” recognizes that it is imperfect, asking for citizen feedback and suggestions, in order to constantly improve and stand the test of time.

Current ECI framework

Instead of a refined platform constructed along the lines of “We the People,” examination of the details of the ECI reveals a demanding and cumbersome framework. Supporting an active initiative is fairly straightforward, simply involving registration of some identifying information. It’s trying to publish a new initiative that results in a painful collision with the proverbial glass ceiling. The process is described in detail on the ECI website, and summarized below:

  1. At the center of any given initiative is a citizens’ committee comprised of at least seven EU citizens, living in at least seven different countries. This committee must register itself and its proposal with the European Commission.
  2. Worthy proposals that fall within the scope of the Commissions’ powers and that lie within EU values are approved and made public.
  3. The citizens’ committee can now begin collecting signatures of support for their proposal. In practice, this means constructing a web site for electronic signature collection and/or establishing a network of volunteers in (at least) several countries to collect hard-copy signatures of support. Websites used for signature collection must be approved by national authorities.
  4. The citizens’ committee has a maximum of one year to collect a minimum of 1,000,000 signatures. As a minimum requirement, signatures must originate from at least ¼ of EU countries (currently amounting to a minimum of seven different countries), and must amount to at least the number of EU parliament representatives elected in these countries multiplied by 750.
  5. A national authority from each of the nations where support was gathered must certify the relevant signatures with regard to their validity.
  6. The European Commission organizes a public hearing with the citizens’ committee, following which the Commission adopts a communication in response to the initiative.

The predicted timeline for the entire process (from submission to European Commission response) is described as taking a maximum of 20 months.

It becomes evident that in order to utilize the new European proposition mechanism, one has to be well-networked with other individuals living in a large number of different EU nations, and who also share the views of the incipient initiative in order to establish the citizens’ committee; that one must also possess the resources to establish and maintain the support collection website of the initiative in each of the ≥7 countries where support will be sought after; and perhaps, that one must also have the organizational mechanisms in place to coordinate the efforts not only of the citizens’ committee, but also of the contributing volunteers that will be collecting hard-copy signatures in the different nations involved. Indeed, a look at the representatives of existing registered initiatives reveals that these are not average citizens, but highly influential individuals, often members of organizations that are active in areas of public policy. For example, one of the first initiatives registered (“EU Directive on Dairy Cow Welfare”) was led by Annamaria Pisapia, a member of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization’s  “Gateway to Farm Animal Welfare,” with a curriculum vitae which includes active involvement in a number of other policy-shaping organizations and even previous collaboration with the European Commission. Another early registered initiative, “Single Communication Tariff Act,” is also led by a prominent individual, Vincent Chauvet, member of the Jeunes Democrates political group, and co-founder of the Collectif du 31 Mai, which seeks to bring about the withdrawal of particular French policy affecting the employment of graduating university students.

The previous involvement of these individuals in public policy does not undermine the bona fide nature of their initiatives. It is merely the logical result of the current ECI framework, which has failed outright in serving as a mechanism to leverage the immense potential of the European peoples to propose public policy and legislation. Simply put, the investment of time and effort, along with the necessary expertise, required to put forth an initiative makes propositions for “setting the agenda” practically impossible for the overwhelming majority of EU citizens. As a result, rather than bringing the EU peoples closer to the Union’s law-making bodies, the ECI has added yet another middle-man through which citizens must indirectly voice their opinions. Worse yet, the mirage embodied by the ECI framework gives both false hope to EU citizens and false comfort to EU officials that direct democracy has been made available.

The shortcomings of the ECI have been recognized by others, including Joerg Mitzlaff, founder of OpenPetitions.de, a German online platform for simple petition creation and support collection. He is the representative of the currently active European citizens’ initiative titled “Central public online collection platform for the European Citizen Initiative,” which hopes to establish a similar platform to be used by those wanting to register future ECIs. Such a solution may, in fact, be the foremost step in a more accessible ECI framework.

Proposal for ECI framework revision

Taking into consideration both the need for a widely available tool of direct democracy (such as that proposed by J. Mitzlaff) and the caveats of a diverse, multination union, the following major revision of the entire ECI framework is proposed, with the hope of achieving universal access, timely effectiveness, and a stronger voice to the European peoples:

1. The ECI will be expanded to include both petitions for EC adoption of policy positions and initiatives for legislature consideration by the European Parliament.

2. The EC establishes a secure, multi-language, user-friendly web-site dedicated to hosting petitions for citizens’ initiatives. Both authors and signatories of these petitions will have to register with the web site using their full name, age, email address, and country of citizenship. This will allow universal access to all facets of the new ECI framework, even to individuals not professionally involved in influencing public policy.

3. Petition creation will consist of the following steps, and may be completed in any EU language:

a. Composing a title for the petition

b. Selecting relevant categories and adding keyword tags for the petition

c. Opting to support a similar petition from a computer-generated list that is based on the proposed petition’s title/categories/tags, instead of submitting a new petition (Optional).

d. Composing the main text of the petition, and optionally adding supplementary documentation.

e. Composing different language versions of the petition and/or inviting other user-collaborators to provide different language versions (Optional).

f. Submitting the petition. Once submitted, petitions cannot be edited further.

4. Users will be able to locate petitions either through browsing/searching the ECI website’s categorized database, or through specific petition links that have been shared by other users. Registered users will then have the ability to become signatories of and/or to further share a given petition.

5. Options for sharing petitions will be via:

a. A URL link (provided on the web page of each petition), which can be emailed or posted on other websites.

b. A petition identification (ID) number (provided on the web page of each petition), which can be emailed or posted on other sites. Searching for the petition ID number on the ECI site will lead directly to the petition page.

c. Direct sharing on popular social networking web sites (Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc).

Table 1: Proposed requirements for petition checkpoints

Petition checkpointRequirementsAction
Flash petition>25,000 signatures, from any EU nations, within 2 weeksEC or relevant committee response
Priority petition>250,000 signatures, from any EU nationsEC or relevant committee response + official translations of petition + petition promotion
Flash initiative>500,000 signatures with the minimum requirement met for the number signatories in each of at least 7 countriesEC public hearing, accompanied by legislation proposal to the European Parliament by the relevant EC committee.
Standard initiative>1,000,000 signatures with the minimum requirement met for the number signatories in each of at least 7 countriesEC public hearing, accompanied by legislation proposal to the European Parliament by the relevant EC committee.

6. Depending on signatory number and rate of acquisition, submitted petitions will be automatically eligible for any and all of the pre-defined checkpoints, each of which will be linked to specified action and support from EU organs (Table 1). For a maximum of one year, each proposal will be able to continue collecting signatory support, regardless of meeting the criteria for any of the checkpoints. Each checkpoint will serve a particular purpose:

a. “Flash petition” status is given to proposals that gather significant support within a limited time frame, regardless of signatory nationality, and will warrant a timely response from the EC or a relevant EC committee. EC response will describe its position with regard to the content of the petition, taking into consideration the support it has gathered. The EC will thus have the option to adopt new policy, change existing policy, or suggest the relevant legislature to the European Parliament.  This checkpoint is especially useful in serving as a link between EU citizens and the EC with regard to developing current events and/or matters that may significantly affect selected subpopulations or minorities.

b. “Priority petition” status is given to proposals that gather substantial support, regardless of either rate of support acquisition or signatory nationality. In addition to receiving the same consideration as “flash petitions,” “priority petitions” will also be translated into the official EU languages by the EC, and translations will be added to the original petition. Furthermore, “priority petitions” will receive preferential placement in browsing categories/search results on the ECI website. This checkpoint expands on the purposes of the “flash petition” checkpoint by providing support for particularly promising proposals, especially those originating from individuals without the initial resources required to promote the proposal in a large number of countries (namely, by means of compositioning different language versions and through extensive promotion of the proposal).

c. “Flash initiative” success is granted to proposals that have gathered a substantial proportion of the total support required for standard initiative success, in addition to having met the currently defined minimum requirements for the number of signatories in each of at least 7 EU nations, within a short time frame. The purpose of this checkpoint is to shorten the time delay for proposals that will obviously surpass the required support for initiative success, allowing for timely addressing of issues affecting a wide portion of the EU population.

d. “Standard initiative” success is granted to proposals that have gathered support from a large number of individuals from a significant proportion of the EU nations, as currently described by the ECI framework. Successful initiatives (whether “flash” or “standard”) will be treated as true citizen initiatives, subject not only to a public hearing by the EC, but a call for the proposition of legislature to be discussed by the European Parliament, which will be composed by the relevant EC committee. This process will serve as a balance between providing a tool for direct democracy (legislation proposal resulting from initiative), and ensuring that the entirety of the EU populace is represented in the assessment of the legislation (EU Parliament consideration of proposed legislature).

7. Rather than entering a pre-approval phase, petitions will only be subject to official evaluation after meeting one of the requirements for submission to an EU organ. Before being acted upon by EU organs, petitions will be subject to the evaluation currently part of the ECI framework. Specifically, petitions are rejected if they, “manifestly fall outside the framework of the Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for a legal act of the Union for the purpose of implementing the Treaties…[or] manifestly abusive, frivolous or vexatious…[or] manifestly contrary to the EU values as set out in Article 2 of the Treaty on European Union” (European Commission 2011). Additionally, petition web pages will have a link for user-reporting of inappropriate petitions, which can then be assessed accordingly and, if necessary, removed.

Conclusion

The simplification of the citizens’ end of the ECI framework is an important and necessary step in the true democratization of the EU. It will also serve to bring EU citizens together in joint causes, and create new transnational social associations. Furthermore, it will lead the European Commission to establish clearly defined policies that will be subject to pressures of the European peoples. Continued efforts along the lines of meaningful democratic representation are vital if the EU is to enjoy the widespread support of the people is was established to serve.

References

Watson DC. 2012. Greece crisis: the story of the un-representative democracy. Economic & Political Weekly, Vol. 47, Issue 3, pp30-1.

European Commission. 2011. “Guide to the European Citizens’ Initiative.” European Citizens’ Initiative, European Commission. Viewed on December 31, 2012. http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/files/guide-eci-en.pdf