A million Europeans

Citizens can request legislation, matching the power of the EU Parliament and CouncilJohn Gormley 


Perhaps I should declare a personal interest at the very beginning: I drew up the first draft of what is now the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), when I was a member of the Convention for the Future of Europe. It made it into the ill-fated European Constitution and the subsequent Lisbon Treaty, and it’s one of the reasons why I supported the Lisbon Treaty. You may recall that at the time of the Treaty debates the provisions for the ECI were dismissed as meaningless by opponents, and even proponents damned it with faint praise.

The citizens of the EU are also distinctly underwhelmed by its introduction, with over two thirds of those polled claiming they hadn’t even heard of the ECI, according to Eurobarometer.

So, now that the Lisbon Treaty is a reality, can we make an assessment of the success or otherwise of the ECI? In truth, it’s probably too early to say, but the early indications are not that encouraging. The Commission has described difficulties as “the teething stage of this new instrument of participatory democracy”, but even the ECI enthusiasts, who earlier described it as a major tool for EU democratisation, have expressed reservations and disappointment. Carsten Berg who is the co-ordinator of the ECI campaign has admitted that the ECI “has gotten off to a bad start”. The ECI campaign, a grass-roots network of 120 pro-ECI NGOs, has documented how the first six officially-registered initiatives have not even begun to collect the required signatures because the online signature collection system offered by the Commission is not yet functioning. He also claims that the EU Information Services are unable to answer the simplest questions about the process.

To understand these problems you need to understand the basics of the ECI process.

Essentially Article 11 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) empowers any one million EU citizens, being nationals of at least seven different member states, to call directly on the Commission to propose legislation in its area of competence. This innovative procedure puts EU citizens on the same level as the both the EU Parliament and the Council as far as requesting legislation is concerned.

The complex rules and procedures for the ECI have been set out in a new regulation which came into effect last April and contain seven steps: 1. Preparation and setting up of the Citizens’ committee; 2. Registration of the proposed initiative; 3. Certification of online collection system; 4. Collection of statements of support on paper and/or online; 5. Verification of statements of support; 6. Submission of the initiative to the Commission; 7. Examination, public hearing in the European Parliament and answer by the Commission.

Once the Commission sorts out the software difficulties it will be interesting to see how quickly the six registered initiatives will get the required signatures. Acquiring one million signatures shouldn’t pose a major problem in this era of smart phones and expanding social networks, you might think. But it does. According to the Green European Foundation (GEF), getting one million signatures across the EU can prove extremely challenging. They give the example of a pre-initiative campaign in 2005, which sought the introduction of a common European Emergency number. This uncontroversial and well-funded initiative only managed to get 15,000 signatures. The rule of thumb seems to be that for every ten people approached only one will volunteer a signature. The research conducted by the GEF shows that half of the people approached may not agree with the issue or are just not interested. Of the remaining half, half again may not agree on the solution proposed by your ECI. And of course there may be understandable concerns about giving you the personal information required for “signing” an ECI. Even the assurance that this information must be destroyed by the Commission when the process is complete does not satisfy some people. There is also the added problem that even when you do manage to get a signature it may not be validated by the Commission. The GEF suggests that to be sure of getting a million signatures validated you need to collect at least 1.2 million. The number of signatures required in each member state is allocated on the basis of the proportion of seats in the European parliament. In Ireland’s case, this yields a requirement of 9,000 signatures. The process is handled by the Department for the Environment. Contact persons and other details can be found on its web site.

With confidence in the European project running at an all time low, an ECI process that truly empowers European citizens would help to restore some trust in the European institutions.