• On 1 April, a treaty article obliging the EU commission to consider legislating on the back of a petition backed by one million citizens from at least seven countries will go live. (Photo: European Commission)

First citizens' petition set to be on water

21.03.12 @ 17:43

  1. By Honor Mahony
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BRUSSELS - The first formal attempt by European citizens to have a say in EU policy-making is likely to centre around securing a promise from Brussels to never privatise water.

"We are planning to launch on the 1st April at midnight. This is a citizen initiative which demands that water and sanitation be taken into European legislation as a human right," said Pablo Sanchez Centellas from the European Federation of Public Unions.

There is just over a week to go until the EU makes its long-awaited foray into the world of participatory democracy. On 1 April, a treaty article obliging the EU commission to consider legislating on the back of a petition backed by 1 million citizens from at least seven countries will go live.

The ideas for initiatives are already stockpiling.

Initiatives in the offing

They range from the very specific - legalising gay marriage throughout the European Union and creating a European anti-obesity day to the more general - on disability rights and making education more European.

Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann recently said he wants to start an EU-wide initiative on phasing out nuclear power.

But getting an initiative to see the light of day is not so easy. One million signatures might sound less of a hurdle than it did when the citizens' initiative - in pre-social-media days - was still a pipe-dream. But campaigners say there is a world of a difference between 'liking' something on Facebook and actually signing up to an idea, adding one's ID details.

They also have to make it through the commission's own elastic checklist. Petitions will be rejected if they are "outside" Brussels' powers or are "abusive, frivolous or vexatious." They are also prohibited from being "contrary to EU values."

The limits have potential petitioners scouring EU treaty articles.

Niccolo Milanese, heading up an initiative on media freedom and pluralism, notes that finding treaty support for media pluralism is easy - the commission is strong on competition issues - but much more difficult for "media freedom." But the initiative is due to be filed anyway in late April.

Speaking on Tuesday (20 March) at a conference organised by the European Citizens Action Service (ECAS), Professor Paolo Ponzano from the European University Institute took a dry-eyed approach to the issue.

Citizens' initiatives have to be "juridically eligible," he says. In his opinion, this requirement already fells one early starter - the campaign for a single seat for the European Parliament.

Single seat not eligible

"This initiative is not juridically eligible," says Ponzano "because, according to the treaty, it is up to the member states to fix the seats of the institutions. And the commission does not have the right to propose it."

He also suggests that the Greenpeace ban-GMOs initiative - filed back in late 2010 - is unlikely to make the grade. It would require a treaty change, something that the regulation covering the citizens' initiative does not foresee.

But others get the academic nod. A try for 'The right to a basic income' may be accepted by the commission so long as it is "well integrated" into the treaty article dealing with social policy.

Similarly, 'Let me vote' asking that citizens be allowed to vote in the national elections of member states they are residing in should be admissible because it extends the rights of EU citizens, something promised in the treaty.

Questions unanswered

But even as the launch date approaches there is still much confusion about the citizens' initiative.

Many of the participants at Tuesday's conference were unaware that the online signature collection system needs to be validated in only one member state where all the signatures will then be collected.

Meanwhile, all potential petition signatories are not equal - at least when it comes to identification. Whereas Finns only have to give their name, address and date of birth, French and Italians have to give the more off-putting ID number when signing up. The Spanish will need an electronic signature on top of that.

The signatures will need to be validated too. Controversially, some member states are thinking of outsourcing this to private companies - meaning petition organisers will have to pay.

The uncertainties mean that many potential activists are waiting to see how the first initiatives fare before taking the plunge themselves.

And there is ambivalence about the project at the very top. Meglena Kuneva, a former EU commissioner, noted that while politicians are publicly optimistic about the democracy tool, they express "doubts in private."

This ambivalence is reflected in the fact that member states have been in no hurry to put the mechanics into place, already postponing last year's planned deadline by a year. And several member states still have a to-do list.

Some claim the commission is not overly enamoured of the idea of getting up close and personal with citizens' wishes either.

"On the whole, the commission isn't really so committed as we would wish," said Bruno Kaufmann, head of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe.

"I would like to see [Commission] President Barroso make a statement about this European Citizens' Initiative. The last thing I heard from him on that was in 2005," he added.