Tuesday

27th Feb 2024

EU democracy instrument continues to cause headaches

  • Rejected initiatives can be appealed before the European Court of Justice (Photo: European Commission)

It is meant to be the most clear democratising feature of the EU's new rulebook, the Lisbon Treaty, but implementation of the "citizen's initiative" is a political minefield and is prompting much discussion about the danger of the tool turning into a mockery of democracy.

EU politicians are keen to talk up the European citizens' Initiative (ECI), a clause in the EU treaty obliging the European Commission to consider legislating on any idea supported by 1 million European citizens.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Institutional affairs commissioner Maros Sefcovic calls it a "real step forward in the democratic life of Europe." Parliament vice-president Silvana Koch-Mehrin, a German liberal, invokes Confucius and Rousseau, the Chinese and French philosophers, to explain its importance.

But seven months after the implementation of the Lisbon Treaty, Brussels institutions are struggling to get the right tone and the balance for the direct democracy law - partly because it is not clear to what extent and how citizens will use it.

"We are building something new - something with ramifications that are difficult to foresee now," says Mr Sefcovic.

Earlier in June, the draft legislation went to member states for discussion and has now landed in the parliament's lap.

The modified proposal sees the commission decides at the moment it registers the initiative if it is fundamentally silly or against European "values."

The admissibility of the initiative will then be decided once 100,000 signatures have been gathered. Meanwhile most member states are looking to have signatories provide ID numbers and are fretting about verifying the signatures - pushing to have them all checked.

At a hearing on the issue organised by the parliament's Liberal group on Tuesday (22 June), democracy and civil society activists lined up to criticise the proposal.

They argued that the system was too bureaucratic and off-putting for ordinary citizens and raised concerns about the vagueness of the wording allowing the commission to reject a proposal.

Mario Tenreiro, a commission official working on the issue, dismissed the "censorship" concerns. "All MEPs have to wear blue and stars - should we register this? I don't think so," he said, attempting to highlight how clear cut such decisions will be.

Campaigners are also worried that member states' preoccupation with security issues - most opted to have signatories hand over their ID numbers and want all signatures to be verified - will put off citizens and make the process too lengthy.

"I don't want my ID spread about the internet," said Tony Venables, from the European Citizen Action Service, while Jorgo Riss, from Greenpeace, said member states' "mindset" must be changed away from trying to authenticate every signature to examining a percentage of signatures instead.

Others took issue with the commission's argument that 100,000 signatures have to be gathered before admissibility is considered, arguing it is too burdensome. The commission says that deciding on admissibility too early would see screeching media headlines like "Brussels gives greenlight to abortion."

Piotr Kaczynski, from the Brussels-based Centre for European Policy Studies, focused on potential problems after 1 million signatures from the required nine member states are gathered.

'Debate-making instrument'

The draft rules require that all the signatures and information are then destroyed. According to Mr Kaczynski, however, at the very least the email address should be kept so if the commission decides not to legislate on the issue, citizens are told why. "Otherwise this kills the conversation that could be generated by these initiatives," he said.

The academic also argued that it is not enough for the commission to say that it is not permitted within the EU treaties to act on an initiative, it should look around to find a mandate from an EU institution or body that does. Participants in Tuesday's discussion were quick to note that although the EU treaty formally bans a bailout of a member state, governments recently found a way around the wording.

"This is not a law-making instrument, this is a debate-making instrument," says Mr Kaczynski.

The Commission would like to see the new law agreed by 1 December, the first year anniversary of the Lisbon Treaty. But this looks unlikely as the parliamentary process is being delayed due to planned extra consultations.

Diana Wallis, a UK Liberal MEP dealing with the issue for the petitions committee, said parliament could enhance this "serious instrument" by organising hearings on subjects raised by certain initiatives. The EU assembly could also use its right to ask the commission to act - presenting a "double whammy" to the commission which would be "fairly convincing."

One citizen present at the debate showed that there is still much work to be done to make it user-friendly. "As an EU citizen I feel very confused and lost in all the different intricacies of the proposal," she said.

Analysis

Almost 20 names in running for EU top jobs

With four months until the European Parliament elections, there are already some 20 names in the hat for the ensuing reshuffle of EU top jobs.

EUobserved

New government in Belfast is much ado about not much

The deal to restore Northern Ireland's government — after nearly two years — is being spun as a major triumph. But not much has changed. This is an exercise in fine-tuning and political window-dressing.

Investigation

Far-right MEPs least disciplined in following party line

In a fractious parliamentary vote, the level of party discipline often decides the fate of legislation. Party discipline among nationalists and far-right MEPs is the weakest, something potentially significant after the June elections. Data by Novaya Gazeta Europe and EUobserver.

Latest News

  1. All of Orbán's MPs back Sweden's Nato entry
  2. India makes first objection to EU carbon levy at WTO summit
  3. Angry farmers block Brussels again, urge fix to 'unfair' prices
  4. Luxembourg denies blind spot on Nato security vetting
  5. Record rate-profits sees EU banks give shareholders €120bn
  6. Why the EU silence on why Orban's €10bn was unblocked?
  7. Far-right MEPs least disciplined in following party line
  8. More farmers, Ukraine aid, Yulia Navalnaya in focus This WEEK

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us