Friday

22nd Jan 2021

EU proposes rules on new democratic instrument

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

The European Commission is bracing itself for the prospect of politically sensitive requests from EU citizens once a key direct-democracy clause contained in the Lisbon Treaty takes effect.

Under the rules, signatures from 1 million EU citizens on any issue obliges the commission to consider a legislative proposal in the area.

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How to implement the relatively detail-free article - hailed as a key step in overcoming the EU's democratic deficit, has been exercising legal minds within the commission since well before the treaty came into place.

On Tuesday, administration commissioner Maros Sefcovic laid out the requirements for exercising the citizens initiative, which he hopes to have up and running by December.

"I truly believe that the citizens' initiative is a real step forward in the democratic life of Europe," he said, adding that it would get citizens "more interested in Brussels."

The commission is suggesting that the one million signatures must come from at least a third of member states (nine) and reach a certain threshold in each of countries concerned. The voting age is set at the same age as for voting in the European elections.

Signatures can be collected over a one-year period but the organisers should ask the commission whether the request is admissible after 300,000 signatures have been gathered from three member states. Admissibility will be judged on whether the request falls within the commission's powers.

Once a citizens' initiative has been registered, the commission has to say whether or not it is going to propose legislation in the area within four months. But, critically, there is no time constraint on when the commission actually then produces a draft law.

Organisers of an initiative - an EU citizen or an EU political party - have to present detailed information to prove they are not lobbyists.

The process has several elements that could potentially delay the process, including the requirement that the organisers have their online vote collection system approved by the member state concerned.

Safeguards

The commission has also built some safeguards into the new system's operating manual, saying it deserves the right to reject requests that are "devoid of all seriousness" or "abusive." Applications can also be rejected on the grounds that they go against "European values."

These catch-all phrases could be used to deflect politically awkward initiatives such as a call to halt enlargement to include Turkey, for the re-introduction of the death penalty or for a ban on the building of minarets, something recently passed by referendum in non-EU member Switzerland.

Mr Sefcovic said that while the commission will not "limit the democratic debate on [any] issues," the requests must be "genuine, European and within the powers of the commission."

He said that the commission is not prepared to be used as a platform for "making fun of the European Union," through obviously frivolous initiatives such as proposing a fictitious person to become president of an EU institution.

Referring to some of the politically sensitive issues, he noted that a death penalty initiative would fall because it would breach EU values. Meanwhile, if issues raised provoked a conflict between different freedoms - such as religious freedom and freedom of speech - they would be discussed according to the "prevailing freedom that we are trying to protect."

"I am sure that if the issue of Turkey or future enlargement will come to our table, then this will be the future discussion the college [of commissioners] will have," said the commissioner.

However, the commission has already nipped one potential initiative in the bud, saying it does not have the legal powers to move the seat of the European Parliament to Brussels. Its official seat is in Strasbourg, with the lengthy and costly monthly trip a constant source of complaint from lobbyists, green activists and a large swathe of MEPs themselves.

In addition, eager citizens will not be able to initiate treaty changes.

Mr Sefcovic admitted the commission had little idea how citizens will take to the new democracy too, but noted that "people can be very easily mobilised" online. A review of the rules is planned in five years to "see if [the commission] got it right."

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