Saturday

17th Apr 2021

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.

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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.

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