23rd Jan 2020

EU petitions marred by technical glitches and legal uncertainty

MEPs are considering looking into how an EU citizens initiative clause allowing for petitions can be made more secure after George W. Bush and Mickey Mouse apparently signed up to a recent campaign in favour of scrapping the parliament's seat in Strasbourg.

The online petition gathered over a million supporters but exposed the flaws in the system – used for the first time at EU level – with several email addresses appearing multiple times, obviously fictitious names, and the unlikely scenario of French president Jacques Chirac signing up to the anti-Strasbourg movement.

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  • Citizens can shout about things but it is not clear yet whether they can legally be heard (Photo: European Commission)

With some MEPs believing that citizens initiatives are about to become a firm fixture of the European political landscape as up to 10 million-signature petitions are currently in the making - covering issues as diverse as Turkey's EU membership, stopping new nuclear plants being built in Europe and providing more EU money for people with AIDS in Africa - they want to make sure all the technical and legal glitches are removed.

The citizen initiative is part of the EU constitution – technically politically dead since mid 2005 when it was rejected by French and Dutch voters.

The constitution stipulates that if at least 1 million signatures are gathered on a topic from EU citizens then they can formally ask the European Commission to look into an issue.

However, it does not stipulate how many member states the signatures should come from, and whether electronic signatures are admissable.

These issues were thrown up during the Strasbourg seat campaign which saw over 1 million citizens sign up to an e-petition to house the parliament only in Brussels.

In the end the million-strong petition was rejected by the parliament on the grounds that it could not be proven whether all the signatories were resident in EU member states.

The then MEP Cecilia Malmström, one of the main movers behind the campaign, was forced to submit it as an individual petition.

Now UK liberal MEP Diana Wallis wants to carry out a report looking into these problems.

"We want to give some clarity on what is acceptable and what is not," she told EUobserver adding that she did not want citizens to come with a 1 million petition only to be told " 'go away, you've got it wrong'."

Outlining her ideas she suggests that a citizens initiative petition will have to have signatures from at least 10 member states and "should have a European flavour to it."

But she and her colleagues in the petitions committee are running into opposition from MEPs in the constitutional affairs committee.

MEPs in this committee do not want the parliament to be seen as "cherry-picking" - a now negative verb that within the bloc has almost become entirely synonymous with the EU constitution and the different bits people would like to save from it.

Mrs Wallis dismisses this view as a "bit precious" saying citizens have a right to be heard.

And as citizens more generally become aware of their right to petition the EU, interesting political questions are likely to be raised such as what to do when hundreds of thousands of people sign a petition on something that is not strictly an EU matter.

Speaking about just that recently, Spanish centre-right MEP Inigo Mendez de Vigo suggested anti-European sentiment would be fermented "if you don't consider a petition with lots of signatures."

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