Citizens Initiative risks being strangled by EU commission
By Carsten Berg
The expectations attached to the EU’s new participatory democracy tool are high.
The European Citizens Initiative (ECI), allowing citizens to influence EU law-making, is seen as the most significant democratic reform in Europe since the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979.
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Yet for all the pre-implementation hype, the new democracy instrument has gotten off to a poor start.
Of the first six officially registered initiatives, not one has begun to collect signatures.
This poor state of affairs is due to the fact that the online signature collection system offered by the Commission is not yet up and running. This costs the ECI organisers valuable time.
In addition, officials at the EU’s central information services are still unable to answer the simplest questions about the ECI process. There is not enough staff. And training on the ins and outs of the ECI - which must have at least one million signatures in a minimum of seven member states - is inadequate.
Worst of all is that the commission has refused outright to register several initiatives. The ECI – “My vote against nuclear power” – which seeks to phase out the use of nuclear energy within the EU – is one such rejected initiative.
The commission argued that the current EU treaties “cannot be interpreted as giving the Commission the possibility to propose a legal act that would have the effect of modifying provisions of primary law (namely the Euratom Treaty).”
It also argues that it is not in the commission’s power to submit a legal act of the union for the purpose of implementing the treaties. In other words, the justification for the rejection of the Anti-Nuclear ECI is that proposals contravening primary law are inadmissible.
This stance has angered both the environmental and pro-democracy movements as it would substantially devalue, if not actually invalidate, the entire ECI instrument.
This overly restrictive interpretation is likely to mean that many future initiatives will be judged inadmissible from the outset.
According to the EU Treaties, the commission is itself entitled to propose amendments to treaties. So it should also be possible for citizens to launch initiatives that would result in treaty amendments.
The anti-nuclear ECI was thus rejected on grounds which are difficult to reconcile with the spirit of the ECI rules. There is no reason why citizens should be denied the possibility of making suggestions about the general direction of the EU through proposals borne by an ECI.
Indeed, those involved in drawing up the ECI clause during the constitutional convention in 2002-3 say it was never intended to be applied only to secondary law.
One of two things is needed now. Either European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso must speak up and give some political guidance on the matter or the European Court of Justice needs to decide on the commission’s narrow interpretation of the scope of the ECI.
The ability to make proposals that could eventually lead to an amendment of the treaties is essential if the ECI is to have a real democratizing impact on the EU.
Citizens need to feel that it is worth sharing personal data - in some cases significant amounts - to show their support for a proposal. For that to happen, it must be possible to pursue ECIs on issues that people feel strongly about and which directly affect their lives.
The writer is General Coordinator of The ECI Campaign and board member of Democracy International.