Sunday

27th May 2018

Opinion

Signs of life for EU 'citizens' initiative'

  • Launched in 2012, the initiative invites the commission to consider a legal act if 1 million people urge it to (Photo: Aleksandra Eriksson)

The European citizens' initiative (ECI) has had a difficult time since its launch in 2012.

There were high expectations of citizen-led policy-making and of reducing the distance between ordinary people and EU institutions, but these hopes have largely been dashed.

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  • Seven European Citizens' Initiatives are ongoing, with three related to the topic of EU citizenship following Brexit (Photo: Paul Lloyd)

A dramatic drop in ECI proposals and citizen support made it look like this major democratic reform was going to end up stillborn.

In 2017, though, there have been signs of a fragile recovery, with favourable court decisions, attitudes of the European Commission becoming more positive, and citizens re-engaging.

A major problem to date has been excessive institutional control.

The commission's interpretation of registration criteria led to almost 40 percent of ECIs being refused, which unjustly limited public debate.

Responses to successful ECIs have been very limited so far. No legal acts have been proposed yet after a successful campaign.

There has been strong criticism of the commission’s approach to ECI registration.

Several organisers launched legal challenges in regard to how the commission makes decisions on the registrations.

Court rulings

Early court decisions indicated that these legal challenges might have little impact on the future of the ECI.

However, in the Minority SafePack case - decision published in March this year - the EU's General Court (part of the Court of Justice of the EU) - annulled a commission registration decision for the first time.

The decision was annulled because the commission had not provided sufficient reasons to the Minority SafePack organisers for refusing to register their initiative.

Rather surprisingly, this procedural criticism led to the commission reviewing the substance of their decision, and quickly decided to register the ECI.

However, the court went even further with its decision in the Stop TTIP case on 10 May .

It again ruled to annul the refusal to register the initiative, but this time it went beyond procedural criticism - instead rejecting the reasons the commission gave for its decision.

These judgements will greatly increase the scope for an ECI-led debate and the potential for ordinary citizens to influence EU policy.

Review of ECI

As well as the encouragement from the court's decisions to reduce institutional control over initiatives, commission vice president Frans Timmermans also announced - at the ECI day in April - a full review of ECI legislation later this year.

Resisting until now, this promise shows further signs of stronger commission support for direct participation of citizens.

The review could lead to major improvements to the usability of the citizens' initiatives.

It could also increase the success rate for ECI organisers - perhaps, for example, by addressing the excessive identification requirements that have stopped many citizens from supporting initiatives.

There are concerns that the commission will limit the review to technical issues and not make the much-needed changes to enhance people's participation in different initiatives.

This could be done, for example, by strengthening the institutional response to ECI proposals.

A full review would also encourage more citizens to turn to the ECI in the future as a means of influencing EU policy. A limited review would be a missed democratic opportunity and could lead to a stalled recovery.

European Parliament support

The European Parliament continues to be an important ally for the ECI. There are ongoing preparations for a legislative own-initiative report, proposing changes to the programme.

This is one of the strongest political weapons in the European Parliament’s arsenal being used to enhance citizen participation and safeguard the future of this important tool.

Most significant for the ECI, perhaps, are the numbers of citizens that have begun using it again. Hopefully not just because of the current political turmoil.

Seven ongoing initiatives

Seven ECIs are ongoing, with three related to the extremely important topic of EU citizenship following Brexit.

Almost 750,000 citizens have already pledged support this year to the "Ban Glysophate" initiative.

This initiative looks likely to gain support from over 1 million citizens and to become the next successful campaign presented to the commission for a response.

This would provide a further test of whether the commission has a new, more positive outlook on the ECI.

New life has been breathed into the ECI, but its recovery is still fragile.

Greater publicity is needed and citizens should to continue to engage.

Much depends on the depth of its review this year and the commission’s response to the next successful citizens' initiatives.

James Organ is a member of the ECI Campaign and lecturer at the University of Liverpool

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