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9th Aug 2020

EU democracy tool hanging in the balance

  • "Too many iniatives have fallen by the wayside" (Photo: 2careless)

Less than three years after its launch, the EU's participative democracy tool has all but ground to a halt, amid criticism it is too complex and failing to result in change.

Hailed as a possible answer to the increasingly pertinent question of how to make people feel they have a political and cultural stake in the EU, the European Citizen’s Initiative is now considered almost obsolete.

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"Too many initiatives have fallen by the wayside or, worse, come up against the legalistic and bureaucratic assumptions of the Commission," said Hungarian centre-right MEP Gyorgy Schopflin during a hearing in the European Parliament on Thursday (26 February).

Carsten Berg, a democracy activist monitoring the ECI’s progress, notes that interest in the tool peaked in 2013 and “fully crashed” in 2014.

To date, only 49 initiatives have been submitted the European Commission. Only two – on the public right to water and on not funding research using human embryos – completed the entire process.

But the only follow-up was a statement by the commission, which is not obliged to legislate on the back of a successful petition.

Twenty initiatives have been declared inadmissible – these range from the off-beat (having the EU anthem in Esperanto); to the aspirational (‘ethics for animals and kids’) to the topical (Stop TTIP).

And there are just three ‘open’ ones, where signatures are still being collected.

Review in April

The European Commission is due to publish a review of the ECI in April. Democracy activists are billing it as a ‘cross-roads’ moment, leading either to a revival of the tool or confirming its path towards irrelevance.

Franciso Polo from change.org, the largest petition platform in the world, said people sign up to actions when it is easy to do so; when they consider it useful; and when they see results.

The ECI, according to its critics, falls at all these hurdles but particularly the first.

One million signatures are required from seven member states for a valid initiative. The internet makes this less of an obstacle than it might have been 20 years ago, yet it remains difficult because of onerous ID requirements.

The water-is-a-public-good campaigners, in a recent assessment of their experience, reckoned that the requirement for an ID number cut by half the amount of signatures in France, Italy, Austria, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria.

Meanwhile, Stanilas Jourdan, from a basic-income initiative, noted that after the idea was initially approved, the campaign lost momentum because setting up the actual signature collection process took so long.

Tear down the walls

In addition, there is the question of how and why the commission turns down an initiative. The grounds for refusal are normally because it falls outside commission powers.

But the EU executive has been accused of being too rigid or "legalistic" in its interpretation of initiatives.

Ian Harden, secretary general at the EU ombudman’s office, suggested the commission should exercise "reasonable judgement" to try and ensure that ECI's are not rejected because of "lack of information about EU law or policies on the organisers' side or because of infelicities in drafting."

German socialist MEP Jo Leinen, who said he personally had signed three ECIs already, suggested initiatives should be allowed to go beyond the scope of the commission's powers.

Other suggestions include making the initial registering of initiatives easier - currently nearly 50 percent are rejected - and providing translation and legal advice to the organisers.

Commission Vice-president Frans Timmermans, in charge of the issue, said he was "personally committed" to overcoming the "practical and political" concerns about the ECI.

"In its current form the ECI simply will not survive. Please tear down the walls and let in fresh new ideas," said Berg.

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