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15th Dec 2019

EU democracy tool fails to reach citizens

  • Just two initiatives have made it to completion in the three years of the ECI's life (Photo: ec.europa.eu)

The European Commission has indicated it is not going to make major changes to the EU's participative democracy tool despite critics saying its complexity has made it almost unworkable.

In a review published Tuesday (31 March), three years after the European Citizen's Initiative went live, the commission suggests some technical tweaks to the instrument while concluding that the law governing it has been "fully implemented".

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The commission's analysis shows that of the 51 initial requests to register initiatives, just two - on the right to water and on banning research using human embryos - reached the final stage of the process.

These elicited a formal response from the commission, but no legislation as a successful petition does not automatically lead to new draft laws.

Twenty were turned down; 12 never reached the required signature threshold, while one - on vivisection - is due a commission response in June.

Over the three-year period, some six million citizens signed initiatives - a tiny fraction of the EU's 500 million citizens.

The initiative, launched on 1 April 2012, was meant to give the citizens the feeling that they can bring about change at the EU level.

Under the rules, one million signatures from seven member states on an EU issue where the European Commission has powers should be enough to get the executive to consider legislation on the topic, or explain why not.

However, those who have worked on ECIs say the process is off-putting and cumbersome, particularly in those member states that require an ID number from signatories.

The commission recognises there is "still room to improve" highlighting mainly technical and legalistic problems.

It notes that ECI committees -overseeing the initiative - are often concerned about liability issues (such as those raised by storing personal data) or that it is difficult for organisers to provide accurate translations of their initiatives across all member states.

Other practical problems include the basic issue of where to store all the collected data. The commission is storing the information on its own servers but notes this was meant to only be a "temporary" solution.

Meanwhile it sometimes takes so long for an online collection system to be set up that it eats most of the time - a year - for getting the signatures.

The commission concludes that it is "too early" to assess the long-term impacts of the ECI and says it will "continue monitoring".

EU commission vice-president Frans Timmermans said the ECI is "one of the building blocks for strengthening trust in the European institutions and for promoting active participation of citizens in EU policy-making".

Yet critics say the commission is not doing enough to make it into a living tool. They argue that its complexity leaves it useable only by well-organised pressure groups.

"The commission’s review ignores the damage done to the EU when the ECI cannot deliver on its promise of participatory democracy," said Carsten Berg, a democracy activist monitoring the ECI’s progress.

"In reality, the ECI is so hard to use and its impact so limited that it creates great citizen frustration," he adds.

A recent study by the European Parliament's inhouse thinktank concluded that the ECI needed a permanent information centre to explain the system; as well as pro-bono IT or legal experts; and that the commission should eventually clarify whether initiatives can amend primary (treaty) law.

In a recent hearing on the issue, Berg noted that interest in the ECI peaked in 2013 and “fully crashed” in 2014.

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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.

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