On European Citizens’ Initiatives and Trains

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On 1 April nine years ago, the European citizens’ initiative left the station of democratic innovation design and began its mission of bringing the EU and its citizens closer. To take stock of the nine-year-long journey of the European Citizens’ Initiative as it embarks on its future, I want to write to you about – ECIs and trains.

Both are innovations. Railways became the blood vessels bringing to life the industrial revolution that immensely changed our lives for better or worse; ECIs, on the other hand, are, what in my doctoral thesis I dubbed ‘transnational democratic innovations’ designed to bring decision- making at the EU level closer to its citizens.

Both are disruptive. When the construction of a first railway was discussed in the parliament of Serbia in 19th century, a concerned conservative MP warned the public that this was ‘a terrible iron snake that will pierce through the heart of the country’s body, which the people will have to feed until it ends up devouring them all’. We now hail the ECI’s potential to bridge the gap between European citizens and their Union, but my research interviews had confirmed the presence of a widespread simmering fear among the people in the institutions, particularly in the Commission, that they would be overwhelmed by a flood of citizen demands; moreover, what if this instrument is hijacked by particular, anti-European interests? In my research on the discursive and framing struggles between ECI stakeholders in the years in which the Commission was sitting on its Treaty obligation to reform the Initiative, I found that the absolute low point happened in 2015 when, while it was paying lip-service to citizen participation in public, the college of commissioners “regretted”, and I quote from the minutes from their meeting, “that experience to date had shown that citizens’ initiatives did not always move European law or the European project forward and stressed that, in the current European context, the Commission should take account of the political consequences that this mechanism could have in the longer term”. So, disruptive innovations frighten us. They challenge the modus operandi we are used to. EU institutions had been, for decades, used to working for the people (output legitimacy) much more than being a governance by the people (input legitimacy) and with the role of the EP strengthening only later in the game (as a body representative of EU citizens i.e. of the people).

Faced with the need to bolster its democratic credentials, the EU invented what V. Schmidt calls ‘throughput legitimacy’, governing with the people, a wide array of citizen consultations and similar mechanisms where citizens’ opinions might be heard but are rarely listened to. Our task is not to allow ECIs to be reduced to such a pseudo-democratic exercise!

Finally, innovations withstand the test of time if they can change with it! Just when you thought trains were a relic from the past, we now turn to them because they are a green alternative to the polluting air travel. What about political innovations? It was stated in relation to the democratic revolutions in 1989 in Eastern Europe that one may change a political regime in 6 months, the economic system in 6 years, but it will likely take 60 years for the political culture of the society to adapt to the change from authoritarianism to democracy. The fact that we finally have a new ECI Regulation to discuss today is a sign of the Commission, that privileged ECI actor in the role of both judge and jury, has adapted to the reality of ECIs. But what about European citizens? How can they make a full circle to the Lincolnian formula of democracy hinted at above?

The EU was not initially intended as a democratic project. There was no grand foundational moment. There was no lofty constitution. There was no “We, the People” As some authors show, for decades the wider public reaped the benefits of European integration whilst living in a state of blessed ignorance about it. On the other hand, without public hindrance, the Union’s evolution could, by and large, proceed undisturbed. Now, seventy years after the foundation of the Coal and Steel Community, I think we are ready to take an active part in all decisions that shape our lives! Therefore, returning in the end to the train metaphor, I recall what the peoples’ brigades used to sing while reconstructing Yugoslavia after WW2: ‘We build the railway – the railway builds us!” I say: We are building a stronger ECI, but the initiatives we launch also build us as stronger and more conscious European citizens!

Therefore, if ECIs are going to be the trains towards a more democratic Union, I wish them to go through the following necessary stations: widespread grassroots acceptance, transparent institutional treatment and impactful legislative follow-up.


Based on a speech delivered at the ECI Day 2020, at the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels on 25 February 2020.