The European Citizens Initiative is now at a crossroads – The Member States can show which path to follow in the future.
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is the first and, up to now, only instrument of transnational, participatory and digital democracy in the world and has its origins in the Constitutional Convention in 2002-03. When the ECI entered into force in 2012, civil society organisations across Europe have highly welcomed this new right which confers citizens the right to request the adoption of new EU legislation if backed by one million citizens from at least seven Member States. Until then, civil society’s involvement was more or less confined to public consultations, which are exclusively triggered top-down and remain at the full discretion of the European Commission. However, the initial enthusiasm about the ECI has given way very soon to great disenchantment. The figures on the European citizens’ initiative are sobering. As of 30 March 2021, 101 initiatives were submitted for registration to the Commission, of which 76 initiatives were registered. Only 6 of them were able to gather more than 1 million signatures. However, their impact has been minimal. The Commission did not fully implement the proposals of any of the successful ECIs. Only in two cases, the Commission was willing to adopt legislative proposals, however addressing solely sub-goals of the respective ECIs.
Over the years, the number of registered initiatives has declined step by step. A moderate upward trend could be observed around the elections to the European Parliament 2019. However, most of these initiatives could not make any significant efforts to gather signatures after their registration. The worldwide Corona pandemic definitely grounded the European citizens’ initiative. Since a worldwide pandemic was declared by the WHO on 11 March 2020, only 4 initiatives have been registered. The ongoing initiatives will only continue to have a chance to reach 1 million signatures, as the European Commission decided – after urgent appeals of civil society and Members of the European Parliament – to prolong the period of signature collection for the European citizens’ initiatives concerned.
The goal of the European citizens’ initiative was “to bring the EU closer to its citizens”. Looking at it today, it appears that the opposite effect has been achieved. The lack of direct consequences leaves the ECI potential unexplored and could severely undermine citizens’ trust in EU institutions.
Democracy activists have already recognized at a very early stage the need to take action and requested reforms of the European citizens’ initiative. While the European legislature took up these requests, it only was willing to proceed to very punctual and technical adjustments of the applicable regulations. The basic design of the European citizen’ initiative was not put into question and thus not improved. The European citizens’ initiative remains a very burdensome and bureaucratic instrument, but its legal and political impact is relatively weak.
In order to prevent the European Citizens’ Initiative becoming „lettre mort“ sooner or later, it is necessary to revise the rules on the European Citizens‘ Initiative and to further refine this instrument. The Conference on the Future of Europe provides a unique window of opportunity to identify and remedy the defects of the European citizens’ initiative, which existed since the very beginning. In particular, the European Parliament has sent out the signal that it will support the goal to strengthen democratic participation in the Union.
We believe, all things considered, that it is necessary to address a bundle of issues in order to substantially improve the instrument of the ECI, such as reducing the excessive data-requirements and providing the chance to citizens to stay in touch with ECI organizers in order to build political communities around policy issues also beyond the specific life-cycle of an ECI. Partial reimbursement of the costs incurred for the implementation of a European citizens’ initiative likewise should be ensured, as it is the case for citizens’ initiative rights in Austria and Spain. However, the most important step, in our view, to breathe new life in the instrument of the European citizens’ initiative and to strengthen its deliberative dimension is to provide for the possibility to submit successful European citizens’ initiatives directly to the European Parliament and the Council. This is the “agora” within the European institutions where genuine debates and deliberation first and foremost take place. By contrast, the Commission is a technocratic body and, as such, it is not designed for deliberation and policy debates. During the negotiations on the Convention, the Commission was only addressed in order to find a political agreement as the design of the European citizens’ initiative is very similar to the rights of request of the European Parliament and the Council.
Experiences at national level show that this approach could provide fresh political impetus. Member States such as Finland, Latvia and Denmark, inspired by the European Citizens’ Initiative, have implemented citizens’ initiatives addressing national parliaments, which was met with great approval.
In Finland, five years after its introduction, 16 out of 571 initiatives have reached the quorum of 50.000 signatures. These successful citizens’ initiatives were turned in for debate and, most important, are subject of a vote in the Finish Parliament. In order to ensure efficient proceedings, Finish agenda initiatives receive a special status in parliament, having the same status as initiatives submitted by 100 out of 200 MPs, which makes it more difficult to obstruct successful initiatives. Successful Citizens’ initiatives have sparked intense debates. There has been one legal up take so far on same sex marriage. Polls show citizens appreciate the new democratic instrument. At the same time, Latvia also introduced a national citizens’ initiative, one characterized by a strong online dimension. During the first four years, 800 initiatives were submitted, of which 17 reached the minimum threshold of 10.000 signatures. All of these initiatives were debated in parliament, eight of them were subsequently adopted and implemented, which presents a success rate of nearly 50%. More than 30% of all Latvians have signed an agenda initiative. The successful performances of citizens’ initiatives in Finland and Latvia largely go back to the strong integration of these agenda initiative rights in the institutional processes. The fact that Parliament is obliged to vote on successful initiatives can be seen as an “security mechanism” ensuring that citizen’s initiatives are taken seriously.
Possible concerns that the strengthening of participatory democracy could destabilise the institutional system of the European Union are unfounded. The representative institutions of the Union, the European Parliament and the Council, which institutionally bear the ultimate responsibility for the public interest, will still have the last word on matters submitted by European Citizens’ Initiatives. Given the high hurdles for the admissibility of European Citizens’ Initiatives, it is neither likely that this reform would lead to a situation of overload of the European legislature.
This proposal, which has already been brought forward by different scholars, though in very vague terms, also is more and more echoed on political level. The German Green Party, for instance, which will in all likelihood become part of the next government coalition, included this request in its electoral programme for the upcoming federal elections in September 2021.
It will now be up to the Conference on the Future of Europe to take a stance on the future of participatory democracy in the European Union.
Carsten Berg successfully campaigned for the introduction of the ECI into EU primary law during the Convention on the Future of Europe (2002/03). Today he is director of The ECI Campaign and advices ongoing ECIs through the ECI Help Desk.
Thomas Hieber wrote a PhD thesis on the ECI at the University of St. Gall, Switzerland. He is the legal advisor of The ECI Campaign and supports ECIs on all legal matters.