While the “democratic deficit” of the EU has been on everyone’s lips during the past decade, generating considerable criticism and general Euroscepticism, an important tool of participative democracy offered by the EU has been completely ignored in the debates: the European Citizens’ Initiative. This tool represents, however, a highly welcome possibility for the citizens of the EU to set up a direct dialogue between them and the Commission.
Introduced officially in the EU structure with the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009, the ECI enables citizens to voice their concerns directly to the Commission by bringing forth initiatives in the form of petitions and to avoid in this way the long and arduous process of advocacy through all the architectures of representative democracy of all 28 Member states and the EU itself. The process requires one million signatures from at least 7 countries (one fourth of the member states) in order to be valid and sent to the Commission, which remains the only EU institution to officially have the power of initiative in the legislative process.
Since its effective introduction in 2012, more than 40 attempted initiatives were launched, only 3 of them have successfully reached the one-million signature goal and only one was accepted by the Commission. A meagre harvest for a tool that nonetheless represents a high potential in tackling the democratic deficit of the EU.
The ECI needs better-looking carrots
So why has the ECI had so little success? The primary reason remains the lack of communication made by the Commission about the existence of such a tool. The ECI was introduced to create a possibility for the citizens to participate directly in the definition of political priorities, but it has been ignored by the civil society due to the lack of promotion and information. As a result, two of the three “successful” initiatives in terms of signature collection, have been invalidated because they did not even match the competences of the Commission.
Additionally, the main shortcoming of the ECI is its own lack of incentive. The current ECI allows an initiative supported by one million people that meets all the criteria stipulated in the different regulations on the Initiative to be deemed positively by the Commission and be converted into a legislative proposal or any other action, but the Initiative can also be simply thrown into the bin. This latter case can happen if the initiative does not meet the agenda of the Commission, whereas the ECI was introduced to offer a possibility to shape directly this same agenda. These legal provisions represent a pretty poor-looking carrot attached to the European Commission’s stick to foster democratic participation.
Although the examination of an initiative leads to the audition of the organisers of the initiative by the Commission, this three-month-long public hearing shall be an opportunity to have a direct citizens-to-Commission public debate, using information and communication technologies. The tremendous work of transnational cooperation between European civil societies involved in an initiative shall lead to an equivalent response from the Commission in terms of effort and consideration of the initiative, and democracy as a whole. The Commission should also be under the obligation to produce action related to the initiative instead of representing a dead-end in the process. The current form of the ECI unfortunately reinforces the image of a Commission that lacks accountability and transparency to its citizens, an image that was strongly projected by critics of the EU in 2016 with the outcry that occurred during the CETA negotiations.
An ECI 2.0 could efficiently tackle the EU’s legitimacy crisis
An effective and balanced citizens-to-Commission dialogue generated by an ECI 2.0 could serve as an important catalyst for setting up a proper European public space. The reformed initiative can be the much awaited trigger to finally open EU-wide debates that European Parliament elections, captured by national political games, have failed to produce.
The ECI, because it can bypass national schemes of representation, could lead to the reinforcement of the principle of subsidiarity for an effective federal governance that is directly accountable to its citizens. A direct effect could be the reinforcement of the EU polity through active participation and the creation of a unique European civic ritual of direct democracy that gives concrete sense to European citizenship. In this regard the ECI is a powerful tool to tackle critics regarding the democratic legitimacy of the EU institutions in the short term and to generate a tangible sense of civic belonging to the EU in the long term.
European Commission: The legislative framework of the ECI.
Cécile Barbière: Bruxelles s’attelle à la réforme de l’Initiative citoyenne européenne. EurActiv.fr.
Bruno Kaufmann: The European Citizens’ Initiative is very much alive. Swissinfo.ch.