The concept of a citizens’ initiative is known in several countries as well as in EU legislation. The instrument is, in principle, an excellent measure to provide citizens with an opportunity to take part in the political life. No endorsement by political parties or authorities is needed to create an initiative and, in the ideal situation, the legislators are eventually convinced by the great number of citizens backing the proposition and let it pass into legislation.
In practice, most of the citizens’ initiatives across Europe on both national and international level have been unsuccessful. Gaining the support of the required number of citizens is difficult for most initiatives. What’s more, reaching the target number of signatures is just the first step; the political establishment should also be willing to accept the law.
According to a 2011 examination (link in Finnish) carried out by the Finnish government which covered the citizens’ initiative systems of the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Poland, Hungary and Switzerland, fairly few initiatives have had an actual impact on the national legislation. Austria and Poland were lauded as the countries in which the Citizens’ Initiative has gained the strongest footing. In the Netherlands, no initiative had had an impact on the law while in Spain, one initiative had been successful and in Hungary two citizens’ initiatives had been approved by the national parliament.
Bringing the Citizens’ Initiative into a European context has had a number of challenges. The required number of signatures, one million, has proved to be difficult for most citizens’ committees i.e. the organising groups of initiatives to reach. Each initiative should have enough many supporters in at least seven countries to ensure that the proposal isn’t merely in the interest of a comparatively small geographic area. The requirements have proven to be an obstacle for civil movements, as only three initiatives have gone all the way to the Commission since the ECI was launched in April 2012.
A point of criticism towards the European Citizens’ Initiative is the fact that none of the initiatives are directly presented to the European Parliament. In the current process viewed by some as cumbersome and bureaucratic, the Commission first evaluates the initiative and only then decides if a law proposal based on it should be presented to the legislative institutions. An alternative would be allowing a citizens’ committee to submit an initiative simply presenting the goals of the proposition and afterwards, with the help of a guidance centre, turn it into a formal proposal to be presented to the European Parliament and the Council. That way, the initiative would emanate directly from the public rather than from the Commission.
Sophie von Hatzfeldt from Democracy International points out that only three European Citizens’ Initiatives have been launched in 2015 while twenty-three were introduced in 2012. The political establishment has woken up to the issue of decreasing interest in the ECI. The reformation of the ECI began in the spring when the Commission published a report on the application of the initiative. In late September, the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) of the European Parliament assessed the ECI and proposed its suggestions for reform.
The AFCO committee proposed that support for ECI organisers be strengthened, the age limit for signing an initiative be lowered to 16 years and accepting parts of an initiative be made a possibility. Sophie von Hatzfeldt regrets the fact that the committee didn’t suggest changes to the ECI not being applicable to EU treaties such as the Lisbon Treaty. However, one must note that national-level citizens’ initiatives conflicting with the constitution aren’t allowed in countries like Spain, Portugal or Poland. EU treaties can be likened to national constitutions and therefore such a restriction isn’t unique.
Collecting signatures online has been burdensome to some citizens’ committees, as the European Commission noted in March. Temporary hosting solutions have been offered by the Commission and it has recognised the need for a more sustainable solution. One option would be a centralised online platform, similar to the one that is used in Finland. Another problem not mentioned in the AFCO report is the limited time frame in which the million signatures should be collected. Twelve months seems like a short time to mobilise more than ten large football stadiums’ worth of people. Adopting a time limit of eighteen months would allow for more time to campaign in a variety of countries.
The European Parliament is due to vote on the AFCO report in late October or early November. Afterwards, the report will be sent to the Council and the Commission and a final agreement on reform should be complete in early 2016.
Even though the ECI was initially advertised as a game changer, it has not managed to consolidate its position. As deplorable as it is, that is hardly a surprise. The national equivalents of the ECI have shown that adopting an efficient Citizens’ Initiative system is everything but easy. Making an EU law isn’t that simple for anyone, even the European institutions. Changes to the ECI may provide some help but given the circumstances, it may be too much asked to create a platform which all of a sudden encourages countless brilliant ideas for legislation that go on to be adopted.