Hearing on European Citizens’ Initiative: reform is urgently needed!

B-xD0CKXAAAnhG1Less than three years after the entry into force of Regulation 211/2011 on the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), there is increasing awareness that the promise that this would become a strong and efficient instrument of participatory democracy has not been kept.

The European Parliament’s hearing on the issue left many questions open, but it was nevertheless a very useful event that could give orientation to the reform process that is urgently needed if the EU wants to bridge the gap between its institutions and its citizens. As the debate revealed, while Regulation 211/2011 puts unnecessary burdens on the shoulders of ECI organizers, the shameful manner in which the European Commission has dealt with the only 2 (out of more than 50) ECIs that so far have managed to collect more than the required 1 million of signatures is unlikely to motivate citizens to launch many more initiatives.

While this blog has criticized the fact that no representative of the most successful ECI so far, ONE OF US, had been invited to speak at the hearing, the representative of the other successful ECI, Mr. Sanchez Centellas of the Right2Water Campaign, said just as much as what a ONE OF US representative might have said: the Commission needs to take citizens more seriously.

Similar views were expressed by three legal experts who had been invited to the panel. Jean-Luc Sauron, University of Paris-Dauphine, cited the reduction in the size of the EU legislative agenda and wondered if the ECI was irrelevant or threatens the Parliament’s role. He proposed having the Council discuss all successful ECIs once a year. Tamás Molnár, Corvinus University of Budapest, described the ECI as an under-achieving legal tool of participatory democracy. Philippe Poirier, University of Luxembourg, challenged the centrality of the Commission in the ECI process and suggested that registration should be decided instead by the European Parliament and that the ECI have a binding impact.

This was also the opinion of several MEPs, such as Kazimierz Ujazdowski, who, with a specific reference to ONE OF US, asked: “can the Commission reject an ECI arbitrarily even if it has met all formal requirements and received very strong support from citizens from a broad range of countries? We must limit the arbitrariness of the Commission’s action, otherwise it will continue acting in this way.”

MEP Pál Csáky said that “we have to change the system to make sure that it is not only the European Commission who takes the final decision”.

Carsten Berg, speaking on behalf of The ECI Campaign, an NGO monitoring the implementation of the European Citizens’ Initiative right, gave an impressive presentation in which he showed how, after an initial phase of enthusiasm, citizens had to discover that the ECI was not made for them. More than half of all ECIs proposed so far have been rejected on formal grounds even prior to their registration, a proportion that is absolutely unique in the democratic world. Those who managed to get their ECI registered found it difficult to cope with the extremely demanding technical requirements as well as the liability risks associated with the collection of declarations of support. As a result, the number of newly registered ECIs has dropped to almost zero. “The ECI is a very dangerous crossroads today”, he said. “The ECI Regulation is fatally flawed, it does not work yet. It is an empty promise of an EU that has lost its way. Citizens will use the ECI only if they see that it can have an impact on policy. But this is not what they see happening.”

Diana Wallis, a former MEP who had at the time been leading in drafting the Regulation, expressed disappointment:  her ambition had been that citizens be allowed “not only to make complaints, but to actually push the start button of the legislative process”.

Carlo Casini, who had been invited in his quality as a former Chair of the Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee, considered it an anomaly that an ECI with 2 million signatures could be turned down by a few people inside the Commission without debate. “This”, he said, “will result in turning people away rather than bridging the gap between them and the EU”. He also added that it should be for the Parliament, not the executive, to judge the political merits of a successful ECI.”

Györgyi Schöpflin, who will act as the drafter of a report that the EP will adopt on the ECI summarized the debate by saying that the ECI “is not a complete failure, but it also is not a success”. Interestingly, he also raised the question how the European Parliament should handle successful ECIs – without doubt a very important issue, considering the manners in which hostile (i.e., pro-abortion) MEPs had tried to usurp, and force their own agenda on, the EP’s hearing on ONE OF US in April 2014. He concluded by saying that “the Commission’s role as the primary assessor has contributed to the disappointing performance of the ECI, and this will have to be rethought”.

At this point Commission Vice-President Frans Timmermans, who made a brief but non-committal statement at the beginning of the hearing and then stayed on during the first panel, had already left…