Monday, 11 October 2010

We, the Citizens, suggest...

Recently I had to write a short paper on the Citizens' Initiative (specifically, the admissibility procedures under the Commission's proposed regulation [PDF]). The EP is still considering the proposal, and a rapporteur's report is expected in November. Still, the main points that are emerging from the Parliament are: to set 16 as the minimum age for signing a CI; dropping the ID requirement for signatories; requiring that significant numbers of signatures come from 1/4 rather than 1/3 of Member States; and increasing the time-limit for collecting 1 million signatures by 6 months to 18 months.

A lot of these ideas seem to have already been suggested by the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions, but the Couoncil has only sggested lowering the number of signatures that need to be collected before the Commission checks CIs for admissibility from 300,000 to 100,000. The European Parliament needs not just a consensus, but a coherent and well-argued consensus to be able to change the proposal for the better.

There are 2 big issues with the current proposal: one is simply the ease of use of the CI for citizens, and the second is the balance between the aims of ease of use and the encouragement of transnational debates.

Encouraging transnational debates is a challenge because the wider you want the debate to be, the harder it is for people to use the CI successfully. The proposal of 1/4 rather than 1/3 of Member States being the threshold number would make it easier for citizens to use the CI. But 7 rather than 9 Member States isn't a big step down. In my view, since the Commission isn't bound to act on CI proposals, it's important to make the CI as accessable as possible. In a EU of 27, 1/5 or 5 Member States is probably as low as you can go and still remain credibly within the meaning of a "significant number of Member States" (a requirement in article 11(4) TEU), but it would help promote a greater quantity of political interactions across borders, and this would give the CI greater social value. It could be argued that this would lessen the political power of the CI, but a good idea is a good idea - even if it's controversal, it is better that it is discussed transnationally and that it's brought to the attention of the institutions than not being expressed.

Ease of use is pretty straight forward. Under the current proposal, the Commission checks a proposed CI twice for admissibility - once at the point of registration (article 4), and then again with the explicit admissibility check after 300,000 signatures have been collected (article 8). Clearly people would be frustrated to reach 300,000 signatures in a transnational campaign only to find out that the Commission won't consider their proposal, but the checks under article 4 are very poorly framed, and seem to give the Commission an ill-defined discretion to reject some submissions at the start of the process because they are abusive or devoid of seriousness or manifestly against the principles of the EU. Finding out the limits by trial-and-error (or even court challenge) is not a mark of good legislation. (I also doubt the need for separate check on the principles and rights of the EU - since Treaty changes are excluded, and the institutions are bound to act in accordance with the Charter of Fundamental Rights, I would imagine contrary submissions to be excluded under the article 8 check anyway).*

The Parliament's working document (PDF) mentions a threshold of 5,000 signatures before doing an admissibility check - a massive difference to the Commission's and Council's proposals. Along with the end to the ID requirement, this would make launching a CI much more attractive to citizens. The EP needs to clearly articulate the cause of transnational debate, and amend the legislation to enable this through clear criteria and conditions, and easy and practical requirements.

Although, if we;re not happy with the end result, I suppose we could try and launch a Citizens' Initiative to change it...

*[As a thought on a possible legal impact of the CI and the admissibility criteria: could actions against admissibility decisions become a more direct way of citizens challenging the extent of the EU's competences than via direct effect before a national court? Or at least an invitation for the court to rule on pseudo-hypothetical cases, should complaints get that far? Although it couldn't result in the challenge of existing legislation, the number of people with potential for actions against negative admissibility decisions could lead to an increase in opinions and cases on EU competences. This just occured to me, however, so it's not a fully thought out idea.].

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