Thursday 1 April 2010

Citizen's Initiative Proposal

The Commission has produced proposals on how the Citizen’s Initiative, the ability of EU citizens to petition the Commission to make legislative proposals in an area, will function. The legislation would have to be passed by the Council and Parliament before becoming law, but the main points of the proposal are:

- minimum age for signees is the same as that for European elections,
- the 1 million signatures must come from at least 9 of the member states,
- there will be a threshold for each member state that must be reached for it to count,
- after 300,000 signatures have been collected from 3 member states, the Commission can be asked to say whether or not it would be admissible should it reach 1 million signatures,
- not only can petitions be rejected on the grounds of being outside the Commission’s area of competence, but also if they are judged to be frivolous, abusive or against European values (which seem to be judged against the Charter of Fundamental Rights and the values set out in the TEU),
- online petitions must be in a format approved of by the member state(s) concerned,
- organisers will have to be able to prove that they are not lobbyists.

The proposals set a high bar for the Citizen’s Initiative, and the intentions behind this seem to be: (1) to cut off time wasting petitions quickly/limit the amount of petitions the Commission may have to review; (2) create as wide a member-state basis to the petitions as possible; (3) (possibly) give a boost to the role of the European parties, since a petition on such a scale would probably need a level of organisation that the Europarties would be better placed than most to provide.

Rose over at A Bit More Complicated has raised the issues of ID cards and the worries over ID theft for UK & Irish citizens, and the complexity and validity of the member state threshold.

I can understand the member state threshold to a degree – it would be strange if you could say you’d support in a member state just because 1 citizen from that state signed your petition. However, I think that the proposed rules are too strict in this area, and forms too much of a barrier for citizens who might want to use the C.I. While it should be the role of the Europarties and NGOs to organise petitions and deal with the bureaucracy, would it really happen that often? And want does that say about true citizen involvement if organisations need to fill the gap in most cases? The C.I. could be in danger of being used so infrequently that it won’t contribute to bringing citizens closer to the EU.

So what could be done instead? Citizens should be freer under the petition system from member state-based restrictions than in the EP and in the EU institutions generally, since it’s supposed to be a more direct form of interaction with the EU. A lower threshold of member states – or at least lower member state thresholds – would go towards fixing this, but I think that it shouldn’t matter if the petitioners are geographically concentrated. Perhaps if the relevant EP committee in the policy area could review a petition to say whether it would support legislation in this area or not would act to balance it out – after all, if there’s nowhere near a majority in Parliament for the possibility of a proposal, it won’t pass (some level of threshold of member states would remain logical, however).

Finally, it seems strange with all these hoops to jump through, that when a petition is accepted, and the Commission says that it will produce a proposal based on it, there’s no time limit for the Commission to do that:

“Once a citizens' initiative has been registered, the commission has to say whether or not it is going to propose legislation in the area within four months. But, critically, there is no time constraint on when the commission actually then produces a draft law.”

Hopefully this will be changed. Given that the Commission would have committed to producing a proposal, it should have to come up with one within a reasonable time, or have to give good reasons for delays.


  1. In my opinion the threshold is just fine. (If it is too easily met, it makes a positive result too easy, thus invalidating it in the eyes of many as anyone with enough budget could get a successful petition) The problem is rather in the commission giving itself the power to shoot down petitions it does no like if it simply calls them being against European values. So what? As long as the petition is in an area which is within the powers of the Commission, any petition should be rightful. After all, if it is really against European values, the Commission could argue in a detailed report after possible 1 mio signatures that it is and therefore do nothing.

    Otherwise the C.I. will be a great thing of course and I hope that it will help to get more pan European debates going. Thats what its real purpose is in first place anyway. Creating debates that europarties could use to create a profile of themselves that gives citizens a reason to go to the ballots and voting for this or that party.

  2. The main limit of the Citizens' Initiative is that the "high politics" people could become engaged in are excluded from the start, because almost every possible question of that kind is basically regulated at treaty level.

    How often do others than special interests get excited about matters restricted to secondary legislation?

  3. I think the main issue is that of asking signatories for their ID. It will clearly kill every initiative in the egg. That's just too much to ask. I also think as it is, the proposal will clearly favour large organisations, and not individual citizen initiatives, which is a shame. About Europarties, I don't think they would get involved in these petitions quite honnestly. They have much more effective ways of influencing the political process.

  4. @ Slartibartfas

    I agree that there must be some level of member state threshold, but I think that the individual member state thresholds will be too high and bureaucratic, and would probably kill off some of the C.I.'s potential.

    @ Grahnlaw

    I think that there should be more direct voter participation in treaty changes (if issues were discussed while the amendments were being drawn up, it would hopefully lead to a more informed and pan-European debate), but I'd be a bit wary of the C.I. being a mechanism for provoking treaty change. Secondary legislation may be of more interest to interest groups than general citizens, but does this not just say something true about legislation in general, national or European - not everyone can be interested in all aspects of government and legislation. If it works, it could be a mechanism that would make EU law-making more responsive to the needs and circumstances of those it affects.

    @ Eurosocialiste

    It does seem like the idea that Europarties will latch on to it is a bit of a forlorn hope... Which is a pitty, because even if they have other ways of influencing the political process, the C.I. is a way of showing that they've some level of public support, as well as communicating to the public what they're trying to achieve/change, and helps to keep them in the public eye. Which could be useful come election time.

  5. I agree with Grahnlaw that this proposal is in fact absurd. All the European Union has been managed by the states governments, so this "voice of the people" has what value? To introduce democracy in inter-govermentalism is nonsense in my opinion. I imagine a voice of citizens quite otherwise.

  6. The bar of the ECI Regulation as proposed by the Commmission is indeed far too high.

    You can find several alternative solutions on the following 1-page open letter: Please feel warmly invited to spread the news in the blogosphere and forward the link to any political representatives you know.

    This could be the start of a social media campaign...