Effective as of April 1st 2012, the European Citizens’ Initiative is quite the novel invention in European Union politics. Established by Article 11.4 in the Lisbon Treaty on European Union, the fundamental goal of the European Citizens’ Initiative is to give European citizens a real channel of communication to the political elite, through increased influence on the legislative procedure. The European Commission is bound — both by treaty and regulation — to propose new legislative acts following successful initiatives.
There are several elements required to make an initiative successful. First and foremost, an initiative must lie within the legal competence of the EU, which will be decided by the Commission as soon as an initiative is registered. This is both to prevent the EU from becoming an arena for strictly national matters, and to give the Commission the right to dismiss initiatives, which would constitute a breach against the fundamental values of the EU. Second, as a requirement set to prevent companies and other non-citizens from getting involved, the organisers of an initiative must be citizens of the EU. For example, the European Citizens’ Initiative cannot be utilised to create an EU-wide ban on minarets. Third, a Committee of Citizens must be created, consisting of one representative from each of seven different member states. The Committee of Citizens is supposed to become a counterpart and negotiation partner for the Commission. Fourth, a minimum of one million signatures must be proportionally collected across the seven involved member states. The proportion of signatories is decided by each member state’s Members of European Parliament, multiplied by 750, which is the total number of parliamentarians in the European Parliament. Proportionality is used as a means of preventing domestic issues from rising to the EU level, which, apart from being problematic in terms of legal competence, would put smaller member states at a great numerical disadvantage. Finally, an initiative must be completed within twelve months from its registration.
Equally, there are also several challenges to making use of the European Citizens’ Initiative which are more or less connected to the seemingly simple matter of resources — be it funding, networks, knowhow, or other. Although both national and EU legislation are openly accessible to all, it may be difficult for a layman to discern what is national and what is EU competence — particularly in areas of mixed competence. Creating a multi-national committee may seem simple, but the level of cooperation and trust needed may prove hard to achieve within the given time frame. Further, even though One million signatures represents a mere 0,02% of the total population of the EU, an initiative still requires significant funding in order to reach the necessary amount of signatories. Translation into the languages of the involved member states falls upon the organisers —providing yet more hurdles to be surpassed. However, the most fundamental flaw in the construction of the European Citizens’ Initiative is perhaps the time frame. Twelve months is anything but generous in relation to the work required in finalising an initiative — especially when considering that it is supposed to be created for ordinary citizens whom are unlikely to be able to dedicate themselves full-time. Naturally, it can be — and has been — argued that these are all problems that fall upon the citizens themselves to solve, but it must then also be noted that all of these hurdles and problems have been imposed by the political elite — not by the citizens. As such, the initiative may prove more accessible to non-governmental organisations and lobby groups than to those for whose benefit it was created.
In spite of its flaws, the European Citizens’ Initiative is the most innovative attempt at involving citizens in EU politics since the introduction of elections to the European Parliament. If the Commission is willing and able to listen to the will of the citizens — bearing in mind that even unfinished initiatives are representations of the citizens’ wants and needs — there is great potential for bridging the gap between the political leadership and the people. Using the information channelled through the European Citizens’ Initiative to respond to actual, rather than perceived, political preferences may allow the Commission to begin decreasing the democratic deficit, which some claim lies inherently within the structure of the EU. Failing to take account of the new source of information may, however, pronounce the holes in EU democracy — thereby reaffirming the notion of the political leadership as a distant elite or a club for cronies. Therefore, the success or failure of the European Citizens’ Initiative is closely tied to the future legitimacy and accountability of the Commission. Only time will tell if the European Citizens’ Initiative will reach its potential as an instrument for increasing citizen involvement, or if it will become yet another paper tiger.
For more information, check out the European Citizens’ Initiative.