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The European Citizens’ Initiative: 1 million signatures to have our voice heard.

signaturesBy Pietro De Matteis

As some of you might be aware of currently there is a public consultation with regards to the European Citizens’ Initiative.

This has been introduced by the Lisbon Treaty and allows 1 million citizens from the EU to present to the European Commission a request to propose legislation on a certain issue. Currently the details are not yet defined and the Commission is asking the opinion of citizens and other stakeholders. This is a great opportunity to fill that notorious “Democratic Deficit” and these “Citizens’ initiatives” might make a significant effect on the development of a European public sphere.

In the Green Paper, which comes together with the public consultation, there are a few key issues which are addressed, namely:

  • Minimum number of Member States from which citizens must come
  • Minimum number of signatures per Member State
  • Eligibility to support a citizens’ initiative – minimum age
  • Form and wording of a citizens’ initiative
  • Requirements for the collection, verification and authentication of signatures
  • Time limit for the collection of signatures
  • Registration of proposed initiatives
  • Requirements for organisers – Transparency and funding
  • Examination of citizens’ initiatives by the Commission
  • Initiatives on the same issue

In this article I will focus only on the first point which I believe is one of the most sensitive.

The debate about the number of Member States from which the participants should come from is in fact of key importance. In the Green Paper two elements are considered somehow in opposition: accessibility, namely the level of difficulty that the citizens would need to face in order to make a proposal to the Commission and the representation, meaning the actual number of Member States from which the signatories should be coming from. It is expected that the higher is the minimum number of Member States from which the signatories should come from, the more challenging the process will be for the citizen. In the Green Paper the question is presented with the following wording: “Do you consider that one third of the total number of Member States would constitute a “significant number of Member States” as required by the Treaty? If not, what threshold would you consider appropriate, and why?”

To answer this question it is important to consider the current status of EU public sphere: the EU in fact, even following the reforms bring about by the Lisbon treaty, will continue to be affected by a strong prejudice (in part understandable) of democratic illegitimacy. This can be partially explained by the fact that the different Member States articulate differently their vision of citizen’s participation in the legislative process.

Such an ex-ante belief need to be tackled urgently. However as no further reform is expected to take place in the near future, it is of key importance to make the “Citizens’ Initiative” a tool to bridge that gap between the institutions and the people. The “Citizens’ Initiative” in this sense has two key roles:

  • A stated role of proposal to the European Commission of new legislative actions, and
  • An equally important opportunity for citizens of various European countries to cooperate articulating their interests at European Level.

Having highlighted this, we can now better evaluate the discussion over the trade-offs between representation and accessibility mentioned in the Green Paper.

Representation: the fact that the signatures come from 7-8-9-10 or even more member states will not change the fact that the Initiative is set not to represent the totality of the European Citizens. Even in the case that the signatures come from 10 MS, these could hypothetically belong only to a particular region of the Union with specific interests (e.g. the 8+2 “new” member states: 10 new member states minus Cyprus and Malta plus Bulgaria and Romania) and be concerning a specific interest of that region (e.g. rights of Russian speaking communities).

On the other hand having the signatures to be collected from such an high number of Member States could be very challenging for the citizens.

However if we look at the purpose of the “Citizens’ Initiative” in the current institutional framework, it is fair to say that such a requirement is redundant. The purpose of this Initiative in fact is simply to propose to the Commission to take action on a specific issue. It will be up to the Commission to evaluate it and present an action which is balanced for the whole of the EU and later it will be up to the Parliament and to the Council, representing respectively the totality of the EU citizens and the Member States, to agree on a text which is fair and applicable for all.

In other words it is not necessary and arguably unfair, to transfer the totality of the legislative responsibility from the EU Institutions to the citizens by asking them to collect signatures from a very high number of countries. In addition this might translate into having only certain groups or lobbies able to profit from the “Citizens’ Initiative” while leaving common citizens with limited economic resources out of the initiative process.

Why accessibility is key: as mentioned above the proposals made by the citizens will need to go through the EU legislative process, so the purpose of the “Citizens’ Initiative” should be to engage as many citizens as possible which can only be done by limiting the difficulties and requirements (the main being the minimum number of Member States). This for the following reasons:

  • The Citizens’ Initiative can help building a European-wide debate on issues which are of concern for the EU citizens;
  • Can boost an exchange of views and cooperation between the members of the civil societies of the various Member States without discriminating the one with limited economic resources;
  • Can help articulating citizens’ interests in the framework of European Regions which tend to have similar concerns and needs;
  • Can increase the legislative competence and legitimacy of the European Commission,

All these elements would have the result of reducing the existing Democratic Deficit and would give to the EU citizens the perception that their voice is heard.

For all the issues raised above, I believe that the minimum number of Member States from which citizens must come from should be very low, potentially from 3 to 5.

This will not impede to have citizens from more Member States to participate, which is likely to happen due to the high number of signatures to collect (one million). It is also likely that there will be a proportionately higher number nationalities represented as far as more “least populated” Member States are involved (due to the fact that their contribution towards the target of reaching 1 million signatures might be limited).This will also imply that the most populated member states are likely to be included in the majority of the future “Citizens’ Initiatives” being a key “source” of signatures.

In order to have more information on the public consultation and give your opinion you can check the website below, there is time until January 31st.

This article was also published on The New Federalist:

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