Do citizens in Europe now have a say or not?

10 March 2019

Do citizens in Europe now have a say or not?

Our mailboxes are filling up with emails. This is the result of an action this Tuesday in Strasbourg encouraging a vote against the reform of the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI). The ECI gives citizens the right and means to request legislative proposals. But the right to set up one's own website to collect signatures to back a request is now under pressure, as the European Commission wants to control the entire process. At first sight, then, the concerns over this seemed justified. When I studied the text more closely, however, it turned out that this wasn't the case. It's striking that such a misunderstanding can occur in relation to the ECI, of all things, and it shows once again how great is the gap between the European Parliament and the public.

I've always been sceptical about the ECI. To qualify, you have to fulfil a whole range of criteria. For example, what you are requesting must not require an amendment to the EU treaty. That's why a petition to put a stop to the European Parliament's monthly trek to Strasbourg would be automatically invalid. Fulfil all such legal requirements and you will still have to amass a million signatures, and the signatories must identify themselves. Jump through all of these hoops and the European Commission remains free to reject your petition.

The reform will, it's true, offer more rights to the initiative-takers. They will gain the right to have a hearing in the European Parliament, which will also enable opponents of the initiative to be heard. The Commission will in addition find it less easy to simply let a proposal drop. And you will have rather more time for the initiative.

The real sticking-point, however, is the article that specifies that the Commission will manage the site that will be used for the collection of signatures. This was also contained in the original text, but the new rule would broaden the requirement. This revision also emphasises that use of the site is voluntary, and that you can set up your own if it at least fulfils all the technical criteria.

Moreover I understand very well the concerns of the people who have sent me emails. If you're obliged to hand over to the European Commission, this sets up a sort of conflict of interests. Your petition is addressed to the Commission, which also decides whether you have fulfilled all the criteria. So the Commission has a great deal to do with the process. You will quickly get the feeling that the idea is that the ECI must above all not be too successful and undermine the Commission's own right of initiative. If the citizenry can specify what the Commission should be working on, that right will be put under pressure. The ECI is thus touching a sensitive chord, but one which the SP would also like to touch. It's high time that the EU ceased to float along on initiatives from officials, and that the right of initiative were returned to the member states, their national parliaments, possibly to the European Parliament, and certainly to the citizen.

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