The European Citizens' Initiative – a few comments

6 May 2010

The European Citizens' Initiative – a few comments

In the past the SP campaigned actively against the European Constitution and the 'Constitution lite', the Lisbon Treaty. We had and continue to have problems with sections of the Treaty, such as for example the potential it offers for the militarisation of Europe. We are, nevertheless, realistic: the Treaty is here and for the time being it won't be going anywhere. And so we will be making proposals for how the Treaty might be used, and doing what we can to resist the putting into practice of what we see as its worst aspects.

Dennis de Jong, Chair of the SP group in the European Parliament

Dennis de JongOne of the good things in the Treaty is the introduction of a European Citizens' Initiative. The new Treaty makes it possible to collect a million signatures, present these to the Commission, and receive in return a statement outlining what they intend to do in response. This gives citizens the right of initiative, though the Commission may also decide to take no action at all.

The Treaty says little more about this, which means that the Commission was obliged to come up with more detailed proposals. Not long ago they brought forward a proposal for a Regulation, COM(2010)119/3, which is unfortunately not a particularly impressive piece of work. In any case, the Commission makes no promises as to what it intends to do when it receives an initiative, committing themselves to no more than the writing of a statement which will be sent to the petitioners, as well as to the Council and the EP. This could lead to situations in which, after a great deal of trouble and effort, the presenters of a citizens' initiative hear simply that the Commission will not be taking any further action. If this were to happen too often, nothing would remain of the initiative. It would therefore be a good thing were the regulation to take this point further and, for example, specify that the Commission give proposals sympathetic consideration.

Furthermore, the Commission has succeeded in proposing an extremely complicated procedure. Online petitions are generally speaking a simple matter: you click on a hyperlink, fill in your name and address and that's it. The Commission, however, wants your identity to be confirmed, so you will have to give your home address and a personal identification number. And then there is a form for each signature, which, it's true, can be filled in electronically, but even then it's complicated enough. The petitioners must go to the Commission three times: the first time to announce the initiative, the second when 300,000 signatures have been collected in order to have the petition's admissibility confirmed, and finally for the definitive presentation of the petition. In the meantime they must also consult the authorities of the member states from where the signatures have been collected in order to have the identity of those signing the petition verified.

There are in addition a number of features of the demands which these signatures must meet which are also worth mentioning: in order to establish that the matter at hand is of 'Union interest', the signatories must come from at least nine different member states, as if the problems of people in say five member states could in no case represent a 'Union interest'. And for each of these member states, the number of signatures must represent an average minimum of 0.2% of the population, rather more in the case of small member states and rather less in the case of large member states, though the reason for this difference is, to me, unclear.

Lastly, the regulation contains no guarantees against abuse of the system for commercial purposes. Everyone in Brussels is aware, for example, of the power of the pharmaceutical industry. It would be a very easy thing for them to have the NGOs which they have set up themselves start a signature campaign, much easier than it would be for individual citizens. In this way a bias could rapidly be created in the content of citizen initiatives.

In the near future we will be discussing the regulation in the European Parliament. As shadow rapporteur for the United Left group I will be trying significantly to dilute the bureaucratic aspects of the proposal, to introduce an anti-commercial clause, as well as an obligation on the Commission to consider initiatives sympathetically. Given that we're got a new Treaty, we have to make what we can of it.

This article first appeared on 26th April, in Dutch, on the website Brusselstemt.nl

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