After three years of existence, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) has not been much of a success. Of the 51 initiatives registered, only one has been accepted by the European Commission. During the weekly Euranet Plus “U Talking To Me?” debate, Stanislas Jourdan, coordinator at ECI Campaign, explained that this failure is linked to legal and technical hurdles. Marlene Mizzi, a member of the European Parliament, stressed the lack of information citizens have concerning this democratic instrument.

To be considered by the European Commission, an initiative must be backed by at least 1 million European citizens and be represented by MEPs from at least seven different member states within one year of its registration.

This is the EU’s first participative democracy tool, but it has so far failed  to reach citizens and many of them don’t know the ECI even exists, said Mizzi of the Socialists & Democrats, in charge of the revision of the European Citizen’s Initiative at the European Parliament.

“We are telling the citizen: ‘Look, you have this tool and it is a very good tool, so that you can propose legislation which interests you.’ But then, the citizens must be informed, the citizen must be given all the tools to actually make use of this initiative. But we want to ensure that citizens benefit from this and not making it easier for the Commission. The Commission has to deliver,” she stressed.

The European Commission published a report on April 1 evaluating the functioning of the ECI procedures. Despite some failures, the report concluded that the “legal process had been fully implemented.”

However, Stanislas Jourdan, coordinator at European Citizen’s Initiative Campaign, an organization which looks for the right implementation of the European Citizens’ Initiative, pointed out that of the 51 proposed initiatives, 20 were not registered by the Commission.

According to the European executive, the main reason for rejection was that those proposed initiatives did not fulfil the registration criteria.

No obligation for Commission

The reasons can differ from one ECI to another, for instance, if the initiative in question is contrary to the fundamental principles of the EU. It could also concern matters extending the legislative competence of the Commission or, if it is “manifestly abusive, frivolous or vexatious,” according to Article 4(2) of the ECI Regulation, then the Commission is not allowed to accept that proposal.

RightToWater, which is aimed to guarantee access to clean water for all Europeans, is the only initiative that has reached the final stage of the process and was accepted by the European Commission in February 2014.

However, the “One of Us” initiative, being against EU activities destroying the human embryos, was rejected by the Commission.

Whereas the “One of Us” gathered 1,700,000 signatures (higher than the approximately 1,600,000 gathered for Right2Water), this was not sufficient for the Commission, as there is no need to change the EU legislation in “the area of human dignity and the right to life,” according to Agata Gostyńska, an expert at the Centre for European Reform in London.

But for an ECI campaign, the Commission should always respond to successful ECIs or at least spread the information.

“Every ECI that gets 1 million signatures should lead to a legislative process. The Commission should draft a legislation or do something. But at least let the debate happen among the EU institutions,” said Jourdan.

However, for the Commission a successful petition doesn’t automatically lead to a draft legislation.

“We are of course very attentive to this ECI and we want to change the rules, which are disappointing people,” said Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans during an event to mark European Citizens’ Initiative Day on Monday (April 13). “But there is no obligation on the Commission to take legislative action.”

Too many legal and technical barriers

The process itself is made cumbersome by many legal requirements. Every member state requires different kind of information to gather signatures for an ECI. For example, 18 countries require an ID number from signatories, while the other 10 don’t ask for it.

Therefore, to Jourdan, it’s like running 28 parallel campaigns rather than one European campaign.

But the ECI doesn’t only face legal barriers, but also technical ones, especially for the campaigners.

“The technical problem is like for organisers, you don’t really decide when the campaign starts and then you have 12 months to collect the signatures. So it is the countdown start, but you don’t really control when you push the button. The Commission does instead. That is a big problem, because campaigners cannot properly organise the launch of that campaign,” he said.

“There is also the online collection system, the software that organisers have to use to collect signatures. It is a very secure software, but it is also not user friendly, because for example, as organisers, we cannot collect the emails of the people who support the campaign, which is very annoying, because we want to update them and allow them to take part in our movement,” he added.

The ECI was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty in 2009, but entered into force only in 2012. Considering the current doubts about the effectiveness of this initiative, the European Commission is waiting for proposals from the European Parliament for a possible reform in the future.

Listen to the whole debate below (or watch it above)

  • Author and moderator: Laeticia Markakis, Euranet Plus News Agency
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