The European Citizens' Initiative Not much of a blow to the 'democratic deficit'
Dennis de Jong finds that a much-trumpeted innovation of the Lisbon Treaty falls well short of addressing the European Union's fundamentally undemocratic nature
Introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, the European Citizens' Initiative makes it possible to collect a million signatures, present these to the Commission, and receive in return a statement outlining what the EU's executive body intends 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 – a law immediately binding in all member states, unlike a Directive, which must first be written into each country's national legislation - which is unfortunately not a particularly impressive piece of work. In its proposal, the Commission makes no promises as to what it intends to do when it receives an initiative, committing itself to no more than the writing of a statement which will be sent to the petitioners, as well as to the Council – which directly represents the member states - and the European Parliament. 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. 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 proposed 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.
Dennis de Jong is a Member of the European Parliament for the Socialist Party of the Netherlands This article first appeared on 26th April, in Dutch, on the website Brusselstemt.nl and was translated and adapted by Steve McGiffen.