An initiative not worthy of 1 million signatures

Editor’s Blog: Produced in collaboration with the EU Buzz team 

“Get a greater say in the policies that affect your lives. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a unique way for you to help shape the EU by calling on the European Commission to propose new laws. Once an initiative has reached 1 million signatures, the Commission will decide on what action to take.” This citizens’ call to action by the European Commission was first launched in 2012, but can it be deemed effective when in 9 years only 6 ECIs have achieved their 1 million signature goals, and even then most have not had policies implemented by the European Union as a result?

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a European Union mechanism aimed at increasing direct democracy by enabling “EU citizens to participate directly in the development of EU policies”. The initiative enables one million citizens of the European Union, who are nationals of at least one quarter of the member states, to call directly on the European Commission to propose a legal act in an area where the member states have conferred powers onto the EU level. This right to request the Commission to initiate a legislative proposal is supposed to put EU citizens on the same footing as the European Parliament and the European Council.

To date,104 ECI registration requests have been made, 81 initiatives were successfully registered but only 6 achieved the goal of accumulating more than one million signatures , thereby “forcing” the Commission to then review the Initiative – It does not, however, oblige, nor legally bind, the Commission to adopt the position or recommendations of the ECI suggested by the organisers.  

To promote the ECI mechanism, each year the Commission celebrates an ECI Day which is hosted by the EU institution mandated to represent civil society, the European Economic and Social Committee. However, far from being a celebration of a positive mechanism to engage citizens in EU decision making, the ECI Days have turned into a platform where complaints are collated between frustrated ECI organisers who see all their efforts blocked by unsurmountable barriers. In fact, the complaints have become so numerous that the Commission was asked to undertake a review of the ECI regulation in 2020. 

Alberto Alemanno of the EU Ombudsman office stated that “The ECI is the first instrument of transnational democracy and has enormous potential to address a growing civic empowerment gap, but this tool has not only been abused by its parents –the EU institutions and the Member States – but also largely overlooked by its citizens”.

In truth, any analysis, an overview or in-depth, will highlight that the lack of impact has created disenchantment, disengagement and anger amongst those citizens who have attempted to pursue policy change through an ECI. The delayed and lethargic responses from the Commission have only embittered those who chose to engage believing the European Commission would be true to its word of respecting the views of citizens ….After all, there are significant hoops to jump through, and a great deal of expenses incurred, to achieve a successful ECI. In fact, it has become such a disastrous tool, that students across the EU have chosen to analyse its failings for their academic thesis.

There are a few positives as 2021 saw two pieces of legislation introduced that were inspired by the first successful ECIs. One on the Drinking Water Directive, which was influenced by the “Right2Water” initiative; another in the Transparency Regulation, which is a follow-up from the “Ban glyphosate” initiative and is designed to increase the transparency and quality of studies used in the scientific assessment of substances. It has also been suggested by the Commission that recommendations from many ECIs, even the unsuccessful ones, are also considered by the Commission.

When democracy, rule of law and citizens rights are being infringed regularly within the European Union and its member states, it is more important now than ever before that citizens are not only given a voice but are given a leading role in the decision making process which underpins democracy. “The Brussels bubble”, the current microcosm in which EU laws, regulations and directives are made, is too far from the daily reality and the challenges faced by European citizens and civil society. If the European leaders and the European institutions truly want to make initiatives like the Conference on the Future of the European Union and the European Citizens’ Initiative a reality, then they must put citizens first and at the heart of what they do, not themselves. 

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