Democracy in the EU – Time for Citizens to Take the Initiative

On 11th February this year, the “Water is a Human Right!” initiative became the first European Citizens’ Initiative to succeed in gathering 1 million signatures. In this blog post, I look at what Citizens’ Initiatives are and how they work.

What is a European Citizens’ Initiative?

“Democracy must extend and be practised far beyond the borders of a given state. And the EU has a leading role to play in this.” Gerald Häfner, MEP

The word democracy finds its origins in the Greek words demos, meaning “common people”, and kratos, meaning “rule” or “strength”. Yet for many citizens, the European Union (EU) seems far removed from the rule of common people. In the UK, for example, only 11% of people questioned in a recent YouGov poll felt that their voice is heard in Brussels. This goes some way to explaining the Euroscepticism felt by a high proportion of UK citizens. But the UK is not alone. In Germany, only 20% of people feel represented in Brussels, and in Italy, which is among the highest, only 35% of citizens feel that their voices have an impact in the EU. (YouGov Cambridge, 2012).


Credit: The European Citizens Initiative

The Lisbon Treaty, which came into force in 2009, took steps to address this perceived democratic deficit. It acknowledged the principle that modern representative democracy should be based on both indirect (parliamentary) democracy and direct (participatory) democracy. This later resulted in the creation of a mechanism known as the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Since 1st April 2012, by way of this new tool, citizens can participate directly in setting the political agenda of the European Union.

The introduction of European Citizens’ Initiatives gives any EU citizen the right to “invite” the Commission to initiate a legislative process. This may involve proposing a new law, or proposing to remove or modify an existing one. In order to do this, the initiative must gather at least one million signatures from citizens in at least seven different EU Member States, within the period of one year. If the ECI successfully gathers one million signatures, the European Commission is obliged to respond. This does not mean that it is obliged to enact the proposed legislation. In effect, the collective voice of 1 million citizens now holds the same power as a majority in the European Parliament or a majority of Member States. (These are the two other groups which have the right to propose a legislative process.) Ultimately, however, the formal right to initiate the process still rests with the Commission.

ECIs are an exciting and innovative new tool, but, as anybody who has ever done any DIY will know, the most modern and technically advanced tools are not always easy to use. So before any readers rush off to submit their latest idea to the EU as an ECI, I would encourage them to consider the following questions:

  • Is the idea compatible with EU legislation? Does it fall under the EU’s competencies? Many ideas will still be better dealt with at the Member State level or via different means of lobbying the EU.
  • Is the proposal carefully worded? It must be legally accurate and comprehensible in many different languages, as well as being clear and succinct enough to gather the support needed.
  • Does the idea have the right support? For an ECI to be initiated, an organising committee is required that consists of at least seven people resident in at least seven different EU member states. And be prepared – there will be a large amount of formalities and paperwork.
  • Has a suitable way of collecting signatures been prepared? An ECI is more than just an e-petition, supporters will have to submit details that will be verified by national authorities. It may be necessary to collect more than 1 million signatures as some may not pass the verification process.

With these points in mind, it would be fair to say that the EU still seems a long way from our definition of demos kratos. Yet, while there is still much progress to be made, the European Citizens’ Initiative represents a much-needed step forward in strengthening participatory democracy within the EU.

As a year has not yet passed since the formal creation of this new democratic right, it is too early to report on how successful the ECI tool has been. The hope is that it will become more accessible, more efficient and more fully supported as time goes on. In the meantime, some exciting Citizens’ Initiatives are already in the pipeline. Look out for my next blog, coming soon, which will discuss the concepts and values behind two such Citizens’ Initiatives which aim to defend our natural commons and ensure a fair, equal and sustainable use of natural resources.

About Bethany Squire

Bethany worked as QCEA's Sustainability Programme Assistant from September 2012 to September 2013
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