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The European Citizens’ Initiative – Superdemocracy in the Making

Submitted by on 09 Mar 2012 – 12:41

The European Citizens' Initiative-- Superdemocracy in the MakingBy Bruno Kaufmann, Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Falun,Sweden

On April 1, 2012 a new participatory right will be born: the European Citizens’ Initiative. From then on the citizens of the European Union will have the same right as a majority in the European Parliament and the Member States: to set the political agenda for a whole continent. It is the door to the future of participatory politics: more direct, more transnational and more digital than anything before, argues Bruno Kaufmann.

At first sight, not much will change: even under the new rules established by the EU’s latest “constitutional” foundation, the Lisbon Treaty, the formal right to initiate pan-European legislation remains with the European Commission alone. Skeptics are characterizing the new European Citizens’ Initiatives as “another useless petition-right” controlled from above. Yet others assess the reform as “the biggest innovation of transnational democracy” since the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament 33 years ago.

The fact is that we do not yet know what the ECI will bring, how the process will work, or what it will do to the still very weak democratic culture at the transnational EU level. What we do know is the history of the making of the ECI, the most recent struggles around the procedure as such, and what the first edition – I would call it ECI 1.0 – will look like. The history is a rather long one, driven by civil society activists since the early 1990s, influenced by visionary European politicians – initially at the Amsterdam Treaty negotiations – with a last-minute breakthrough during the final days of the Convention on the European Constitution in spring 2003.

While the Constitutional Treaty of those days did not pass the test of the citizens’ referendum votes in countries like France and the Netherlands, the ECI nevertheless made it into the spin-off Treaty of Lisbon. For the very first time, this “transnational constitution” defines modern representative democracy as being based equally on indirect, parliamentary governance and direct, participatory lawmaking by the citizens themselves. In concrete terms, the ECI is the first and so far only procedural product to emerge from this new principle. It is a procedure firmly embedded in the EU system, but nevertheless very innovative in three respects: it is a direct-democratic process; it is happening at the transnational level; and, last but not least, it is introducing – another first – the e-collection of signatures Europe-wide.

A participatory umbrella

Again, it is important to stress that the ECI is not just another type of petition – like Britain’s e-petition to Downing Street, for example, where proposals which gain the (basically unverified) support of more than 100,000 people “could be debated in Parliament” and “could influence government”. The ECI has more the character of an electoral process, in which the secrecy of the vote is ensured and where successful initiatives “must be dealt with by the EU institutions”. The consequence of this legalistic approach is that the ECI is in practice opening a participatory direct-democratic umbrella over a whole continent, ‘forcing’ all the EU member states, among other things, to acquire the know-how and the formal authority to certify e-collection systems, as well as the ability to verify the statements of support/signatures of their own eligible voters.

In more detailed terms, the ECI has its source in Art. 11.4. of the Lisbon Treaty, which establishes the constitutional right of one million EU nationals from a “significant number of member states” to propose new legislation to the EU Commission – in the same way as a majority in the European Parliament and of the Member States are eligible to do. In a carefully undertaken legislative process this right has been transformed into a legal procedure of its own, the ECI Law (Regulation 211/2011). This law, which came into force in spring 2011, lays down all the provisions for the ECI, specifying the “significant number” of countries (at least seven) and the “significant number of signatures” (proportional to the size of the population), the timeframe for gathering the signatures, as well as the principles of e-collection and the specifications for the systems for verifying the signatories. One complicating, but typically very European feature of the regulation is the fact that every member state has its own rules for checking eligible voters – producing very different-looking requirements, ranging from simple indications of name and address (in Finland, for example) to a cumbersome list of ID numbers, father’s name and the issuing date of passport as in Greece.

Setting the agenda – on what?

Another key issue, which will clearly be the subject of much debate and potentially even legal battles, relates to the admissibility rules for the initiatives: in other words, what can an ECI be about? Both the Treaty and the Law make it clear that ECIs must stay within the framework of the legal competencies conferred on the Commission. Proposals on issues for which the Commission has some legal power of initiative should be admitted to the ECI process, while others will be rejected. There are, to be sure, grey areas and we will see ECIs which will end up being taken to the European Courts as the conflict over admissibility becomes more heated. But there is also a sunnier side to the whole procedure: it is designed to invite the whole of Europe to learn more about shared issues, to discuss them, and to “set the agenda” – as the EU Commission promises in its official guide to the European Citizens’ Initiative.

What has been in preparation for decades and is about to be born, has still to grow up, however. ECI 1.0 is far from perfect and the ongoing practice will disclose many bugs and inconsistencies – for example, between the various implementation regimes in the Member States and the core legislation at EU level. For this reason it has already been decided that an ‘upgrade’ will be proposed by the EU Commission after the ECI has been in use for three years: ECI 2.0!

*Bruno Kaufmann is Chairman of the Electoral Commission in Falun/Sweden and the author of the new “Pocket Guide to the European Citizens’ Initiative – a User Manual to the First Transnational Tool of Direct Democracy”. Contact: kaufmann@iri-europe.org.

The official ECI Guide from the EU can be found at http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/guide