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European Citizen’s Initiative explained

journée portes ouvertes Peter Cheney considers the pros and cons of the European Citizens’ Initiative, a new system for sending 1 million-strong petitions to the Commission.

From 1 April, people can start mass petitions to the European Commission, which it promises to consider as it draws up policy. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a lesser known part of the Lisbon Treaty which may improve the EU’s accountability or, alternatively, become a vehicle for populist causes.

Commissioners claim that the initiative will help citizens influence EU policy. The Commission is commonly viewed as the most distant institution, given its unelected status. It is also keen to raise its profile, as Sarkozy and Merkel are now centre of attention in the euro crisis.

Overall turnout in European Parliament elections has also fallen continuously from 62 per cent in 1979 to 43 per cent in 2009. Despite that trend, the Lisbon Treaty assumes that it can still build a common European society.

Twelve member states already have citizens’ initiatives, including Spain, Italy and the Netherlands. Curiously, the proposal was also contained in the 1922 Irish Free State Constitution but eventually blocked by the Cosgrave Government, as republicans could have used it against the Anglo-Irish Treaty.

Process

Successful ECIs must attract the support of one million EU citizens, who have reached the national voting age. An initiative must call for a new policy proposal from the Commission. Calls to reduce its power will fall at the first hurdle, as these would involve changes to the treaties.

Such campaigns must be organised by a ‘citizens’ committee’ with at least seven members, each from a different member state. Those committees will, most likely, represent members of existing interest groups.

Few members of the public have the right international connections or a detailed knowledge of EU processes. Initiatives may also include a draft legislative text, which could only be drawn up with specialist legal advice.

At this stage, the Commission will vet initiatives and reject those which it deems “frivolous, abusive or vexatious” or “manifestly against the values” of the EU. This is designed to exclude offensive or extremist views but it is not clear whom that definition would include. Values such as human rights and equality are open to wide interpretation. No appeals process is currently available but cases may be referred to the European Court of Justice.

The organisers have 12 months to reach the 1 million target. Citizens can add their signatures in writing or online. Importantly, initiatives can only cover policy areas where the Commission has the power to act (see table).

Ireland has not yet announced how petitions will be verified. The Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government is the lead department, as it covers electoral policy.

An initiative does not need to include signatures from all 27 member states but it must meet a minimum number in seven different countries: 9,000 in Ireland. A large amount of personal data would, of course, be collected and the citizens’ committee is liable for any losses. Data must be destroyed within a month of an initiative being submitted.

The Commission is not bound to follow an initiative but must respond within three months. A public hearing will also be organised at the European Parliament. Initiatives which echo existing policy are, obviously, more likely to be successful. Commission policy tends to be socially liberal, pro-regulation and based on a perceived European interest.

Critique

Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fáil all backed the Lisbon Treaty and therefore the setting up of the ECI. However, members of each party have pointed out the general flaws of petitions.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Affairs discussed the proposal in January 2010 and decided that it required further scrutiny. Labour TD (now Trade Minster) Joe Costello was “not hasty about getting the citizens’ initiative up and running” as so few people had heard about it.

Sceptics warn that petitions can be easily manipulated and polarise opinion rather than allowing for cool, rational debate. Some petitioners even sign opposing petitions.

Inside the committee, Fianna Fáil veteran Mary O’Rourke questioned how “the ordinary woman or man on the street” would organise a campaign on that scale: “We are all fooling ourselves in this regard and I cannot understand it.”

Fine Gael TD Billy Timmins agreed, calling it “one of the weaker selling points” for Lisbon. The initiative was “highly abstract and populist” and, as a politician, he paid more attention to one person who came to meet him than a petition with 1,000 signatures.

Enthusiastic supporters Lucinda Creighton and Alan Kelly (then an MEP) claimed that online technology was the way forward. However, Fianna Fáil’s Timmy Dooley warned that facebook and twitter campaigns could “tempt people to opt into an initiative even though they have no knowledge of or interest in it.”

Opposing the treaty back in 2009, Sinn Féin claimed that the ECI was “a gesture to participative democracy, nothing more”. The party demanded that the Commission respond to initiatives by producing a white paper, setting out its reasoning.

Socialist Party MEP Paul Murphy told eolas that he is “extremely critical of this citizens’ initiative” as it was “more about the European Union looking democratic, looking responsive to the citizens, as opposed to actually achieving those things.” He compared it to writing a letter to the Commission.

One of its keenest supporters is Administration Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič, from Slovakia. He sees it as a chance for the citizen to “set the agenda and influence policy” and to “get EU policymaking outside the Brussels beltway.”

The ECI is still a work in progress, and the Government can be lobbied on the fine details, but looks set to be a permanent feature. It will result in interested citizens (or at least interest groups) seeking like-minded allies across the continent.

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