It was meant to be an instrument to enable direct participation in the democratic life of the European Union, but six years after entering into force, questions have arisen about whether the so-called European Citizens’ Initiative is really within everyone’s reach.

Introduced in the Lisbon Treaty, the Citizens’ Initiative grants European citizens the ability to request that the European Commission table a legislative proposal on a matter of general interest if one million signatures can be collected to support the petition.

Italy and Austria conceived of the idea for a popular initiative on the model of an abrogative referendum in 1996. But there was not sufficient agreement among the other countries at that time. The idea was proposed again in 2003 during the drafting of the European Constitution and was defended by organisations from throughout civil society. But on this occasion, it was the French and Dutch who blocked its progress with their rejection via referendum of the Constitutional Treaty. The Citizens’ Initiative did not disappear, however, and was included in the Lisbon Treaty in 2007, entering into force in 2012.

How does it work? Submitting a legislative proposal to the European Commission requires one million signatures. The first step consists of assembling a committee made up of seven people in seven EU countries to present the idea. The Commission then decides whether to accept the initiative based on the legal requisites. The proposal must concern an issue that falls within the remit of the Brussels executive. If all goes well, the initiative is published, and the collection of signatures can begin. One year is allowed for the collection of one million signatures from at least a quarter of the countries in the European Union (7). For each of these, a minimum threshold is set. The organisers must then validate the signatures with the national authorities, pass them on to Brussels and, when everything is in order, the European Commission decides what happens next.

Seventy initiatives have been attempted so far. Twenty-two were rejected because they were outside of the Commission’s remit, 14 were withdrawn by their own proponents and a mere four managed to gather the one million signatures required. As for what happened next, none of them resulted in legislation.

The first petition to reach the minimum threshold was for the campaign against the privatisation of water. The Right2Water initiative requested recognition of access to drinking water as a universal right, but the Commission only agreed to propose improved access to water in the revision of the directives on the matter. Next came the petition against vivisection, also obtaining one million signatures. The EU Commission claimed that the proposal should rather focus on the search for alternatives. Following the initiative that called for a halt to EU financing for research activities that led to the destruction of human embryos, the Commission decided not to alter the existing measures. And in response to the initiative that asked to ban glyphosate, a herbicide that the petition organisers believed to be dangerous to human health, the Commission approved the use of the substance for a further five years, but committed to improving the transparency and quality of the scientific evaluations on which such decisions are based.

Such results raise the question of whether the Citizens’ Initiative is really capable of bridging the gap between Europe and its citizens. The instrument requires organisation on a continental scale as well as significant investments. The procedure is complicated: the collection of personal data to verify the identity of the signatories, for example, represents both an administrative cost for the organisers and a disincentive for supporters to participate. The timeframes for the response leave less than 12 months to reach the minimum threshold. And even then, the result is by no means guaranteed. It is not surprising that over the years, the number of initiatives presented has fallen.

But the picture is not only negative. A study by Maximilian Conrad of the University of Iceland observed that the European Citizens’ Initiative is the first ever transnational instrument for the direct involvement of citizens in participatory democracy. Its use requires a mobilization at local, regional, national and European levels and contributes to creating a unified collective of European political subjects or “demos”, without which the EU could never be truly democratic. The initiative against vivisection, Conrad noted, began mainly with groups of animal rights activists in Italy but managed to extend its support base by combining events at local level with a wide-ranging mobilization on social media.

Andreas Bieler of the University of Nottingham studied the initiative relating to the right to water. He observed that the alliance of unions, social movements and environmental organisations under the coordination of the European Federation of Public Service Unions was a success. Water and the environment are by definition transnational issues, and there is a long history of campaigns on the subject. The question of the re-municipalisation of water services, moreover, has been the subject of debate in Europe for years, from Paris to Berlin as well as the referendum in Italy in 2011. Many people were therefore able to identify with the aims of the petition.

Looking at the results aside from the EU response, Bieler claims that the collection of signatures managed to change the tone of the water debate, creating solidarity across borders and influencing national laws. Lithuania, for example, modified its law on the management of water by banning privatisation, and Slovenia added the right to drinking water to its Constitution.

Even an initiative the Commission had initially rejected, one that requested a halt to the negotiations on the trade agreements with the United States (the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, TTIP), enjoyed some success. The organisers made a successful appeal to the European Court of Justice, and with the publicity that the case generated, separately collected three million signatures as a sign of protest.

“If you think of a direct influence on European decisions, maybe the Citizens’ Initiative is not the right instrument. But it certainly contributes to making certain issues more relevant”, explained Andreas Bieler.

Research by Elizabeth Monaghan of the University of Hull in the United Kingdom claimed that the Citizens’ Initiative currently favours organisations that are well resourced and influential in Europe, as opposed to individual citizens. But the benefits should not only be evaluated in terms of participation in the decisions of the EU. In fact, the construction of a European community that tackles problems of general interest and the ability of individuals to participate are at any rate key aspects of democratic life.

Everyone nevertheless recognises the difficulties of this instrument. In September 2017, the European Commission proposed a revision, lowering the legal age of the signatories to 16 and simplifying the modality for the collection of signatures as well as other features. Discussions in Brussels about the new regulations are ongoing and should be concluded by the end of 2018. After over 20 years of debate, however, it seems that the right formula for involving citizens in EU decisions is yet to be discovered.

To keep reading, purchase the pdf file of this issue

To subscribe to the magazine please access our subscription page here