Last week, on 26th of February 2015, the PETI and AFCO committees at the European Parliament hosted a public hearing on the European Citizens Initiative (ECI). The event brought together representatives from the European institutions, the European Ombudsman, campaigners and experts to discuss the lessons learned.

Since the ECI regulation entered into force on 1st of April 2012, 51 ECI have been proposed, from which 20 have been rejected. From the remaining 31 registered, only 3 successfully gathered 1 million valid signatures on time; i.e. Right2Water, One of us, and Stop Vivisection.

The European Commission released a communication for each of them, but none has, so far, materialized into a legislative proposal. This already gives a hint on the dysfunctions that this so-called ´participative democracy´ tool has been subjected to during its first three years of implementation.

Among the claims raised during the hearing were:

  • It is necessary to create an ECI infrastructure with legal advice for citizens´ committees to overcome the difficulties they might experience during the certification process if they do not have legal expertise
  • Need for transparency on how and why the Commission rejects an initiative, and clear explanation to the citizens´ committee (e.g. if the issue at stake on the ECI falls beyond the competences of the EU)
  • The EU institutions shall try to raise public awareness, as many citizens do not know what ECIs are.
  • There should be a legal status that protects the members of the citizens committees. At the moment, organisers are personally liable.
  • Citizens committees shall have the possibility to decide when they will start collecting signatures. Currently they do not have enough time to organise their campaigns as they must start right after the ECI´s registration.
  • All European citizens shall be able to sign a petition independently of the Member State where they live. Currently, in countries such as Portugal only nationals can sign.
  • Data requirements are too stringent, particularly those that refer to sensitive data such as the ID and birth date of signatories.
  • The collection system should be re-designed in a way that people with disabilities, particularly blind people, are able to sign.
  • Social-media based collection systems would ease the process of signature gathering
  • The forms should be harmonised among Member States

Probably, if these points were taken into consideration the amount of ECIs, public interest and the amount of signatories within the ECIs would start to grow. However, even if the process becomes less complicated, citizens will surely get discouraged if they see no results.

If an ECI successfully jumps over the bureaucratic hurdles, the Commission is not legally obliged to propose legislation, and consequently, if this does not happen, European Parliament and European Council would not be forced to discuss or vote on it. What citizens will see is the lack of results of an instrument that was presented to them as a bridge towards the faraway land of EU decision-making.

They walk across the bridge pushed by 1 million signatories to realize that the last stretch has not been built. Reaching the other side depends on the European Commission´s willingness to give them a ride. If this does not happen they will have one more reason to think that the EU is not about them, and does care about the same things they care about.

Pablo Sánchez Centellas, Right 2 Water coordinator, claimed during the hearing that “the real issue is political”. “The EU institutions should not use the ECI as a consultative tool that they can ´brush away´ when they are not interested in implementing the petition,” he said. “The EU has focused in the last years in things such as better regulation. We think it should concentrate on better democracy”.

Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the European Commission, admitted that the ECI has not worked “well enough” and took “responsibility to improve it”. He said the discussions on the hearing will be somehow integrated into the 3-year report on the ECI that will be released in April.

Well, let´s see.