Institutions: A million citizens can change the Union

20 January 2010
El País Madrid

Just 999,999 more signatures to go. Image : citizens-initiative.eu
Just 999,999 more signatures to go. Image : citizens-initiative.eu

The new Lisbon Treaty authorises popular initiatives backed by at least a million signatures. But that figure will not suffice to provide a regulatory framework for this new tool of participatory democracy.

The distance between Europe and its citizens could be significantly reduced by implementation of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which is one of the most innovative measures introduced by the Lisbon Treaty: it’s a first step towards direct democracy. An ECI enables European citizens to demand that the Commission propose legislation on any matter of concern to them, provided they succeed in gathering a million signatures – i.e. roughly 0.2% of the EU population). Environmental and social issues, as well as the damage caused by the financial crisis, are among the most likely subjects of an ECI. This tool constitutes nothing more and nothing less than a transfer to EU citizens of part of the power of legislative initiative, hitherto concentrated in the hands of the Community’s executive body.

As with so many other measures in Europe, everything will depend on its application. Without giving any further particulars, the Lisbon Treaty requires the signatures of “not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States”. As Jean-Claude Piris lays out in his book The Lisbon Treaty. A Legal and Political Analysis, the task now at hand is to specify, among other things, the minimum number of member states of which the signers have to be nationals, the minimum number of signatures per state, who will be eligible to sign, and the procedures for proposing legislation and verifying the signatures.

Easing the requirements

So the European Commission has drawn up a so-called “Green Paper” on the matter and opened up a public consultation to gather suggestions from institutions and citizens in the 23 official languages of the EU on the Union’s website. Launched on 11 November, this consultation will be concluded on 31 January. The Green Paper and the consultation, under the aegis of Commission vice-president Margot Wallström, have thus far elicited only 50 odd responses. The green paper does suggest practical procedures for ECI implementation, but the Commission is still waiting for suggestions from the public consultation before drawing up a procedural blueprint to be submitted to the European Parliament and Council for approval.

Diego López Garrido, the Spanish secretary of state for the EU, regards the launch of the popular initiative as “one of the priorities of Spain’s EU presidency, which is why it will be addressed at the informal meeting of the ministers of European affairs to be held at La Granja, in the province of Segovia, from 12–14 January”. The goal is to get the procedural rules approved by the Council and Parliament within the first few months of 2010. The European Parliament, however, is working on a resolution on the Commission’s Green Paper aimed at “easing the requirements as far as possible so as to make it easier for citizens to avail themselves of the initiative”, explains Ramón Jáuregui, spokesman for the European Parliament’s Constitutional Affairs Committee. According to Jáuregui, matters of occupational safety, regulation of financial markets, international tax policy, and tax havens are likely issues for European citizens’ initiatives.

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