Yesterday saw the launch of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), a new democratic instrument introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon that lets one million citizens propose new legislation for the European Union. Will this be the solution to the EU’s so-called “democratic deficit”? Or will this be another missed opportunity to connect with citizens? And was it a mistake to launch the initiative on April Fool’s Day? Ahead of the ECI’s launch, Debating Europe spoke to Maroš Šefčovič, EU Commissioner for Inter-Institutional Relations.
First up, we asked Commissioner Šefčovič what he thought about Craig‘s suggestion that the roles of President Van Rompuy and President Barroso should be merged into one and could, eventually, be a directly elected position. Commissioner Šefčovič, whose portfolio includes trying to improve the way the different EU institutions work together, seemed to be a good person to take this suggestion to. So, what did he think?
When it comes to the merger of the two big positions, under the current arrangement I am quite sceptical of the feasibility of that solution. I work quite closely with President Barroso and President Van Rompuy. Both gentlemen are extremely busy, and only now are some of the sceptics realising how important a permanent EU Council President actually was. I don’t think it could be humanly possible, especially over the last few years, for one person to do both jobs.
Last year, we had a debate about whether or not the EU needed treaty change. Corrado sent in a comment arguing that “Treaty change with 27 members can no more be based on unanimity, but a highly qualified majority (e.g. 5/6th). If there had been a unanimity requirement, the US constitution would never had seen the light.” Does Corrado have a point? Has the Lisbon Treaty failed, and decision-making is still too slow in the EU?
The Lisbon treaty was prepared, drafted and ratified in the pre-sovereign-debt-crisis era. We were not aware of the kind of legal, fiscal and political challenges that were ahead for the EU. I participated personally in the negotiations for the constitution of Europe, so I know that budgetary and fiscal sovereignty was one of the issues deemed as of top priority for nations to retain competency over. Therefore, I think the distance we covered over the last two years has been tremendous. I would say, I wouldn’t have believed that people would dare propose the six-pack before 2008.
We needed this reality check, and it was very harsh, but it clearly showed us what we needed to do. We needed to adjust our institutions, because our decision-making was too slow. Unanimity is not a solution for a quick solution. We saw how difficult it was with the EFSF and the new European Stability Mechanism.
The European Citizens’ Initiative is due to be launched in April. One of the main criticisms of the ECI that we’ve seen is that it is, ultimately, a non-binding mechanism. Even if one million signatures are collected, the Commission can still choose to ignore the proposal. Doesn’t this risk raising false hopes and potentially disappointing a lot of people?
I think, honestly, the pressure on the Commission from a successful ECI will be quite significant. It will be clearly the will of a million or more citizens, and I presume that this will of course be accompanied by public debate and campaigning from all parties. I think it will be quite obvious that this will trigger a wave of debate and political consideration.
Once an ECI gathers these one million signatures, there is a follow-up. It will be officially received by a Commissioner, a public hearing will be organised in the European Parliament, which will add additional discussion and public debate. Then the Commission will have three months to decide. Of course, the Commission will preserve its right of initiative. A proposal suggested by one million citizens can’t go against 499 million other Europeans. But the public pressure will be there.
What do YOU think? Will the European Citizens’ Initiative be a success? Do you plan on taking part in an initiative, or launching your own? Do you know how to start an ECI and what the requirements are? Or do you think the ECI will fail to capture the enthusiasm of European citizens and be another failed attempt to bridge the democratic deficit? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers for their reactions.
Maroš Šefčovič is EU Commissioner for Inter-Institutional Relations and Administration