You may not be aware of it, but 2013 is officially the European Year of Citizens (it’s also officially the Year of Air, but we’ll stick to citizens for today’s post). As part of the festivities, the European Commission has been travelling on the road and meeting face-to-face with Europe’s citizenry in town hall meetings across the continent. We’ve been covering some of these meetings, and you can read through our previous posts on these “Citizens’ Dialogues” here.
At each meeting, the moderator usually kicks things off by asking the audience whether they feel they are listened to by the European Union. Overwhelmingly (even when the crowd is sympathetic and broadly supportive of European integration) the response has been negative. People at the events feel the EU institutions are distant and unresponsive, and their voice does not really matter.
The most recent of these events took place in Slovakia with Maroš Šefčovič, a Vice-President of the European Commission. We’ve interviewed Commissioner Šefčovič previously, and one of his responsibilities is overseeing the implementation of something called the “European Citizens Initiative” (ECI).
The ECI is a direct-democracy instrument introduced by the Lisbon Treaty (and you can read more about how it works in our infographic below – click for a higher resolution image). If an initiative can gather one million signatures (passing a quorum in at least seven EU member states) then the European Commission will consider adopting legislation in response. At its launch on April Fools’ Day 2012 (possibly not the most appropriate launch-date from a PR perspective), it was hoped that the ECI might help to dispel the perception that the EU was distant and unconcerned with the opinions of ordinary citizens.
One of the biggest criticisms of the ECI, however, is that the European Commission is not obliged to adopt legislation in response to a successful initiative. We put this to Commissioner Šefčovič in our interview with him last year, and he responded that the political pressure following a successful initiative would be immense, making it difficult for the Commission to ignore.
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 a 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.
Last month, the first ECI succeeded in its goal, so now we can finally see what happens. The Right2Water initiative opposes the privatisation of water utilities in the EU and argues that water should not be subject to the normal “internal market rules” (and you can read a fascinating case-study of why this initiative succeeded whilst others have struggled here). Interestingly, the Right2Water ECI collected 75% of its signatures from a single member state – Germany. It met the goal of 1 million signatures comfortably (it currently has almost 2 million) but then struggled to reach the quorum in six additional member states. This suggests the campaign remained a largely national effort, despite the pan-European aspirations of the ECI.
How the Commission reacts to the first successful ECI remains to be seen. The Commission has three months to verify the signatures, organise a hearing in the European Parliament and officially give their response (though the Right2Water organisers believe they have reasons to be hopeful).