referendumYesterday 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.

8 comments Post a commentcomment

  1. avatar
    Samo Košmrlj

    I just read about the initiative today on some news portal. First impression is, that one million citizens is a very high treshold :(

  2. avatar
    Christos Mouzeviris

    It will make EU more democratic, if only our Governments, the Commission and the EP accept the people’s wish and implement their initiative.. If not, then it is just a joke.. I hope this great new idea and initiative works and our Governments respect and implement it… Let’s put it to the test, shall we?

  3. avatar
    Jovan Ivosevic

    The democratic deficit exists because you need to get a university degree in European studies in order to understand how the EU works. In addition, there needs to be education as well as simplification of the institutional framework. Once they have that, people will contact their MEPs or their Council of Minister liaisons, or form initiatives on their own. Until then, it will be very hard for people to relate to, or feel comfortable around something they don’t understand.

  4. avatar
    Nico Keppens

    First, ‘democracy’ is not a word that can be explained easily. Since Plato there have been different interpretations and methods for the organisation of a state with/without citizen engagement (I recommend the book ‘The road to political democracy’ For the peculiar way the EU had to be formed (starting from bringing together countries that were at war shortly before) and taking into account the almost practical need (even for the initial six member states) to have a system of representative democracy, the chosen method has proven to achieve quite some results, even if it was only with small steps and far from perfect.
    I have some experience with trying to engage citizens in my village more in local politics. It is so difficult to make people think, discuss, propose solutions even for ‘small’ local issues. And even at that level due to the complexity of issues it is difficult to explain the working methods needed to take decisions. It is so much more difficult to explain how it works at EC level, where national rules and independencies have to be considered and aligned.
    Having said this, the ECI can help to make more people aware of the need to at least be interested in what happens at EC level, even to use this ECI to bring bottom up good proposals, to make people ‘up there’ (at EC but also at national level) aware that they after all are taking decisions for the citizens, so that they have to know what those citizens think, how they live their daily life, what their obstacles, problems but also possible proposals are.

  5. avatar
    Nikolai Holmov

    Before even contemplating the benefits/advantages of this (or not) should we not be looking at the different criteria across the sovereign nations to actually participate in the on-line advocacy/lobbying/petitioning?

    Why is is that some would-be signatories have to provide far more details than others for their signature to be accepted on any e-petition dependent upon their nationality?

    Surely any signatory should have to provide the same details regardless of the EU nation they are citizens of?

    As for whether the mechanism actually closes the democratic gap, it is probably a subjective matter given the EC can ignore any such petition.

    One million signatories, 1 million marching protesters, or 1 million rioters, all stand as much chance of firstly getting the attention of the EC and secondly having any effect.

    The e-petition is simply the most dignified and least expensive method to bring attention to a certain issue.

    However as the EC introduces laws for consideration by the EP and European Council, who both debate it separately, appoint committees and rapporteurs which eventually come to their positions, then vote on their positions individually and then in the case of the EP, it then a parliamentary vote (and further amendments and votes as is necessary) before the EP and Council go head to head and hammering out a compromise (or not), voting again on any compromise, before it then eventually goes back to the EC to publish and become law, whatever the EC initially gives to both European Parliament and European Council may begin as looking like “A”, but by the time it has been subjected to lengthy and numerous debates and votes followed by a compromise position between parliament and Council, the EC who introduced “A” can very well get “Z” returned to them which in all likelihood will probably have very little resemblance to the e-petition at all in either spirit or legislative result.

    That of course can only happen if the EC decide to consider any e-petition worthy of further examination in the first place – which they are not duty bound to do.

    It all seems rather “hollow” and “non-committal” to me, but time will tell. I fear it is yet another case of “form” and little “substance”.

    I hope I am proved wrong.

  6. avatar
    catherine benning

    Europe should set up a system that moirrors the Swiss. Referendum called on any matter the EU citizens feel ardently about.

    This is true democracy. And the only way forward for a civilised society.

  7. avatar
    Yanika Chetcuti

    I believe that by reaching a balance between both issues we can start coming out concretly frrom this crisis. It is good that we look at the economic aspect to solve this economic crises, yet by disregarding the social part will only lead to a short term gain. I understand that the economical aspect has always prevailed in EU (it is at the core of the Union’s foundations) but it must be remembered that society is made up of ppl. We must thus include social welfare in the picture too.

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