Following the ECI ‘Water is a Human Right’, ‘One of Us’ is the second citizens’ initiative at EU level that had gathered the necessary support of one million signatures from at least seven EU Member States. In absolute numbers, the European Commission had received 1.721.626 valid signatures, the highest amount of an ECI so far (the ECI ‘Water is a Human Right’ got 1.659.543 signatures).
As reason for declining ‘One of Us’, the European Commission states that only recently it had decided on EU policies that respect the ethical rules and restrictions in place for EU-funded research, which prevent the destruction of embryos. Also, the European Commission applied a detailed ‘triple lock’ system with regards to any research involving Embryonic Stem Cells, a system the Commission considers to be in full accordance with the EU Treaties and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights (Source 1: Press Release, European Commission).
In response to the rejection, the organisers of ‘One of Us’ voiced their deep disappointment: The veto power by the European Commission was unjustified and anti-democratic. Only the European legislature could give a verdict on the content of the initiative, and not the Commission, which made the ECI mechanism meaningless. (Source 2: Statement 'One of Us').
In this view, the fact that the European Citizens’ Initiative does not lead to a referendum as a third step following the reading in the legislative bodies, is a main point of criticism for Democracy International. Therefore, the European Citizens’ Initiative only is an agenda-setting instrument.
So far, the EU legislation (in EU terminology "regulation") on the European Citizens’ Initiative only requires from the EU Commission to “set out in a communication its legal and political conclusions on the citizens’ initiative, the action it intends to take and its reasons for taking or not taking that action”. The EU's executive body is not obliged to anything else. The public hearing of the ECI is not a must, as organisers "shall" be given the opportunity to present the ECI at a public hearing in the European Parliament “with appropriate representation of the European Commission”. (Source 3: EU Regulation).
To improve this lack of effective decision-making, the upcoming report on the ECI, which the European Commission is to send to the European Parliament in 2015, means an excellent opportunity for reform.
To generate more political pressure, we demand that the European Parliament should discuss the topic of the European Citizens’ Initiative (submitted to the European Commission) in a full plenary session of the European Parliament. On this occasion, all Members of Parliament should vote on whether to support the European Citizens’ Initiative. Although the European Parliament does not have the right of initiative, this plenary vote would be a strong political signal of the European legislature, elected to represent the EU’s 500 million citizens. Definitely, this vote would put the European Commission under political pressure to act.
Democracy International, partnering with the ECI support centre, proposes a number of other points to make the European Citizens’ Initiative an effective and user-friendly tool of direct democracy. These points include:
- Increasing the transparency in the decision-making process and to clarify the methods and procedures taken by the European Commission to register or refuse an ECI
- The European institutions should help ECI organisers with the translation of the of each registered ECI
- Facilitating access to funding
- Giving ECI organisers time after registration to prepare their campaigns
- Extending the timeframe for the collection of signatures to 18-24 months
- Allowing third-country nationals and legal persons under Article 20 (2) TEU to sign an ECI.
More information on ECI reform in the position paper below, issued by the ECI support centre in March 2014.
Text by Cora Pfafferott