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An initial decision by the European Commission not to register an initiative against a free trade agreement between the EU and the US led to Europe-wide protests

Window of opportunity for direct democracy

03-08-2017

It is a critical moment for modern democracy. In the months to come, the fate of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) - the first tool of participatory and direct democracy at the transnational level - will be decided.

It is a badly guarded secret: European citizens have never had as many opportunities to set the political agenda as they possess today.

A few weeks ago, more than 1.3 million signatures were delivered to the European Commission requiring the Union of 28 member states and more than 500 million people to ban toxic pesticides like glyphosate. A broad alliance of environmental and democracy-support organisations took just five months to gather the necessary statements of support from across the EU.

At the same time, nine other transnational citizens’ initiatives were looking for supporters on a range of issues, including free trade, post-Brexit citizenship, civic education and the rights of ethnic minorities within member states.

For the very first time since the establishment the ECI, this tool – literally the right to further an initiative that goes on the EU agenda – seems to be realising its transnational potential.

The ECI’s beginnings five years ago were not encouraging. Very few people knew about the right, and the procedures to register and conduct an initiative were prohibitively cumbersome.

And the responsible authorities at the national and European levels were both unprepared and unwilling to allow the new direct democratic procedure.

As a consequence, almost half of the first 50 ECI’s launched between 2012 and 2016 were not registered by the commission. Most of the remaining ones never came close to attracting enough signatures to meet the qualifying thresholds.

Four step procedure

The ECI instrument allows one million EU citizens residing in a minimum of seven EU member states to qualify an initiative with their signatures.

An ECI can cover any topic within in the jurisdiction of the commission; measures that gather enough support go to the commission, which is invited to present a legislative proposal in response.

Four steps before the signature collection phase form the process of launching an ECI: creating a citizens’ committee to back the initiative, passing an eligibility assessment by the commission, registering the initiative, and certifying a system for the online collection of signatures.

Once the collection phase begins, the citizens’ committee has 12 months to collect one million signatures across Europe.

Historic leap

As the world’s only tool of participatory democracy on the transnational level, the European Citizens’ Initiative was a historic leap forward in encouraging active citizenship and democratic debate.

The idea of the ECI emerged in the early 1990s from a network of democracy activists called eurotopia.

Ten years later, an alliance of civil society organisations – including the Initiative and Referendum Institute EuropeMehr Demokratie Germany and Democracy International – successfully lobbied members of the European parliament to include the ECI in a new constitutional treaty — and later (in 2009) into the Lisbon Treaty, which is today the main constitutional document of the EU.

After its slow start, the ECI has benefited from three major developers.

First, an early decision by the commission to refuse to register an initiative opposing a Europe-US free trade agreement (T-TIP) inspired a pan-European protest movement. And that in turn inspired an “unofficial” – that is, unregistered - ECI which gathered the support of more than three million people).

Second, the narrow British decision in 2016 to leave the Union (“Brexit”) was a shock to Brussels, and was followed by some healthy reflection in the commission about the need to be in closer touch with the European public. This gave the ECI a new shine.

Third, the illiberal wave of populist electoral victories within the EU (Poland, Hungary) and also in the United States made clear that democracy had to be deepened and strengthened at all political levels, including the transnational level.

European courts

Finally, a few important decisions by the highest European courts forced the commission to adopt a more responsive and welcoming attitude vis-à-vis active citizens trying to practice their basic rights.

At the annual ECI Day in April, the commission’s first vice president, Frans Timmermans, announced the new official welcoming direction and launched a broad review and reform process for the ECI.

A roadmap released by the commission in May described the timeline of the ECI’s revision process. The commission also opened a 12-week long public consultation phase in the form of a questionnaire, which can be filled in until August 16th.

A short summary of the consultation will be published within a month of the consultation’s closing, and the commission will then use the results and other feedback to propose a revision to the ECI by the end of the year.

All this constitutes a true window of opportunity for transnational democracy. The experiences with the ECI so far have not been a success, but they have been useful in making progress. The first tool of direct, transnational and digital democracy is taking flight.

Article written by Daniela Vancic, European Programme Manager at Democracy International, and Bruno Kaufmann, swissinfo.ch’s global democracy correspondent and editor-in-chief of the democracy media platform, people2power.info. This article was first published on swissinfo.ch, you can read it here. 

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