To save the ECI, concrete technical and legal aspects must be adjusted in the regulation. But the reform will require political will from all sides. Many deputies of the EU Parliament are our allies for democratic reform. The EU Commission has the power to introduce the changes into the regulation. And the EU Council and individual member states have the final word on crucial decisions. This hearing was the first step to bring all stakeholders into the same room. Now we need to kick off the negotiating process toward a real improvement of the ECI.
ECI at a critical crossroad
The unique tool of participatory democracy has reached a critical crossroads. The results of the review process will reveal whether we are entering a new democratic chapter in the European Union, or whether the ECI is just a rhetorical instrumentalisation.
The presence, albeit brief, of EU Commission’s Vice-President Frans Timmermans was a promising signal that the Commission is taking the review seriously. In fact, Mr Timmermans promised that he would do everything he could within the powers of the Commission to improve the citizens’ tool, taking not only the technical dimension into consideration but also its political implications.
What followed was a dense exchange of experiences and concrete proposals for reforms. Three experimental years have signaled how citizens have received the instrument, how politicians have handled it, and how well it has worked. Numbers alone show a highly unsatisfactory achievement: 40% of proposals have been declared as inadmissible, only two have succeeded, and not a single one has been followed by legislation. The raised proposals therefore embraced all stages of the ECI, from the preliminary stage of drafting ECI proposals, to the hurdles and requirements throughout the process, to the actual consequences of successful ECIs.
Stage one: ECI proposal
At the very initial stage, as was stated for example by Pablo Sanchez of the Right2Water ECI and Dr. Tamas Molnar of the Corvinus University of Budapest, ECIs require greater legal assistance in drafting their proposals to navigate their way more eloquently through the complexities of the EU Treaties and the multifaceted competences of the EU Commission. In the case that an ECI proposal is rejected on the basis of subsidiarity, the EU should be obliged to transfer the concern to the appropriate level that does have the competence. Beatriz Becerra, who has one of the lead roles in the Parliament’s upcoming report, made a provocative call for the ECI to incorporate the possibility of changing aspects of the Treaties, rather than limiting it to secondary law. Democracy International’s partner ECAS made the case for an ECI officer to accompany the admissibility check of the EU Commission so as to ensure greater impartiality.
Once having received a green light for the ECI proposal from the EU Commission, former ECI organisers called for more flexibility in the timing between the registration and launch. The ECI ought to be given up to six months after its registration - to prepare the certification of the online collection system, a media launch and other necessary preparations - before beginning its one-year collection.
Stage two: Signature collection process
What follows is the most arduous and lengthy phase of the ECI, entailing 12 months to collect over one million statements of support. Many experts at today’s hearing were in agreement that the personal data required for signing an ECI must urgently be harmonised across all member states. Harmonised requirements - through a single signature form or even a European registry - would simultaneously be a means to simplify the process, guarantee equal access to sign ECIs for all citizens, ensure that every EU citizen can participate regardless of residence, and to foster a European identity. Gerald Häfner, who was lauded at the hearing as one of the key members when the ECI was first elaborated, reminded participants that single data requirements had in fact been planned from the very start.
The ECI is not only a start button for citizens to initiate a legislative process, but also a vital tool to generate a European debate on transnational issues. Given this, Diana Wallis, member of the European Parliament, contended that ECI organisers should be able to collect the email addresses of their signatories in order to keep them updated on the issue.
Stage three: Follow-up to a successful ECI
Naturally, the final stage concerns the actual impact of a successful ECI. Kazimierz Ujazdowski and Pal Csaky, two deputies in the EU Parliament that play a significant role in the Parliament’s work on the ECI, sharply noted that there needs to be an end to the arbitrary rulings of the EU Commission and a co-decision process regarding the follow-up, together with another institution such as the Ombudsman or EESC. For more tangible consequences, also the EU Parliament should be more proactively involved, for example by drafting a report on the issue and discussing and voting on it in plenary.
Democracy International’s recommendations for the ECI revision include many of the proposals raised at the hearing and more.
Text by Sophie von Hatzfeldt