The EU is often considered to be a pioneer because of its transnational sharing of sovereignty through democratic institutions. Many European citizens have the impression though, that they can hardly influence the European decision-making processes. In the course of the Euro crisis not only the felt remoteness of the European institutions has increased, also scepticism regarding national politics is growing.
Therefore, I am pleased that as of 1st of April 2012, the new European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) will finally enable the Europeans to play an active part in shaping the EU’s political agenda. It is actually the world’s first instrument of transnational citizen participation. Thanks to the insistent activities of a non-governmental organization (Mehr Demokratie e.V./Democracy International) this participatory instrument was integrated into the Lisbon Treaty.
If at least one million signatures in at least seven Member States are collected in support of a European Citizens’ Initiative, the European Commission must examine the issue presented by the initiative. It can address all those EU policy areas in which the Commission has competences to propose legislation, e.g. environmental politics, consumer protection, agriculture or trade.
To my mind the most important effect of the new European Citizens’ Initiative is the following: To successfully collect one Million signatures European civil society will have to organize and coordinate its actions across national borders. This is exactly what the EU is lacking right now. Environmental organizations, trade unions, human rights groups, churches or consumer protection organizations may well have an office in Brussels and conduct official European meetings. But genuine European encounters and mobilizations of their rank and file members are rarely taking place. Now this is what the European Citizens’ Initiative will encourage. Hopefully it can thereby contribute to the Europeanization of critical civil society, so that in the long run it can challenge the well-organized powerful business lobby in Brussels. If we are lucky we will soon see more and stronger European campaigns that serve the common European good.
During the negotiations for the European Citizens’ Initiative’s regulation our spokesperson on constitutional issues, Gerald Häfner, has been a driving force for removing many of the bureaucratic stumbling blocks which the Commission proposed. He also ensured that successful initiatives will have a right to a public hearing, and that the Commission is obliged to set up a point of contact to provide citizens with information and advice about the ECI. The fact that regarding the minimum number of signatories required per country a more balanced approach was reached than initially foreseen is also an outcome of his involvement.
We Greens think that the European Citizens’ Initiative can still be improved. Until now it is a non-binding instrument, which means that even if a citizen’s initiative has successfully collected the minimum number of signatures and has met all other relevant requirements, the Commission may still decide to reject the initiative. Agenuine popular initiative and referendum is still not envisioned. Nevertheless, the possibility of a European Citizens’ Initiative is definitely an important first step towards a more participatory model of democracy in Europe.
Last but not least I would like to draw your attention to one of the first European Citizens’ Initiatives, which demands the commission to promote the national implementation of water and sanitation as a human right. In July 2010 no fewer than 17 (!) EU Member States abstained from voting in favor of a corresponding UN-resolution. Therefore, it seems important to me to push the Commission to engage itself more ambitiously for example in proposing binding targets for all Member States to achieve universal coverage and in making access to water and sanitation part of its Development policy. I personally support this European citizens’ initiative and would be very pleased if you would now also make use of your new right to participate!
P.S. Please keep me informed about further European Citizens’ Initiatives that are worth supporting.