Cause and Effect in European Politics and Law

The long way to participatory democracy

Adelina Marini, April 28, 2010

On June 14 the serious part of the debate on the latest novelty of the Lisbon Treaty - the European Citizens' Initiative will take place. This is the result of the first ever discussion on the issue, held in the General Affairs Council by EU's foreign ministers on Monday in Luxembourg. By then work on a draft regulation will continue on an expert level in the Permanent Representatives Committee (the ambassadors of member states). The Citizens' Initiative enables citizens to invite the Commission to move forward legislative proposals on a specific issue if there are at least one million people that support it, representing a significant number of member states.

The main points on which common European agreement must be reached are: registration of the proposed initiative and admissibility; what the minimum number of signatories per Member State should be; procedures and conditions to verify the people who have signed an initiative.

The big problem however is at what stage an initiative must be registered in order to be checked whether it is in compliance with the European legislation or is in the European Commission's competences. One more filter is being proposed during the registration process which will allow the Commission to reject registration of initiatives, directed against the values of the Union.

Taking a decision on the admissibility of a proposed initiative at the very beginning of the process would entail the following risks: potential abuse of the system by people not interested in launching a real initiative, risk of overloading the system, risk of giving the impression that initiatives have received a green light from the Commission before any signatures have been collected.

Given the various size and population of member states, the second element - collection of signatures - also needs a fair solution in order to make the Citizens' Initiative as representative as possible. In its Green Paper, the Commission had suggested a flat percentage of 0.2% for all member states. However the consultation showed that there were concerns that such a flat percentage would lead to too high a threshold for large member states and to too low a threshold for small member states - for example 1,000 signatories in Luxembourg and 160,000 in Germany.

This is why the Commission proposed the principle used for the European Parliament - the minimum number of signatories per member state to be based on the proportionate system, used to determine the number of MEPs. This approach foresees the number of MEPs to be multiplied by 750. This is one of the least disputed elements in the draft regulation because it has already been proved as working in practice (the European elections). Thus, Bulgaria will have to collect 13,500 signatures (18 MEPs multiplied by 750).

The biggest problem, as it seems, would be what the procedures and the conditions to verify signatories should be. During the consultations some member states expressed concern from the Commission's proposal signatories to choose from several different forms of identification documents (passport, ID card, social security number). This approach has the advantage to solve specific problems in some member states, while in others - it creates problems. Besides, still there is no agreement on whether only the number of signatories should be verified or their identity too.

Verification of a real signature however implies citizens to do that before a state body or before a notary. Such a case puts into question the very essence of the Citizens' Initiative.

As an online system for registration of support is also foreseen, the proposal creates additional problems because the decision to create a special website is left to the organiser of an initiative. In the same time, the website must guarantee that personal data is protected and also to verify the authenticity of the signatures. Member states will have to check whether such a website is in compliance with the requirements of the regulation and also to ensure that the verification process will be recognised by the rest EU member states.

In fact, the case with online registration is almost identical with the paper collection of signatures. Given the above mentioned problems, any attempt for citizens' initiative could die in its birth or it can create a business niche for organisations that will dedicate their business to moving up an initiative to the European Commission. But will this still be an expression of the will of European citizens is a question which still needs to be answered.