23 June, 2011
The European Citizens’ Initiative: a great responsibility for federalists
On April 1st, 2012, Europe will break new ground: from then on one of the most important innovations in the EU, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), will be in force and for the first time in history direct transnational democracy will become reality. Thinking about this breaking event, it is worth having a short look back on a long way full of stones.
By Dr. Sylvia-Yvonne Kaufmann, former MEP, Vice-President of the European Parliament, Europa-Union Deutschland.

A short look back – ECI, a child of the European Convention

Almost a decade has gone since the idea of ECI was developed within the European convention in 2002/2003. For me, as well as for the great majority of colleagues in the Convention, it was clear that the European Union needed a comprehensive reform, a reform that will ultimately overcome its democratic deficit. The debates were consequently focused on institutional reforms, especially on strengthening the power of the European Parliament as the direct representation of Europe’s citizens and on giving the national parliaments a better say in European politics. But, at the same time, it was clear that democracy in Europe needed more to bring the citizens onto the political centre stage.  

Shortly after the opening of the Convention, a first meeting took place between some parliamentarians in the convention - such as Alain Lamassoure (EPP-ED, France), Johannes Voggenhuber (Greens/EFA, Austria), Josep Borell Fontelles (PES, Spain), Casper Einem (PES, Austria), Jürgen Meyer (PES, Germany) and me - and “IRI Europe Convention Network” (a network of activists engaged for direct democracy, brought together by the Initiative & Referendum Institute, IRI Europe). This meeting on March 20th, 2002, marked the start of an intense debate between NGO-activists and members of the first constitutional assembly in the history of the EU to develop ideas and concepts as to how direct-democratic elements could be included into the forthcoming treaties. That was far from being easy. There was no existing prototype which could somehow be taken up as a basis of reference. And a closer look on the situation and experiences in Member states showed, on one hand, that the existing national models were very different and, on the other hand, that a majority of Member states didn’t have any rules for any kind of direct democracy instruments and consequently no political culture in this respect at all.

In the beginning of 2003, an informal common working group of NGO-activists and convention members began to discuss detailed proposals, which were to be presented to the Constitutional Convention. At that time, within the convention as well as within civil society the debates strongly focused on the question whether the new treaties proposed by the convention should finally be adopted by referendum, by referendum in all Member states or by a Pan-European one. There was a growing public pressure in favour of the referendum idea from different parts of our societies, and more than 120 NGOs were intensively campaigning for it. So, different convention Members started to present individual proposals and on March 31st, 2003, a contribution (Conv 658/03) in favour of a European-wide referendum on the EU Constitution was presented to the Presidium of the convention. It was introduced by Alain Lamassoure and signed by 38 Convention members, alternate members and observers.

However, the idea of a Europe-wide referendum was confronted with strong opposition, coming especially from national governments and from main political forces. They were against for principle reasons and based their arguments on legal difficulties and problems. So, in the end there was unfortunately no chance to convince the presidium of the convention to take up this proposal.

But our working group followed from the beginning a two-track approach. When it became clear that the referendum-idea won’t be successful, we intensified our work on a different question: the idea to strengthen democracy and citizens rights by introducing a new tool into the treaties, the right of initiative for citizens. In spring 2003 the presidium of the convention published its first draft for a chapter on “democratic life in the European Union”, which contained also a draft-text for an article on the principle of participatory democracy. But there was a big disappointment – besides the formula of structural dialogues with the representative organisations and civil society, there was no mentioning of direct democracy at all.

After dramatic weeks with intense debates and lobbying, a proposal by Prof. Jürgen Meyer finally made it through. The proposal (CONV 724/03) entirely focused on the Citizens’ Initiative dimension, and was based on the approach of equalising the role of the citizens, when it comes to influencing the European Commission, with the initiative rights of the Parliament and the Council. About 70 members and alternate members of the Convention supported it. With common efforts from MEPs and national parliamentarians in the Convention, we managed to break down the last resistances in the Convention presidium: on the eve of the last Convention session, the citizens’ initiative right was included in the draft constitutional treaty, giving citizens for the very first time in history a direct-democratic tool at the transnational level. With the adoption of a key demand by many people and NGOs, the Convention opened a window to transnational agenda-setting from below.

This proposal has built the foundation for the final text in the draft constitutional treaty, presented by the Convention Chairman Valéry Giscard d’Estaing on June 13th: “A significant number of citizens, not less than one million, coming from a significant number of Member States, may invite the Commission to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing this Constitution. A European law shall determine the provisions regarding the specific procedures and conditions required for such a citizens’ request” (Art. I-46, p. 4). As with a lot of other promising elements in the Convention’ s draft constitutional treaty, such as the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, the European Citizens’ Initiative right symbolised a departure from the old-style European Union.

But after the adoption of the “Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe” by the Heads of Government and States in Rome on October 29th, 2004, the ratification-process failed after the No-Votes in France and in the Netherlands in 2005. Extraordinary efforts were necessary to rescue the substance of the Constitutional Treaty and it took another three years until the ECI - now Article 11-4 TEU - came into the focus of political debates again. It was - by no surprise - the Committee on Constitutional Affairs of the European Parliament (AFCO) which took the lead in summer 2008. Although being confronted with the still ongoing ratification-process of the Lisbon-Treaty, it insisted on an early start of a broad and detailed debate on the implementation of the ECI. It was the main intention for a majority of parliamentarians to give a political signal to the citizens before the European elections in June 2009, namely that it is the Parliament the institution paving the way for a simple and user-friendly ECI-regulation and which in the interest of people strives to put it into practice as soon as possible.

With the adoption of my report on ECI in May 2009, the Parliament has indeed managed to prepare the ground in that respect. So, it defined the Lisbon-Treaty formula of “a significant number of Member States” to be ¼, or seven Member States; it called on the Commission to receive the organizers of an ECI in order to allow them to explain in detail the matters raised by a successful ECI with more than one million signatures, and it demanded public hearings with the organizers of a successful ECI. In 2010 - thanks to the excellent work of co-rapporteurs Zita Gurmai (S&D, Hungary) and Alain Lamassoure (EPP, France) -, it was possible to embody these essential points in the regulation and to drop, for example, the original bureaucratic proposal of the Commission to check the admissibility of an ECI only after 300,000 signatures have been collected. So, it was the Parliament again which provided proof of being the guarantor of the intentions of the Constitutional Convention.

Looking ahead – Let’s make ECI a story of success

With the approval of the ECI-regulation by Parliament and Council at the beginning of 2011, there is now about one year of time left for citizens and for organized civil society to discuss and consider on how to use this new instrument. As we all know,  within a lot of different political forces and NGOs the debates started already. And who else if not us, the European federalists, should examine whether to launch a European Citizens’ Initiative too or to be prepared, at least, to support one.    

From my point of view, European federalists do have a high responsibility for the ECI becoming a story of success. We as federalists have to do our utmost in order that people in Europe will feel and see that their wishes and ideas are taken seriously by the European institutions; that Europe is not a project of the elites, and that there is the political will to build up Europe together with its citizens. One thing is sure: if the first ECI projects won’t succeed, it will mean an extraordinary damage to democracy.

The steady decline in participation in European elections and the extremely low participation in the 2009 elections were already alarming. But having a look on the figures of recent opinion polls in Germany, for example, one should be even more alarmed. The figures of a representative opinion poll issued on January 26th, 2011, by the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” show that in Germany the support towards the EU is declining dramatically. On the question “Do you think Europe is our future?” only 41% of Germans answered with a Yes. The answers to the question: “How quick should the development towards a united Europe proceed? Quicker or more slowly?” showed that since the 1990s the percentage of those in favour of a quicker move towards a united Europe is constantly going down. At the beginning of 2011 only 12% of the consulted persons were in favour of quicker integration. The same negative trend was reflected by the answers to the question “How much do you trust the European Union?”. In the last five years, about 50% of Germans said that they have little or almost no trust in the EU, while 1/3 of people said that their trust in the EU is high. But at the beginning of this year the figures were even worse – there were only 26% of people left saying “I trust in the EU”.

So, thinking on how to make the ECI a story of success, federalists should take these wide-spread public opinions in our Member states very seriously. But it is not only this background which must be taken into close consideration. Two other factors will have a great importance: the topic and the time-table. Concerning the topic that the UEF and its national branches shall choose to be engaged in, it is sure that only a pro-European issue aiming at deepening European integration and taking up a widespread need or common public interest in our different member-states should have all our support. Concerning the time-table, one should keep in mind the times required. With the ECI starting on 1st April, 2012, it will take more than one and half year - from the submission to the Commission, the collecting of the minimum one million signatures in seven Member states, the process of verification of the collected signatures, until the date of the Commission's decision on how it will proceed with the ECI, it will be actually on the table around November 2013. Only by then will we know what the Commission intends to do, whether it wants to pick up the citizens request or reject it. That will be just on the eve of the next European election!

Therefore, an ECI that we as UEF may decide to be in favour of should be considered in view of the European elections of 2014. It must be successful – for encouraging people to get involved in European affairs and to encourage them to take part in the EP elections. European unification will only last if a Europe of the citizens is built up. The new instrument, the European Citizens Initiative, gives us the chance to go ahead in this direction and to follow the spirit of Jean Monnet, who said that the aim is not to unify States, but people. 

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