The European Union, since its inception in the 1990s, has attempted to build its political foundations on the power of collective action and unity. The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) was first proposed with the intent of giving more power to the people.
Introduced with the Treaty of Lisbon and gone into effect in 2012, the ECI directly invite the European Commission to take legal action on a subject provided the issue in question is supported by one million citizens of the European Union from at least seven member states. With the first ECI submitted in 2012, as of 2022 six initiatives have received an answer from the European Commission. Three more initaitives are currently in the verification stages making ten years of direct democratic action. A decade behind us and hopefully many decades in-front of us, let us examine the European ideals of the democratic process, why they are important, and what it means to be European in the current age.
The ECI and democracy
The European Union, as well as most of its member states operate on the principal of representative democracy – a form of government in which an elected official represents the will of a large group. The ECI, in contrast, is a form of direct democracy in which votes, or signatures in this case, do not go towards the election of an individual but towards the election of a specific set of proposed legislation or policy. Many famous political theorists such as Jeremy Bentham or John Stuart Mill were proponents of representative rather than of direct democracy due to his fear of the ‘tyranny of the majority’ – a concept in which direct democratic action can lead to discriminatory practises against a minority who, due to a lack of representation in a formal government, have little to no political power. Direct democracy must therefore be implemented with care as such pitfalls come alongside it, however the ECI itself has a mechanism of insurance in place.
A successful ECI is submitted to the Commission which deliberates it in-part to assess the need for such legislation, not just amongst the relatively small number of supporters of said ECI. Furthermore, despite the pitfalls, there is an argument to be made that direct democracy is a valuable component of a healthy democratic system.
According to Mill, democracy is – under the right circumstances – one of the most effective tools in promoting the common good. The deliberative process behind democracy is capable of identifying issues for the promotion of the common good under the conditions of good faith argumentation and communication.
Universal political participation provides the best guarantee that the interests of the governed will be properly reflected in political decisions. Although Mill believed, for the reasons described above, that the promotion of the common good was best achieved through representative democracy, the core of his ideals are still found within the ECI.
The ECI greatly operates under the assumption that Mill was right; that the common good is discoverable through the deliberative political process. Francesco of the Civil Servant Exchange Program notes that one of the greatest successes of the ECI has been “(…) the opportunity to share the idea, to talk about this idea.” – the ability to facilitate the spread of new knowledge, new measures to add to the toolset of people’s political awareness therefore giving them the power to act on what they believe is right.
Political Scientist David Altman (2012) supports this, arguing that it is not the outcome of a citizen-initiated mechanism such as the ECI which is important, but rather the process itself. Direct democracy should not be seen as a substitute for representative democracy with the question being which system is superior, but rather as a supplementary tool that is vital for a continuous and healthy democratic system. Contemporary assumptions of democracy in liberal societies are often undermined by two premises: (1) people are capable of identifying their own needs, and (b) alone or as a group, they are the only possible determiners of these needs. A third party cannot decide them. The very process of direct democracy challenges people to identify their needs and potentially to act accordingly.
This is an aspect representative democracy lacks, as it does not provide an incentive for everyday citizens to actively deliberate and think about their needs on a more active basis outside of more grand-sweeping generalities such as lower taxes, or a healthier environment. Citizens are not encouraged to engage in how these larger ideals should be executed – this process being left to the representative in question. The very act of direct democracy, regardless of outcome, requires citizens to think about what they want and how to achieve this. It encourages discussion, conversation, debate – all of which, again according to Mill, are an essential facet of healthy democracy. The ECI not only provides a framework for the facilitation of such direct democratic action, but also encourages discussion as to what we as the European people ‘need’.
A new European identity
Since the inception of the idea of a collective ‘European identity’ post-WWII, such an identity has remained ambiguous. While European identity as it pertains to individuals may be more easily discernible, what constitutes ‘the’ European identity has yet to be concretely established. In an area as culturally, socially, and politically diverse as the European Union it is difficult to find common ground.
The ECI in that regard, allows not only the shaping of politics but for the citizens to decide what European identity should look like; what defines our values and beliefs as citizens of the EU. As Anne Hardt of Democracy International puts it, “(…) it shows that the EU values how bottom-up, direct participation of its citizens leads to sustainable policy outcomes and the creation of a European identity.”. Through showing our support for certain ECIs we set a president not only to the type of politics we want to see in our collective union, but also present an image to the outside world as to what it means to be European. Antoine Thill of the European EcoScore ECI eloquently points out, “[It’s] important to realise that you are a part of something bigger than just your country, that you are European in the noble sense”.
Conclusion – 10 years in the making
So far, 90 ECIs have been launched by more than 800 campaigners, and over 16 million signatures from across the EU have been collected. 17 ECIs are open for signature at this very moment, and soon, we might have 3 more successful ECIs once their verification is approved. The ECI provides an opportunity for the citizens themselves to define ‘the’ European identity – one of collaboration and communication, despite a great diversity in politic and opinion. While only one part of a much larger political apparatus, the ECI gives us a chance to collectively decide what it means to be European. While the ECI, as a political mechanism, is still finding its footing in the political landscape it is enabling of the process of direct democracy which encourages the debate, deliberation, and conversation necessary both for European unity and our democratic apparatus as a whole.