The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), the world’s first transnational direct-democratic instrument, is very much in the making. In spring at the annual ECI Day, the European Commission’s First Vice President Frans Timmermans announced a powerful revision process to improve the working of the fascinating tool.
The Commission began the consultation process almost immediately, and by mid-september a proposal for a revised regulation was presented. In order to support and serve as a watchdog to this process, at Democracy International we created the ECI Rescue Team with Mehr Demokratie, ECAS, The ECI Campaign and WeMove. We published an easy-to-follow guide for non-ECI experts to participate in the Commission’s online public questionnaire, which we are thrilled to say saw a remarkable participation of over 5,300 participants, 98% of which were citizens.
On August 30, the Commission invited us and other key ECI supporters to a stakeholders’ meeting with Mr. Timmermans and members of his cabinet to discuss our proposals for the ECI. We found that we had a lot of common ground, in particular the goal to make the ECI more known among citizens, so that political parties and interest groups can’t hijack the tool for their own personal agenda. At the end of the meeting, we handed Mr. Timmermans the signatures of 100,137 citizens who demand an ECI that is more user-friendly, well-known, and legislatively effective.
We are pleased that the Commission held true to its word and delivered a proposal that we can consider going forward in the right direction. The timing of the introduction of the proposal, however, has produced some disputes particularly among the members of the Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) of the European Parliament. Rapporteur and AFCO member György Schöpflin released a draft report in June with recommendations to the Commission on the revision of the ECI, which had only seen a first round of discussions and was just scheduled for a vote in AFCO and the plenary of the Parliament. The perception had been that the Commission would take into account the results of the public consultation, input from stakeholders’ and the report and recommendations by the Parliament before publishing its proposal. But this was not the case, and members of AFCO did not hold back their displeased reaction to the Commission’s timing at their following meeting, with a member of the Commission attending. Democracy International and other ECI-supporting organizations supported Schöpflin’s report and recommendations to the Commission.
While the timing of the Commission’s delivery of the proposal has been controversial and quite puzzling, we do welcome many of the results of the proposal. Our position paper listed eleven recommendations to the Commission, six of these were partially accepted, two were fully accepted, and three were either rejected or not mentioned. While eight recommendations saw some level of improvement, we place great weight in the three rejected recommendations. We were happy to see an acceptabnce of the proposals of lowering the age of support for an initiative to 16, allowing organizers to choose their own start date, giving organizers the opportunity to create a legal entity to manage the initiative so as to limit their liability, introducing partial-registration and allowing organizers to amend the initiative. But, the most important recommendation of all to strengthen the weak political nature and impact of the ECI was left out. It is regrettable that perhaps the most critical characteristic of the ECI was ignored by the Commission, but we are overall happy to see the ECI moving forward, gaining in easier-to-use technicalities.
Now that the proposal has been published, it is expected to be applicable by 2020, first going through the legislative procedures of the Parliament and the European Council in 2018 and 2019. While the proposal for the new ECI is not perfect, it does tackle many of the issues holding it back from being easily utilized. EU Member States, the Parliament and the Council should now take the opportunity at hand to strengthen the proposal of the ECI as an instrument that could genuinely bring citizens closer to the EU. Overall, we at Democracy International are happy to see that the ECI is headed in the right direction with more momentum than ever to improve democracy in the EU.