European citizens will finally get their say in Brussels

A provision of the Lisbon Treaty, the Citizens’ Initiative has been quietly introduced into the Institutions of the European Union. But what will that change for citizens of Member States ?

From this year onwards, the role played by European citizens in European development could increase considerably. Implementing regulations have been issued for the Citizens’ Initiative, enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty and in effect from 1st April 2012, which define under what conditions a million European citizens may submit a legislative proposal to the European Commission.

Although it has since become something of a shining example for the Commission to illustrate Europe’s interaction with its citizens, the Citizens’ Initiative actually crept onto the political agenda via the back door. In fact, it was during meetings of the Convention on the Future of Europe (2002-2003), which was charged with developing a new constitution, that the idea of such an initiative was first hesitantly broached. It was only introduced in the last few weeks before the close of debates at the Convention, and even then, this new citizen participation project could well have sunk along with the constitutional treaty, after the double rejection by referendum from France (29 May 2005) and the Netherlands (1 June 2005). However, the abandonment of the constitutional treaty by Member States did not spell the end for the scheme, as almost all of the constitutional provisions were reproduced in the Lisbon Treaty, including the Citizens’ Initiative. And now, this chance for European citizens to participate in EU affairs occupies an important position in the said treaty, in the section dedicated to the “democratic principles” of the European Union.

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Citizens of Member States will have the opportunity to make proposals for legislation to the European Commission

Image source : European Commission

It can however be legitimately questioned whether this initiative will actually permit the EU to become more democratic. Do the restrictions, both in form and content, not favour highly organised groups that are present across the Community as a whole, lobbies rather than groups of citizens ?

First of all, it must be noted that the term “initiative” is being used to describe what is in fact more of a collective petition, as there is no obligation on the Commission to make the proposal submitted into legislation. This is not dissimilar to citizens’ initiatives programmes that have been launched in Austria, Italy and Portugal, as what is formally termed an “initiative” is in fact merely the procedures for starting a petition.

However, even as a consultative document, the impact of a text signed by a million people, of voting age according to their respective national legislation, will have a political and symbol weight that the European Commission will not be able to merely sweep aside. Moreover, the Citizens’ Initiative could lead to the Commission becoming politicised. The obligation to meet the initiators and to produce a formal response spelling out what action is proposed in response to a Citizens’ Initiative cannot be restricted to mere formal considerations. Indeed, the Commission should explain, argue, justify the decision to grant or not to grant a Citizens’ Initiative. In other words, the Commission will have trespass into the domain of the European Parliament, especially if it plans to implement the legislative content of a European Citizens’ Initiative. Could it be, therefore, that the citizens’ initiative will generate tensions between the Commission and Parliament ?

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Could the initiative result in the Commission treading on the toes of the European Parliament ?

Image source : European Commission

A key aspect of this initiative is its transnational dimension, because this million signatures must be gathered in a minimum of seven Member States, and a quorum of signatures that varies for each country must be met : 74 500 in Germany and 3750 in Malta, for example. In addition, it will be possible to gather the signatures either on paper or electronically, which offers the chance for citizens to use both traditional political channels and to exploit the potential of electronic democracy. However, the collection of signatures online is not particularly straightforward, due to the personal information that it is necessary to provide, such as place of birth, passport number for example. Only time will tell whether these requirements are actually barriers to citizen participation in this initiative.

Finally, so that the initiative really can live up to its “citizen” moniker, the Initiative Committee must be composed of European citizens who have no political mandate. Thus, no MEP can be on the Initiative Committee and, more fundamentally, no party, NGO or lobby can launch a Citizens’ Initiative - although that does not prevent them from campaigning for or against the latter.

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The petition will require a million signatures from citizens of Member States for the Commission to consider acting on the proposal Image source : European Commission

Therefore, in spite of its consultative nature, with the Citizen’s Initiative Europe is presenting its citizens, as well as itself, with a true challenge : promoting transnational public debate in a Europe in which separate, national identities dominate. More important than the actual subject of the initiative, which is limited to areas under the purview of the Commission, will be to convince the citizens of Europe that this gives them a real opportunity to make their proposals and arguments heard on a European level, as opposed to the government prerogatives that have characterised European governance during the Euro crisis.

Above all, this Citizens’ Initiative arrives at a time when civil protest groups are voicing their unrest on a global scale, as demonstrated by the Indignés movement and Occupy Wall Street. The potential of this initiative is huge and could represent one of the most significant steps forward for democracy within the EU since the introduction of European elections by direct universal suffrage in 1979. The innovation is certainly in the creation of a new method of participation, but more particularly in the fact that it will be the citizens who define how it is put into practice : a return to Europe’s roots, in short, placing the citizen back at the centre of the European project.

This article appeared in Le Temps newspaper on 12 April 2012

This article is a translation of the Eurosblog article Les citoyens européens auront enfin leur mot à dire à Bruxelles written for the blog Y’a pas le feu à l’Europe by Frédéric Esposito, Senior Lecturer, European Institute. Translated from the French by Jane Rawlinson.

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Frédéric Esposito

Frédéric Esposito est chargé d’enseignement à l’Université de Genève et l’auteur d’un ouvrage sur le référendum européen (Frédéric Esposito, Vers un nouveau pouvoir citoyen ? Des référendums nationaux au référendum européen, Bruxelles, Ed. Academia-Bruylant, (...)

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Editor-in-chief of the English version

Jane is one of those slightly rare specimens - a Brit with a passion for learning foreign languages ! She did her BA in French, German and Italian at Durham University and would now like to learn Portuguese and Swedish, amongst others ! She has (...)
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