The Impact of the European Citizens’ Initiative on EU policies

Jan 24 2014
Conference Report

On 8 January 2014, the European Citizenship Group, composed of ten students1 from the European Affairs Master’s Programme at the Strasbourg Institute of Political Studies in partnership with the European Economic and Social Committee, organized a conference on “The Impact of the European Citizens’ Initiative on EU policies”.

Over 80 participants from all over Europe attended the conference, including campaigners for diverse European Citizens’ Initiatives, politicians, officials from EU institutions, as well as lobbyists, associations, researchers and numerous students.
Five different speakers – Henri Malosse, President of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), Anne-Marie Perret, Madi Sharma, Olga Kurpisz and Gerald Häfner – took the floor during the three and a half hours of the conference to set out their point of view on the subject and to debate with the audience.
The purpose of this paper is to sum up the conference proceedings and underline the key issues that were raised.

Contents

Introduction

The conference

Opening words by Mr the president of the European Economic and Social Committee Henri Malosse:

1st Panel

2nd Panel

Questions

Post-conference analysis

A democratic tool used by organized citizens due to the difficulties to launch an ECI

The link between the ECIs and European institutions

Conclusion

About the speakers

Partners and acknowledgements

 

Introduction:

The conference on “The Impact of the European Citizens’ Initiative on EU Policies” is the result of a long-term academic process. Following the first conference on the ECI by previous students of the Strasbourg Institute of Political Studies in January 2013, the members of the European Citizenship Group supervised by Dr Marine Delassalle2 pursued academic research about this transnational democratic tool created by European Regulation 211/2011 in April 2012. They decided to organise this conference in order to answer the key questions they have arisen during their researches and to follow the evolution of the European Citizens’ Initiative. This new democratic instrument was announced by the European institutions as offering a way to democratise EU policy making and bring the EU closer to its citizens. It seemed necessary to assess whether this is really the case and, most of all, to analyse the interactions between European citizens and the EU institutions with regard to the ECI, thus understanding its impact on EU policies.

 

Nearly two years after its implementation, the number of initiatives has increased as well as the number of the actors who are concerned by this tool. First of all, let us briefly sum up the current issues that the researches have raised and which were exposed by Romain Gaillard, the moderator of the conference during his introduction speech.

Since the implementation of this tool, 36 different ECIs have been submitted to the European Commission by the EU citizens3. Of these 36 ECIs, 21 have been accepted by the European Commission as having a legal basis, which is a little under 60% of them, as we can see on the graph below. According to the European Citizenship Group, this percentage underlines the difficulties citizens have in using the ECI and in understanding what it is and what might be done with it. It will therefore be interesting to analyse who the ECI concerns as it seems evident that we have to understand who might use the ECI in order to understand its impact.

Furthermore, 10 of the 21 ECIs accepted have gone over their one-year period for the collection of signatures and 3 of them – “One of Us”; “Right2Water”; “Stop Vivisection” – might have over the 1 million signatures needed. The official results will be known in February 2014, but it already seems that only 2 of them will have the sufficient number of signatures after the official checking by the concerned Member States of the validity of those signatures4.

 

According to the students of the European Citizenship Group the data underlines some key problems:

- The difficulties of campaigning for an ECI,

- The question of what to do with the other 80% of the ECIs that have not reached 1 million signatures. What is the impact of those 8 ECIs so far? Do they raise debates within the European institutions? Can we expect future proposals of the European Commission on those questions arisen? Or are they simply ignored? Those questions might be generalised to all the ECIs launched so far.

 

Last but not least, a great number of academic studies5 show the central role of the European Institutions – and in particular of the European Commission – in the control and the implementation of an ECI. The real impact of an ECI over EU policies has to be analysed and criticised from this point of view.

Further to this introduction about the key problems developed by the students of the Strasbourg Institute of Political Studies, let us see examine the points set out at the conference and the answers of the speakers to questions arising.

The conference:

After welcoming words by Olivera Simic, member of the European Citizenship Group, the conference was opened by the Henri Malosse, President of the EESC. It consisted of 2 panels lasting one hour each: the first focused on the point of view of the “civil society” and the representatives of two ECIs, and the second focused on the point of view of the European Commission and the European Parliament. Each speaker had 20 minutes for their presentation and each panel’s presentations were followed by some questions from the audience.

Opening words by Henri Malosse, President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Mr Malosse was extremely enthusiastic about the subject of the conference and made an interesting and insightful introduction about the ECI. He said that the ECI is a great innovation for the EU, and it is very important that this article of the Constitutional Treaty “survived” and was included in the Treaty of Lisbon. However he stressed the insufficient recognition of the ECI as a real democratic tool by the European institutions. This situation should be overcome in the context of different institutional, political and economic crisis that the EU is facing nowadays. According to Mr Malosse, the rise of Euroscepticisim and populism emphasises a feeling of disempowerment among EU citizens who do not see any opportunity to be politically active on the European stage. This is the main problem which has to be solved in order to reduce the gap between citizens and their institutions, as the first feel far away from the decision making process undergoing in Brussels. The European policies are made by experts who do not understand the difficulties of the Europeans. Citizens should have the right to influence the agenda making process and thus the EU has to give them the opportunity to express directly their opinions. According to the Mr Malosse, this is the key to “saving” the European integration process.

In order to overcome the current situation about the ECI and to give it the importance it needs, Mr Malosse wanted to have a European Commissioner focusing solely on this democratic tool. Moreover, in the context of the lack of communication from the EU institutions on the European Citizens’ Initiative, he underlined once again the necessity of such conference. Direct communication about this tool is needed and has to target EU citizens directly. Regarding his own institution – the European Economic and Social Committee – Mr Malosse said that a support service had been set up by the EESC to provide advice to the Citizens’ Committees which are facing great difficulties in launching their initiatives. This is why the EESC helped diverse ECIs which proposed different projects about the environment, economy, education and gender issues. He made a non-exhaustive list of ECIs helped in their processes – “Single Communication Tariff Act”; “End Ecocide”; “Right2Watter”; “Act4Growth”; “High quality European education for all”; “Education is an investment”).

Last but not least, Mr Malosse underlined the necessity that the European Commission reacts to the successful initiatives; the EU institutions must acknowledge citizens’ efforts during those difficult campaigns which must be followed by actions from the European institutions if they do not want to “deny democracy”.

1st Panel:

The first panel focused on the point of view of “civil society” and the role citizens play in the implementation of the ECI, in order to understand whether the ECI is a powerful tool that can strengthen the European democracy. This included an introduction about ECIs, to whom they are addressed and for which purposes they have been created. By referring to the ECIs “Right2Water” and “Act4Growth”, the analysis went further with the difficulties encountered in the implementation and the modalities of their overcoming. This was followed by the discussion on the expected impact of such initiatives at the EU level.

§ 1st speaker Mrs Anne-Marie Perret6:

 

Mrs Perret made an introduction about the ECI and defined it as a tool of participatory democracy at the European level. This instrument thus permits citizens to influence the European Commission’s political agenda. Even if it might seem easy to gather around 0.2% of EU citizens, there are many difficulties to overcome in launching an initiative. The way the ECI has been envisaged in the article 11 TEU and implemented in April 2012 consists of quite complex criteria which are difficult for the average citizens to understand – such as the competences of the European Commission, the number of signatures per states etc.

After this brief introduction, Mrs Perret shared with us her experiences with the ECI “Right 2 Water”. The purpose of this initiative is to withdraw water of the common market, because according to the representative of the ECI, water is not a tradable good as others but needs a fair price and special regulations. Water is a common good and a human right – recognized by the United Nations in 2010 – and thus must be protected from the capitalist approach and the speculation of multinational companies as well as the private distributors have to be under a certain control. 1 million of EU citizens do not have access to water and 8 million do not have water of a good quality. It is urgent to deal with this matter, especially in the context of increasing inequalities to the access of water and the problems with the providing public services.

Difficulties were many in launching the ECI “Right 2 Water” and those are directly linked to the implementation criteria of an ECI as described in the Regulation 211/2011. A massive organisation seems to be needed and this was set up for this initiative: at the top is the Citizens’ Committee, constituted by at least 7 citizens from 7 different Member States; a coordination committee of 40 persons organized by the European Federation of Public Service Union (EFPSU),

which supported the initiative; the 4 different partners7 and several supporting organisations8 were also informed and coordinated; and finally, numerous individuals who were promoting it as its “ambassadors” in different European countries.

 

We have to underline here that the ECI “Right 2 Water” – qualified by Mrs Perret herself as a pioneer initiative – has been described by Mrs Sharma during among other researchers as an example for the other ECIs.

Even if the campaign has been well organised by the Citizens’ Committee in question, according to Mrs Perret, it was difficult to be efficient since they had to explain first what an ECI is. One of the major problems is that people are quiet reluctant when speaking about the European Treaties. Moreover in France for example, people are quiet satisfied with their system of distribution of water and do not see the need for change. The key success of the campaign seem to be found in Germany where the question of the right to water was highly debated thanks to a humourist who helped the campaign – nearly 1,4 million of signatures out of 1,9 million were collected in Germany.

The purpose of the ECI was to change the European Commission’s stance regarding the privatisation of water and the impact of this ECI was real since Michel Barnier accepted to withdraw water from the directive about the concessions. The direct impact has been done even before the official verification of the signatures collected. The initiative validated, the Citizens’ Committee of the ECI “Right2Water” will undergo a hearing of the European Parliament and the European Commission and on the 20th of March 2014, the European Commission has to say if it will pursue the goals of this ECI or not.

But the work for the organizers does not seem to have finished as they would like to make a global impact and influence international trade agreements via pre-existing and newly created networks to improve the health conditions and the access to water all around the world.

 

§ 2nd speaker Mrs Madi Sharma:

Mrs Sharma, who is a member of the European Economic and Social Committee and also the representative of the ECI “Act4Growth”, insisted on the positive outcome of the success of the ECI “Right2Water”. Still, her energenitic speech remained very critical as she underlined the numerous obstacles encountered by the ECIs’ campaigners.

According to Mrs Sharma, millions of Europeans have never heard about the ECI because national officials do not promote this instrument since they do not want citizens to get involved in European affairs. The disengagement of citizens is due to the insufficient action of the politicians and the institutions. Even if in theory the purpose of the ECI is to give power to the people, in practice it is different because officials do not even seem to know what to do with the ECIs that have been successful.

The numerous engagements of Mrs Sharma made her involved in the process of the ECI as Citizen, entrepreneur, rapporteur and representative of the EESC. Her first approach towards this tool was optimistic and her team considered the collection of 1 million signatures as easy. But the time for the campaign is short and full of difficulties.

Even though every Citizen’s Committee has 12 months at its disposal to collect signatures after their registration, it took 3 months to set up the collection system and an IT expert was needed. Due to the over-complexity of the collection system the first ECIs launched had an exceptional extension to collect signatures. Furthermore, the difficulties to sign an ECI – with the need to give personal and official information like passport number9 – make individuals worry about data safety.

Finally, a successful campaign needs some important funds and staff in order to make a clear and effective communication, to meet Medias, to entertain social Medias etc. The preparation work before launching an ECI is quiet significant. This is why Mrs Sharma concluded on the role of the EESC to help and support ECIs since they are representatives of the “civil society”. In order to give to this instrument the capacity to change the EU, the EESC is bringing a more “citizen-friendly” approach which is necessary in order to correct the obstacles made by the European Commission.

2nd Panel:

This panel focused on the points of view of two European institutions and the ECI’s impact on the EU’s political agenda. Our two speakers, Mrs Kurpisz and Mr Häfner examined the institutional progress of an ECI and the central role of the European institutions. They also considered the current work the European Commission and European Parliament with regard to those ECIs that have been accepted and their relations with the different Citizens’ Committees.

 

§ 3rd speaker Mrs Olga Kurpisz:

 

Mrs Olga Kurpisz as a Policy Officer of the General Institutional Issues Unit at the Secretariat General of the EC and an expert of the ECI started her speech by summarising the elements of the first panel. She explained that according to the Lisbon Treaty, the ECI is an invitation to propose legislation to the European Commission according to the competences of the EU given by the treaties. This tool based on the civil instruments of the Member States is the first one at a transnational scale.

Mrs Kurpisz continued on with a brief sum up of the procedure underlining that if an ECI is successful in the signature collection, the Commission has to respond within 3 months and set up a meeting with the organisers of the ECI. The officer admitted that it is a short period to analyse the consequences, the impacts of the propositions that have been made since it requires serious studies and impact assessments. Regarding for example the initiative “Right2Water”, there are several legal propositions made in only one initiative, and therefore it seems more difficult to answer by simple “yes” or “no” within 3 months.

But once again she stressed that the word “inviting”, as mentioned in the Treaty does not oblige the Commission to answer positively to the successful initiatives and is free to decide whether it will pursue the ideas or not. If the Commission responds positively, it has to propose a legislative act, according to the legislative procedure in conformity with the treaties. And Mrs Kurpisz acknowledged that the way the Commission will face the first ECIs will have a strong influence on future initiatives.

As an answer to the first panel, Mrs Kurpisz focused on the difficulties to collect data mentioned by both Mrs Sharma and Mrs Perret. Those difficulties could be explained by the pioneer character of the ECI; if it is a new tool for citizens it is also a new tool for the European Commission. The Commission is currently hosting all the initiatives on its own servers and provides technical assistance to the organisers. Thus, the organisers have to do with the system proposed by the Commission. It is a strong effort made by the institution as far as it is not foreseen in the Regulation 211/2011 that the European Commission should give this service.

 

§ 4th speaker Gerald Häfner:

 

Gerald Häfner, Member of the European Parliament began his speech by an introduction of his engagement in citizen initiatives at the national and international levels and his political involvement as a Member of the Bundestag but also as a Member of the European Parliament. His determination from the early beginning was in favour of Democracy, and according to him: “to improve democracy means to invest citizens”. This is the reason why he founded the association “Mehr Demokratie” which lobbies in Germany in favour of more citizens’ involvement in policymaking by introducing Participative and Direct Democracy on the federal level. “Mehr Demokratie” is today linked with the association “Democracy international” at the European level. According to Mr Häfner, it is really important to strengthen participatory democracy at the transnational level – not simply in the EU, but to try to involve all international organisations.

As an MEP he became rapporteur for the Regulation implementing the ECI and in that way tried to influence the Commission’s proposals in a “citizens friendly” approach – by asking to reduce the number of signatures needed to 300.000 and to make sure that the Commission follows some procedures too, like organising the hearing of the Citizens’ Committees in joint action with the European Parliament.

Mr Häfner also criticised the fact that there is not the same requirements in all the Member States concerning the data protection. In this context of data protection the different national legislations made the Regulation – and thus the procedure to launch an ECI – complicated: now there is an annex for the documents required in each country and they ask all different requirements which make the collection of signatures really difficult. According to him, due to those differences, 11 million of EU citizens cannot participate to the ECI process, so he urged for a common legislation which will allow all citizens to participate.

Even though he acknowledged that the ECI works, many problems are still persistent: the Commission did set up a server in Luxembourg, but there is still no legislation about it. Furthermore, at this state, there are still difficulties of communication between the organizers and people who have signed, so it is really necessary to have the possibility to inform citizens which have already participated, to inform them about the pursue of the ECI and to spread the information to other citizens. This remark has been immediately confirmed by Ms Perret who strengthened that it is impossible to join participants because their email addresses are inaccessible for campaigners. Another problem is the uncertainty about timeline because the starting point is determined by the Commission and not by the organisers. Actually, the starting point of signatures collection is the Commission’s approval for the registration, even though many of the ECIs are not fully prepared to start at this point and so loose to much precious time before they actually start to collect signatures.

Finally, when it comes to the European Parliament’s follow up of the initiative, there have been proposals about how the hearings should be done. According to Mr the Deputy Gerald Häfner, it is not enough to summon only 3 representatives of the Citizens’ Committee in question, but all the 7 members should be invited. Hearings will be held by the European Parliament Committee in charge – which will be decided by the President of the European parliament, but the Petition’s Committee will be involved as well. After the hearing, the European Commission will publish its opinion.

In conclusion, Mr Häfner underlined that the very existence of this tool is already a legal success, because of its existence – its implementation is the result to a long struggle – since such an instrument can influence the agenda setting and the legislation on the European level, even if it is not a binding instrument. The ECI’s further development ought to be followed up as the Regulation will be revised in 2015.

Questions:10

- How does a campaign take place? What are strategies to promote an ECI? Do you target any specific EU Member States?

 

Mrs Perret:

We do not choose to target specific countries but instead address ourselves to all the EU member states in order to reach a maximum of EU citizens. Basically, it is a campaign and to run a campaign, you need financial capacities that will allow supporting the ECI.

Mrs Sharma:

We do focus on several States and this why we try to engage people all around Europe to promote our campaign but it is also why the Citizens’ Committees must be very active in order to be involved in 7 countries at least.

Mr Anastopoulos Takis former official of the European Commission and representative of the ECI “Invest in education” exposed his difficulties to launch this ECI and to get started with the campaign. The key aspect – and the most difficult task – seems to be creating a network in order to run the campaign efficiently. Which impact for citizens? The ECI has been introduced to the Treaty in in response to the democratic deficit of the EU. European institutions must be aware of the significant impact, i.e. the considerable frustration they would cause among EU citizens if they refused successful ECIs.

Mrs Perret:

Yes, the Commission’s power to decline an ECI is granted by the Lisbon Treaty, but at which cost? Refusing an ECI would have a real negative impact among citizens at the strict opposite of what people expected from this tool. It is a new instrument whose handling requires a high degree of responsibility. Concerning “Right2Water” a rejection by the Commission would strongly impact many sectors. The aim is to have an EU legislation about this topic and this is not a utopia. There is a clear need for better coordination and communication between organisers, the European Parliament and the European Commission in order to handle this new tool.

Mr Häfner:

It is not the Commission that ought to be criticised, but the Treaty. I think that the Commission has been very helpful. Current Regulation is the result of a political compromise, and it will be further improved. Such an instrument has not to be reduced to the aim of legislation, maybe in addition to a better regulation; but we do need to think about how the Treaty can be improved in a democratic way (i.e. in a constitutional debate). That is the real aim. But again the Commission has been very constructive.

 

To Mrs Perret: daily basis of leading an ECI? How did you proceed to reach the One million goal?

I regret the poor impact of the initiative’s communication campaign: it shows the limits of the exercise. We were pioneers with all out weaknesses. Maybe the POV adopted was the one of trade unionists, maybe this was problematic. This could explain the relatively low level of signatures collected in France, especially among young people. Yes, we could have made more. However, at least many questions have been raised around the ECI. It could also be a reflection for the ETUC.

Hacking issues about online data collection?

Olga Kurpisz:

The system’s security is similar to the one used for banking data, so it is improbable that this data base will be hacked. This system is really costly. And as we know, there is a price for data on the black market. Indeed there is a conflict between heavy and costly system to prevent criminality and data abuse vs. a light, easily accessible but less safe system.

What about the involvement of MEPs in ECIs and their role in ECI campaigns? Would it be possible to link politicians and citizens in one same ECI?

Mr Häfner:

The ECI has been created for citizens, not for those who already have the opportunity and the means to be heard – such as politicians like MEPs. What is expected in each country – e.g. by trade unions – is never reached, so it’s not really about the organisations which have launched the ECI, but about citizens. The idea is to give citizens the possibility to get involved or at least to trigger a discussion that will generate support. But for the moment the ECI is too a bureaucratic instrument and there is a lack of promotion of the ECI campaigns in order to make them known to the European citizens. Some ECIs have been launched by politicians, but the tool has not been designed for them, it is for citizens.

“This is a baby” – so the learning process about how to handle this tool has just started. We need to create a culture where citizens understand the importance of getting involved.

Post-conference analysis:

A democratic tool used by organised citizens due to the difficulties to launch an ECI:

The European Union is facing a crisis, and this crisis does not only touch its financial markets and its economy but also its political sphere. The often described democratic deficit remains an important issue and especially on the eve of the European elections, and the EU’s lack of legitimacy is on everyone lips. The “desecration of the elections”11 might be linked with the desecration of the role of citizens. The feeling of their own disempowerment among EU citizens clearly has to be tackled if the gap between them and their institutions is to be overcome. It is with this purpose: to bring citizens and EU institutions closer together and thus renew the EU’s legitimacy, that the European Citizens’ Initiative has been included in the Lisbon Treaty and implemented by the Regulation 211/2011. Thereby the first transnational instrument of “participatory democracy” was created in the EU in order to enable citizens to be politically active within the European framework. As underlined by our speakers, this tool has the potential to influence the political agenda of the EU. It is clear though that the ECI is not a direct legislative proposal but according to the article 11 of the Treaty on European Union, it is “the initiative of inviting the European Commission” to propose a legislative act. We will come back to the power of the European Commission when discussing the role of this institution. In any case, the impact of the ECI on the political agenda is real as the tool has already had EU citizens trigger bottom-up debates on the European level.

 

But to do so, the Citizens’ Committee had to overcome several obstacles. Let us sum up the main difficulties mentioned by our speakers and their experiences before we analyse what those difficulties meant for the organisation of an ECI. All our speakers acknowledged that the launch of an ECI requires important efforts due to numerous difficulties. First of all the need to make sure that the initiative is respecting the competences of the EU implies juridical knowledge about the European political and institutional framework, a knowledge that not every citizen has acquired. The linguistic skills in order to fully understand and to be understood might be another barrier among a large number of our fellow citizens. Linked directly and indirectly to the first two obstacles, the huge costs generated by an efficient campaign – translation, expertise, communication, web site etc. – are a very important practical criterion depriving most Europeans from the possibility to launch an ECI. The complexity of the process might also discourage many citizens who would wish to initiate a debate in order to influence the European political agenda. In fact, many criteria linked to the signatures collection are real difficulties in the eyes of the organisers: the required number of signatures per Member States; the short time available to collect signatures and to campaign; the difficulties for committed citizens to sign, linked to the different requirements by every Member States concerning the identification of the signatures; the complexity of the online data collection system etc. Last but not least, national as well as European politicians have failed in communicating about and thus promoting the ECI. Many EU citizens are therefore still oblivious to their new increased potential of exercising influence. Moreover this lack of communication makes campaign work more difficult, as the organisers of an ECI first need to explain the tool itself before they can actually start to solicit support from citizens for their ECI; thereby losing precious time.

 

As it has been explained by Mrs Kurpisz, the ECI is a new tool accompanied by a range of obstacles, not all of which might have been anticipated. Launching an ECI requires courage, even audacity and will demand huge efforts by the Citizens’ Committees in order to fully understand how to campaign for one’s goal. Thus, even if our speakers emphasised the central role of citizens in the process of an ECI, it seems obvious in view of all these difficulties that this tool has not been well designed for proposals made by any citizen of the EU, but only by really well organised citizens on the European level.

Regarding the structure of a Citizens’ Committee, the speech of Mrs Perret was very instructive: the ECI “Right2Water” relied on a network of numerous partners and has been launched with full support from the trade union “the European Federation of Public Service Union” – whose current president is Mrs Perret. One of the ECIs that have managed so far to reach the number of signatures needed is based on a solid and extensive network on the European level and works with partners in every Member State. Our hypothesis in this context is that the ECI has been implemented, less in order to directly empower EU citizens but more to enhance the creation of European networks – as an aggregation of associations, lobbies, trade unions etc. at the European level – in order to create European representatives with whom the European institutions might be able to discuss. This assumption can be consolidated by looking at the acknowledgement of the Commission’s Officer who recognised a difference between small and large organisers and the Commission’s will to have ECIs displaying a certain representativeness. However, our critique does not undermine the sincerity of the members of the European institutions, i.e. their willingness to involve citizens in European policy making, but it tries to shed light on the fact that those citizens are somehow selected by the process of campaigning. In this regard we also think it interesting to underline that Mrs Sharma was cumulating two positions, being both Member of the EESC and a representative of a Citizens’ Committee. And even if Mr Häfner stressed that the ECI has been created for citizens, and not for those who already have the opportunity and the means to be heard we think that – regarding the current design of the tool – the biggest impact of the ECI might be seen in a kind of institutionalisation of “civil society” which indirectly empowers the people through the prism of the new representatives of this “civil society”. Furthermore, this indirect involvement of EU citizens in the European institutional framework also impacts the framework itself. We therefore turn our attention now to the link between the ECIs and the European institutions.

 

The link between the ECIs and European institutions:

One striking aspect concerning the relation between the ECI and the European institutions is the central role of the European Commission in the life of an ECI. From the early beginning of the process, the European Commission is deciding whether or not the ECI respects the competences of the EU and thus, the Commission decides about its legal basis. It is interesting to point out that the Regulation 211/2011 did not enable the Court of Justice which is used to deal with legal basis conflicts but the European Commission. Some academics underline that the blurred definition of this first check on “European values” put forward by the Regulation might leave room to political interpretation of the legal basis requirement12. The European Commission continues to play a central role beyond the one year campaign of signatures collection: the institution is then to decide if the claim made by an ECI that reached the million signatures required will be followed by political acts – i.e. an official legislative proposal – or not. This second decision by the European Commission gives rise to substantial uncertainties regarding the future of an ECI. Bearing in mind all the difficulties we have exposed above, those uncertainties might be one of the strongest barriers for citizens in their decision to launch an ECI or not. It also creates inequalities and a certain degree of subordination of the Citizens’ Committees toward the Commission as the future of their initiative depends entirely on the institution’s decision.

The political power of the European Commission over the ECIs as well as the impact on future initiatives is significant and was not left unacknowledged by Mrs Kurpisz in her speech. However the European Commission proved that it has understood its role and its responsibility. This can be illustrated by the impact of the ECI “Right2Water” as it managed to make the European Commission withdraw a directive. At the same time the Commission Officer said that the 3 months accorded by the Regulation was too short for an in-depth analysis of an ECI. As the previous example showed such an analysis might be feasible between the moment of an ECI’s registration and the end of its campaign, thus the Commission might in fact have more than a year to analyse the ECIs that the institution itself had approved on their legal basis. According to Mrs Sharma, officials do not even seem to know how to deal with successful ECIs which might explain current hesitancy.

As Mr Häfner recalled though, we should attenuate the critics towards the European Commission as the tool is new for the institutions too. Furthermore, as every other institution, the Commission is obliged to respect and cannot bypass the Treaty in order to be more “citizen-friendly”. Thus, the European Commission increases its efforts on the limits of legality in order to help Citizens’ Committees: for example the Commission is currently hosting all the initiatives on its own servers and provides technical assistance for the organisers. This must be acknowledged as a strong effort made by the institution since it is not written in the Regulation 211/2011 that the European Commission should give this service. The European Commission services are also confronted by high difficulties with a lack of means to deal with the ECIs; in an aparte according to Mrs Kurpisz the Commission lack of funds and staff focusing on the ECI limits its possibility to help and to be fully efficient with the initiatives. Furthermore a lot of ECIs organisers have acknowledged the useful help of the European Commission services.

The European Commission is not the only institution in relation with Citizens’ Committees and the ECI in general. The European Economic and Social Committee has proved its determination to support ECIs’ organisers by hosting and helping numerous ECIs. But the EESC cannot solve all the problems of the current ECIs as their management goes beyond its power. The involvement of this institution regarding the ECI is indeed very interesting: the role of the EESC to help and support ECIs is legitimised since the Citizens’ Committees are considered as representatives of “civil society”. The EESC, constituting an important link between “civil society” and the European institutions, gains in legitimacy and grows in importance by choosing to promote this new democratic tool. Here we might see a strategy of this institution wishing to increase its role in the European framework. The analysis of the EESC’s role, of its legitimacy and of its power within the European institutional framework should be deepened with regard to the ECI. At this stage, we can already state that all the European institutions try to have a “citizen-friendly” approach towards the ECI as far as the tool increases legitimacy.

The European Parliament too has positioned itself in favour of the ECI. Even if the European Parliament has not yet had the possibility to officially interact with the Citizens’ Committees which have reached the one million signatures, Mr Häfner stressed that the European Parliament had a “citizen-friendly” approach during the negotiations on the Regulation implementing the ECI, and we might expect a welcoming attitude toward the first ECIs. Given that the two first successful ECIs – i.e. “Right2Water” and “One of Us” – are quite politicised one can look forward to the debates and new forms of interaction within the hemicycle during the first hearings13. As Mr Häfner emphasised that the ECI is not a tool for politicians, it will be interesting to follow up on the future development of the relations between MEPs and the ECI. We might expect them to promote the tool and even support officially some politically orientated ECIs.

 

Finally, we would like to underline that the ECI does not only have an impact on the European level, but that it also has influences and interrelates with the national and local levels. The example of the ECI “Right2Water” and its success in Germany is very telling in the context of water privatisation which was already a topic in Germany in many communities where debates were held thanks to local participatory democracy. It would be really interesting to examine whether the ECI’s success in Germany is due to the initiative’s subject or rather to the culture of participatory democracy, and to analyse if an interrelated multilevel participatory democracy system would be more efficient and thus necessary to improve the ECI. This question should be asked in all Member States equally in order to understand the particularities of the various, heterogeneous political cultures within the EU and to increase ECIs’ campaigners’ efficiency, but also to facilitate the exchange between the European institutions and national and regional expectations.

If the national and local levels are obviously linked to the ECI in that they are part of the EU, the ECI seems to be used as well in order to reach the international level beyond the EU. Mrs Perret underlined that the impact of her ECI on the EU is not the ultimate aim of the campaign, but in fact might be a mean to spread the information and try to impact people and institutions beyond Europe. The determination of “Right2Water” to continue its engagement beyond EU territory is strengthened by its recognition by the United Nation. However, we do not believe that this engagement is due to the subject exclusively, and if we look at Mr Häfner’s ambition to promote Participatory democracy in every international organisation, we might see that the ECI can also be used as a springboard to develop ideas and projects globally in order to have an impact on institutions all around the world.

Conclusion:

The interesting speakers and their open discussion during this conference demonstrated that the ECI is a new tool of great importance and that it has considerable potential. As Mr Häfner emphasised, the ECI was created as part of a long and ongoing process in which various European associations and representatives have been involved. The real impact of the ECI thus concerns its very existence. It has a legal impact, recognising participatory democracy at a transnational level.

This tool is not yet perfect and the aim of empowering EU citizens is far from being achieved. But like every democratic instrument, the ECI is and has to be improved, as the many critics underlined. “We were the pioneers” said Mrs Perret and this new tool involving new stakeholders is constantly being improved by all those involved. However, the keys of participatory democracy should not only be in the hands of an elite and we must never forget for whom the ECI has been created. The key to its success therefore lies in the gradual involvement of every EU citizen, by constantly promoting the tool and forging easier access to it.

We would like to underline one more time that the multiple efforts of committed citizens during the difficult campaigns must be followed by actions from the European institutions if they do not want to create too much frustration and widen the gap between citizens and institutions. It will be especially interesting to follow the first hearings of the Citizens’ Committees – “One of Us” and “Right2Water” – by the European Parliament and the European Commission, and to see whether, on 20 March 2014, the European Commission will decide to pursue the ECI’s goals or not.

It would be most interesting to continue to monitor the development of this tool in the long run, and especially to examine the revision of the ECI Regulation planned for 2015, as the European institutions have proposed to review the procedures and adapt them every 3 years. As Mr Vahlas, Professor at the Strasbourg Institute of Political Studies, said during the closing words of the conference, some questions still remain unanswered concerning this tool, so the ECI needs to be monitored in future. Thus a deeper analysis is needed, research on this tool and its impact needs to be promoted, and the hypotheses we have proposed here will have to be reviewed and adapted in the light of broader analysis.

However, there is reason for optimism, as some of the campaigns have already had an impact at European level, and this may have repercussions and create further interaction at the local, national and international levels. Last but not least, the ECI’s potential might increase gradually depending on the EU institutions’ reactions, but also as a result of EU citizens’ commitment. As Mrs Sharma underlined when she quoted Gandhi, “You must be the change you want to see.”

 

About the speakers:

- Mr Henri Malosse, President of the European Economic and Social Committee

 

- Mrs Anne-Marie Perret, representative of the Citizens’ Committee: “Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity!” Launched in May 2012, this initiative is one of three that have succeeded in collecting over one million signatures. Anne-Marie Perret is also President of the European Federation of Public Service Unions.

 

- Mrs Madi Sharma, active member of the European Economic and Social Committee and representative of the European Citizens’ Initiative “Act 4 Growth” launched in June 2013 in order to develop female entrepreneurship as a strategy for sustainable economic growth in Europe.

 

- Mrs Olga Kurpisz, Policy Officer of the General Institutional Issues Unit at the Secretariat General and an expert on the ECI.

 

- Mr Gerald Häfner, MEP of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance since 2009, and member of the Committee of Legal Affairs and of the Committee of Constitutional Affairs. He was the PETI rapporteur for the European Regulation on the European Citizens' Initiative. As the chairperson of Democracy International, he is well known for his efforts to promote participatory democracy.

 

- Mr Romain Gaillard, the moderator, is a student at the Strasbourg Institute of Political Studies, a member of the European Citizenship Group and researcher on the European Citizens’ Initiative.

 

Partners and acknowledgements:

The European Citizenship Group would like to thank

the speakers, the supervisors, the partners and the public for making this conference possible.

European Economic and Social Committee

Strasbourg Institute of Political Studies

Master 2 Politiques Européennes IEP Strasbourg

Bureau de la Région Alsace



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