The introduction of the European Citizens’ Initiative will ask questions of the European Union institutions and test their commitment to bringing decision-making closer to citizens.
The ECI is, on paper at least, a challenge to the authority of the Euroepean Commission, which has always jealously guarded its right of initiative – the prerogative of deciding whether or not to bring forward legislative proposals.
An ECI is not binding on the Commission. Nevertheless, to ignore ECIs completely is not an option, so the Commission’s right of initiative is being weakened simply by the introduction of ECIs. How grave the damage is will emerge only in the coming months.
There are other difficulties. The Commission has been dealt a difficult hand: it is assigned the task of adjudicating on whether ECIs are acceptable or not. So an unelected body will decide what importance to attach to the wishes of the masses. The Commission will have the difficult task of managing public expectations that ECIs might offer them a real say in changing EU law.
Privately, Commission officials admit that they are nervous as to how they will handle dubious initiatives where they have no powers to legislate, such as Turkey’s EU membership bid.
The Commission has initially assigned only a small team of officials to deal with ECIs. Given the obligation to meet the deadlines set out under the ECI’s procedural rules, that could lead to problems. The Commission could be swamped with a large number of ECIs in the coming months.
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The ECI will also ask some difficult questions of the European Parliament, which is fond of pointing out that it is the one directly elected EU body. So how will it come to terms with this mechanism of direct democracy? For many MEPs, the dilemma is whether to embrace ECIs or to keep a distance. The Parliament has so far been ambivalent and slow to agree on procedures to give the organisers of initiatives a hearing.
On the other hand, the MEPs, being political animals, are likely to use ECIs for their own purposes, to press for legislation that they cannot initiate any other way. So, expect political groups and European political parties to organise their own ECIs. Arguably, they are very well placed, in EU-wide political organisations, to marshal the signatures required. The ECIs could yet turn into European Politicians’ Initiatives.
The member states will be quick to claim credit for ECIs, arguing that they are closing the gap between citizens and lawmakers. But there will be a downside. It may be, for instance, that the ECIs will be dominated by demagogues and extremists, who might form cross-border alliances that do not currently exist.
The national governments also risk raising expectations that they cannot meet. Although the Commission will have the harder task of assessing the merits of an ECI, the Council of Ministers might also have some difficulties if it wants to reject ECIs that the Commission responds to, but that member states do not support.