Exclusive interview with Maros Sefcovic, interinstitutional relations and administration commissioner
EU could be trend-setter as ECI will become “normal” part of life
By Gaspard Sebag | Thursday 29 March 2012
Interinstitutional Relations and Administration Commissioner Maros Sefcovic believes that the launch of the European citizens’ initiative (ECI) can help toward the creation of a genuine European political space. In the long term, he sees this new mode of interaction between citizens and decision makers as becoming “normal”. Sefcovic warns that the Commission will, in any case, keep its right of initiative and prevent initiatives that go against the general European interest from moving ahead. The EU could become a trend-setter in his opinion, with replica ECIs potentially being designed at national level.
You have been very active in giving the ECI publicity. What does the Commission stand to gain from this ‘citizen’ development?
I believe it will be mutually beneficial, first and foremost, for the citizens and for the Commission and EU institutions on the other side. We will advance a little bit the creation of the genuine European political space. Until now even the EP elections have been very much dominated by national topics. I hope the ECI will get people more interested in what the European Union does, what it stands for.
You yourself said that even if European citizens collect the required one million signatures and their demand pertains to a subject where the EU has the legal authority to act, the Commission still “can refuse it”. Do you fear this may be a source of frustration for citizens?
We have to be prepared for that. Even though the rules are very clear, you can still not avoid a situation where we will have an initiative that will be focused on a very narrow topic, which could be very important for one million citizens but which could be not acceptable for or could have negative effects on 499 million citizens. It is very important to keep this institutional and legal balance from the treaties that also for the Commission to preserve its right of initiative.
What would you say to people who believe that the citizens’ initiative is not in fact for ‘normal’ citizens but rather for ‘organised’ and politically active ones - NGOs, lobbies, trade unions, politicians?
I hear that argument quite a lot but I cannot fully agree because we clearly insisted that what we need as a starting point is a committee of citizens. We need seven citizens coming from seven member states. Later on, when you have to look for support and collect one million signatures, if the NGOs or even the political parties or even lobby groups would support this, it still has to get the support of one million citizens. It is quite significant symbolism and gesture from the part of citizens.
Experts say it could last between three to five years from the time of registration of an initiative until the actual implementation of a legislative act proposed by the Commission. Is this length in sync with thedigital, instantaneous world of today?
We would need to explain how EU regulations are prepared. Two to three years is a regular duration for legislation to be proposed, discussed and approved. From one side, this initiative and the support for the potential legislation from the citizens is very important. From the other side, we have to make absolutely sure that what we do is right, because this will be the legislation, not for one million, but for 500 million citizens and 27 member states. We need to get it right. We always, when we legislate, try to do it through this so-called smart approach to legislation, meaning that we really go through public consultation, through impact assessment to legislate when we are absolutely sure that what we do has clear valued-added and would be to the benefit of the citizens. To jump over these stages could be detrimental to the quality of legislation. So, yes, it could take a while.
If you were to present a citizens’ initiative on a personal basis, not as a commissioner, what would it be?
I hope that the organisers will look at the areas that have real cross-European potential. Probably the most interested in this type of setting-of-agenda tool will be the young people. If I see how high the unemployment rates are in the member states, if I see that we still have some barriers in the recognition of diplomas, or barriers on the labour market, I would suspect that these would be the areas that could be interesting for young people and that could capture their imagination.
The ECI regulation is due to be revised regularly. What might be the first lessons learnt?
It is quite clear that the European citizens’ initiative will trigger a new quality of interactions between citizens and the EU institutions.
The second clear tendency would be that much of the interaction and much of the political debate will be transferred to the social media. They will become a new platform for gathering support for certain proposals, with the potential of getting across to millions very quickly as we have seen with the Arab spring.
I think we will also be able to convince the member states that we can make the procedure even more user-friendly. In some member states, organisers are a bit preoccupied with the way this verification procedure could work.
All this experience will be reflected in the revision in three years’ time.
Could the ECI be scrapped 20 years from now?
I really don’t think so because this is direct communication between citizens and decision makers and this is really where the political space will move in the future.
The citizens’ initiative will clearly generate a new wave of political ideas, a new approach to politics. It will generate even more interest than talk shows or classical press conferences ever could.
The ECI, in the future, will become a ‘normal’ part of our political life. I believe the kids who are today in school or high school will be using this tool to express their political interest in the same way as they use the social media to exchange information or photos.
Could the EU be a trend-setter?
In this particular case we really could be a trend-setter. Once the citizens will see how they can actually set the agenda I’m sure this will be replicated on the national level. In some member states and some Landers we already have this possibility.