European citizens’ initiative
“No miracle cure”
By Elise Mertens | Thursday 29 March 2012
“The European citizens’ initiative makes possible a new form of participatory democracy but we shouldn’t have unrealistic ambitions,” warned European Parliament President Martin Schulz, present alongside Marcos Sefcovic, commissioner for interinstitutional relations and administration, and Danish Foreign Minister Nicolai Wammen, at a 28 March joint press conference for the launch of the ECI at the start of April. “It will make the European Union even more democratic by giving citizens the opportunity to help set the European agenda but it is no miracle cure,” added the Danish minister.
The ECI is often presented as the best possible tool for giving citizens a greater say and remedying the EU’s democratic deficit. But it will not deal with all problems and not all citizens’ initiatives will be taken into account. “Citizens will be able to place their wishes on the agenda but there is no guarantee that all ECIs will end up as legislation. In any case, that is not the aim: the ECI is another means of asserting democracy but must not become an alternative to existing legislative processes,” commented Wammen. For Sefcovic, the measure will have the effect of giving fresh impetus to the European debate by creating a stronger political arena: “With one million signatures from at least seven states, European citizens are going to have to engage in cross-border discourse and discuss together what really counts for them”.
CITIZENS’ OR POLITICAL INITIATIVE?
The fact remains that one of the concerns voiced most often in the run-up to the launch of the measure is that ordinary citizens may be dispossessed of their new influence by lobbyists, large NGOs, members of parliament or the social partners. The citizens’ initiative could also be a back-door way for political players to bring their demands before the Commission: ideas are already flowing in the halls of the institutions, from an equal pay policy to the introduction of a financial transaction tax or the creation of a budget line for food aid. The commissioner is not concerned, however, because the organiser of the ECI is practically irrelevant: what counts is that the initiative has to earn the support of a million European citizens. So in his opinion there is no risk of citizens being sidelined from the process: “Although politicians sometimes have good ideas, they don’t always manage to implement them. With this level of popular support, it will be impossible to disregard a proposal. There will necessarily be a political debate”.
For now, at least, optimism reigns, as echoed in the comments by Joseph Daul (EPP, France): “1 April is an important day for direct democracy in Europe. We could even call it European Citizens’ Day”.