The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is an important instrument of participatory democracy in the European Union. Thanks to this measure, one million EU citizens residing in at least one quarter of the Member States can invite the Commission to submit a proposal for a legal act which they consider to be required in order to implement the EU Treaties. The ECI gives EU citizens a right similar to the right of initiative of the European Parliament and the Council. Since the application of Regulation (EU) No 211/2011, which established detailed procedures and conditions for the ECI, two dozen initiatives have been attempted, of which two thirds have been successfully submitted to the Commission.
Citizens’ initiatives are instruments available to citizens in a majority of the Member States, be it at national, regional or local level, although they differ considerably in scope and procedure. The concept of EU citizenship, from which the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) was derived, was first introduced in the Maastricht Treaty (1.3.1). Back in 1996, in the run-up to the Amsterdam Intergovernmental Conference, the Austrian and Italian foreign ministers proposed that a right to submit such initiatives be introduced alongside the right to petition the European Parliament, but the proposal was not retained by the Conference. Provisions for a citizens’ initiative very similar to the current regime were originally included in the draft Constitutional Treaty (Article 47(4)). Although the Convention Praesidium rejected the inclusion of these provisions in the final text, concerted efforts on the part of civil society organisations allowed them to be maintained. Following the failure of the ratification process for the Constitutional Treaty, similar provisions were reinserted during the drafting of the Lisbon Treaty.
Today, the right to submit a citizens’ initiative is enshrined under Title II TEU (provisions on democratic principles). Article 11(4) TEU establishes the basic framework for that right, and Article 24(1) sets out the general principles for a regulation defining concrete procedures and detailed conditions. The proposal for a regulation was the result of an extensive consultation carried out in the framework of a Commission Green Paper (COM(2009) 0622). Negotiation and settlement of the final text took several months — a draft proposal was submitted to Parliament and the Council on 31 March 2010, and a political agreement was reached on 15 December 2010, enabling formal adoption of the text by Parliament and the Council on 16 February 2011. As Regulation (EU) No 211/2011, it entered into force on 1 April 2011. Owing to a number of technical adaptations needed at Member State level to establish a streamlined verification process, the ECI Regulation only became applicable a year later. By 1 April 2015, and by the same date every three years thereafter, the Commission is required to present a report on the application of the ECI Regulation with a view to its possible revision.
The right to submit an ECI should be clearly separated from the right to submit a petition, a procedure from which it differs in many substantial respects. Petitions can be submitted by EU citizens or by natural or legal persons having their residence in the EU (2.1.4), and must address matters that fall within a field of activity of the EU and affect the petitioner directly. Petitions are addressed to Parliament in its capacity as the direct representative of the citizens at EU level. An ECI is a direct call for a specific EU legal instrument, must abide by specific rules in order to qualify, and is ultimately addressed to the Commission, which alone among the institutions has the right to submit legislative proposals. In this respect, the ECI is similar in nature to the right of initiative conferred on Parliament (Article 225 TFEU) and on the Council (Article 241 TFEU).
As a minimum organisational structure is needed for an initiative of such magnitude, the first step in the creation of an ECI is the establishment of an organising committee, called a ‘citizens’ committee’. This committee must be formed by at least seven people who are residents of at least seven different Member States (but not necessarily of different nationalities) and who are of age to vote in the European elections. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) may participate, but cannot be counted for the purpose of reaching the minimum number of citizens required to form a committee. The committee must name a representative and a substitute to act as contact people for the specific ECI.
Before it can start collecting statements of support from citizens, the committee must register the initiative with the Commission. This involves submitting a document giving the title and subject-matter and a short description of the initiative, outlining the legal basis proposed for legal action and providing information on the committee members and on all sources of support and funding for the proposed initiative. The organisers may provide more detailed information and other material, such as a draft of the proposed legislative document, in an annex.
The Commission has two months to decide whether to register the proposed initiative. It will not be registered if the procedural requirements have not been met or if it falls outside the framework of the Commission’s powers to submit a proposal for a legal act for the purpose of implementing the Treaties. Registration will also be refused if the initiative is manifestly frivolous, abusive or vexatious, or is contrary to the values of the EU as set out in Article 2 TEU. The Commission’s decision is open to judicial or extrajudicial redress. Registered initiatives are published on the Commission’s web portal.
Once the initiative is registered, the organisers can start collecting statements of support. This must be done within 12 months. Statements of support can be collected on paper or electronically. If they are collected electronically, the online collection system must first be certified by the relevant national authorities. Detailed rules for the technical specifications of online collection systems are laid down in a Commission implementing regulation (Regulation (EU) No 1179/2011).
Regardless of whether the statements of support are collected on paper or electronically, the same data requirements apply for the purpose of verification. These requirements, defined at Member State level, are spelled out in Annex III to Regulation (EU) No 211/2011. Some Member States (Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Estonia, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Slovakia and the UK) do not require signatories of statements of support to provide personal identification documents or numbers. All other Member States do require such identification. The annex specifies, for each Member State in which they are required, the types of personal identification document that may be used.
In order to be considered by the Commission, the ECI must gather one million statements of support within 12 months. Also, in order for it to qualify in a given Member State, the number of signatories in that Member State must be at least 750 multiplied by the number of MEPs elected from that Member State. In this way, the minimum number of signed statements of support is determined according to the same system of degressive proportionality used to determine the distribution of seats in the European Parliament among the Member States.
Having collected the necessary number of statements of support from a sufficient number of Member States, the organisers must submit them to the competent national authorities, which are tasked with certifying the statements of support compiled by the Commission on the basis of information communicated by the Member States. The authorities given this task are typically interior ministries, electoral commissions or population registries. The national authorities have three months to certify the statements of support, but are not required to authenticate the signatures.
At this stage, the organisers are asked to submit relevant certificates from the national authorities concerning the number of statements of support, and must provide information about funding received from any source, abiding by the thresholds set out in Regulation (EC) No 2004/2003 on the regulations governing political parties at European level and the rules regarding their funding. In principle, contributions above EUR 500 must be declared.
Having received the submission, the Commission is required to publish it without delay in a register, and to receive the organisers at the appropriate level to allow them to explain the details of their request. After an exchange of views with the Commission, the organisers are given an opportunity to present the initiative at a public hearing held at the European Parliament. The hearing is organised by the committee responsible for the subject-matter of the ECI (Rule 197a of Parliament’s Rules of Procedure).
Several organisations had attempted to launch initiatives similar to the ECI before this instrument was adopted in law and detailed procedures were established. In 2007 the European Disability Forum launched one of the first such pilot initiatives, in which it claimed to have collected 1.2 million signatures. After the ECI Regulation was adopted in 2010, but before it had entered into force, Greenpeace claimed to have received 1 million signatures calling for a moratorium on GMO crops. However, neither of these initiatives can be counted as an ECI. Since 1 April 2012, about two dozen ECIs have been launched. There are currently nine initiatives registered, now at the collection phase. Two initiatives, which reached the requisite number of signatures (Right2Water and One of Us), were submitted to the Commission. Right2Water invites the Commission to ‘propose legislation implementing the human right to water and sanitation as recognised by the United Nations, and promoting the provision of water and sanitation as essential public services for all’. One of Us asks the EU ‘to end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health’. Parliament organised hearings with the representatives of each initiative, held on 17 February and 10 April 2014 respectively and involving several of its committees (those dealing with the environment, the internal market, research and legal affairs as well as the Committee on Petitions). In the meantime, the Commission provided a reply setting out its legal and political conclusions with regard to the Right2Water initiative.
To date, the Commission has refused to register 18 initiatives, in most cases on the grounds that the requested legislative initiative falls outside the scope of its competencies.
The ECI instrument has been of major interest to Parliament. On 7 May 2009, before the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty, Parliament adopted a resolution containing a detailed proposal for the implementation of the ECI. After the entry into force of the Treaty, Parliament was actively involved in the negotiation of the ECI Regulation through its four rapporteurs (Zita Gurmai and Alain Lamassoure on behalf of the Committee on Constitutional Affairs, and Diana Wallis and Gerald Häfner on behalf of the Committee on Petitions). Parliament contributed successfully to making the ECI a more accessible and citizen-friendly instrument of participatory democracy. It obtained, inter alia, a reduction in the minimum number of Member States from which the statements of support have to come, from one third, as originally proposed, to one quarter; it insisted that the verification of admissibility must be carried out at the pre-registration stage; and it pressed for the provisions allowing all EU citizens and residents, regardless of nationality, to be granted the right to sign an ECI.
A list of the competent national authorities may be found at: http://ec.europa.eu/citizens-initiative/public/authorities-verification
OJ C 212 E, 5.8.2010, p. 99.