The European citizens’ initiative was an innovation in the Lisbon Treaty that gave people the right to demand EU action on a particular subject provided they collect a million signatures. However, after three years no initiative has yet led to a new legislative proposal. The European Commission is preparing a review but MEPs already adopted on 28 October several ideas on how to improve the process. We spoke with report author György Schöpflin, a Hungarian member of the EPP group.
When the citizens' initiative was launched about three years ago, it was hoped that it would lead to Europeans becoming more involved in decision-making. Where are we now?
To my knowledge, there have been 51 initiatives launched, but not a single one has attained its goal: legislative action. I have talked to many people in civil society, who say this whole thing is useless, because the Commission will simply not accept any initiatives. But more down to earth people are saying that the Commission is not doing a very good job. However, there are hopes that with the help of Parliament - with my report - we can actually turn this thing around.
The Commission has been very legal, rather than political. I don’t think they understand that this is a way of involving people. It takes a lot of time to get a million signatures, but it means that there are a million people that get involved in some way. Every time they reject an initiative, which has collected a million signatures, it creates a million eurosceptics.
How do you think the process can be improved? Some campaigns reported problems with different data collection requirements in member states and others say that one year for collecting a million signatures is too short.
I am quite ready to listen to an argument that a year is not enough, but, unfortunately that is in the treaty and that can’t change, likewise the million signatures. I think that the general idea was that there should be some obstacles, because of a fear that there would be lots of frivolous initiatives.
I accept that it is not an easy instrument, but I think it can be made to work. The main issue is that it is much more expensive to launch an initiative than people have thought. The ones that have gone some way have had some backers, but then there is a genuine fear that big business will move in.
How do you see the role of the Parliament? Should it give more support to initiatives? Should it put more pressure on the Commission to follow up?
My own position is that there should be a hearing for every initiative that reaches a million signature. A second point is which committee in the Parliament should hold the hearing, as the committee affected by the initiative is likely to be hostile.
Parliament committees should judge the initiatives as objectively as they can, they should be neutral. If it is actually the will of a million people that there should be legislation, then they should be taken seriously, even if it happens to be on an issue that many people wouldn’t like. There is a political element here: there is a number of right-wing initiatives and there is a number of left-wing initiatives. I don’t think we should pick and choose. If they fulfil the criteria, they should be allowed to go forward.
One particular case is the Stop TTIP initiative. It collected well over a million signatures, but the Commission said it doesn’t comply with the criteria. What do you think of that?
Legally, I think the Commission is in the right, because under the existing procedure anything that is a current process cannot become a subject of a citizens' initiative. Secondly, and that is more complicated, a European citizens' initiative procedure cannot stop, reverse or negate legislation. I think that should be changed. It should be possible for an initiative to ask for an existing directive to be overturned.
It has to be on an EU-related subject that falls within the scope of the European Commission’s powers
A citizens committee committee has to be set up made up from at least seven people from seven different countries
The initiative has to be registered with the European Commission
One million signatures from at least seven member states have to be collected within a year