28 March 2012
Following the passage of the 2009 Lisbon Treaty, the EU enshrined the right for the 500 million citizens of Europe to directly petition the European Commission.
If 1,000,000 people signed a petition, the Commission would be forced to begin the legislative process - or give a substantive justification for its failure to act.
This petition mechanism is called the ‘European Citizens’ Initiative’ (European jargon warning: initiative here means “to give the right to initiate legislation”) and comes into force on 1st April 2012 – just four days from now.
This measure has long been advocated by those who see the ‘democratic deficit’ – the large distance between the EU and its citizens – as a threat to the EU’s future growth and credibility in the eyes of the general public. In principle it is largely uncontroversial – voters never object to the idea of referenda on issues – and has been hailed by many civil society actors such as campaign groups and charities as a major step in increasing European transparency and accessibility.
It has, however, prompted concerns amongst politicians and civil servants.
The EU is a complex and at times sclerotic machine whose three institutions must take account of the views of 28 member states (including Croatia from 2013) with diverging views on policy matters with those of the more than 750 Members of the European Parliament who in turn must balance their own personal and party political interests and with those of their constituents.
Each legislative package that comes through the European system takes months of blood, sweat, tears and compromise after compromise.
The European Citizens’ Initiative poses a direct threat to this established process.
During a brief trial of the initiative process in December 2010, Greenpeace were able to quickly gather over over a million signatures calling for a ban on genetically modified (GM) crops until an "independent, ethical, scientific body to research the impact of GM crops and determine regulation" had been established. Since this time, the Commission has not authorised any future GM crops experiments. Acknowledging receipt of the petition, the European Commissioner responsible for GM research John Dalli saying: "there is a political will to listen to everybody and one million signatures is a voice that we should listen to".
On a hypothetical level, further problems exist for the initiative.
An petition calling, for example, for the mutual recognition of gay marriages across the EU would likely draw opposition from Catholic countries such as Poland. And Malta Similarly, an initiative demanding EU increased EU funding for the teaching of minority languages would likely be blocked by the governments of Slovakia and Romania, both of whom have substantial Hungarian minorities demanding additional autonomy. German MEP Martin Kastler has already declared his intention to launch a petition calling for EU laws to outlaw shops trading on a Sunday.
To prevent impasses like this occurring, the Commission has announced tough regulations governing the way in which European Citizens’ Initiatives must be initiated and administrated.
The regulations vary by country but require individuals to sign up not just with their name, country and address but also asking citizens to provide their ID or passport numbers, as well as their date and city of birth.
Other complex requirements include the need for petitions to include signatures from residents of more than seven EU countries and to ensure they are compliant with existing laws, regulations on the way petition forms must be designed and stringent data protection requirements.
The European Citizens’ Initiative provides an exciting opportunity for businesses and campaign groups to directly influence EU policy and their profile across the organisation’s 28 member states.
Such complex requirements, however, mean that only a scarce few petitions are likely to succeed. Organisations interested in deploying Citizens’ Initiatives will need to have substantial resources and support both at a grassroots and professional level.
Bell Pottinger Public Affairs can provide that professional support; guiding you through the process of devising, launching and managing an initiative—ensuring you are armed with regulatory and logistical advice to ensure it is a success. Our team of in-house consultants are ideally placed to help you monitor emerging political trends across the EU, influence key decision-makers and harness the power of digital public affairs tools.
For more information on how Bell Pottinger may be able to assist you, please contact Daniel Hamilton on +32 (0) 2 235 8619, +44 (0) 7990 682 119 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org .