The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is not what it pretends to be. It is not a citizens’ initiative. It is not direct democracy. It is something very different. It is an agenda setting initiative, which remains subordinated to the political will of the European Union, in particular the European Commission, which is an authority with questionable democratic legitimacy.
This is a presentation I gave at the Europe House in London, on December 9, 2010. At that time the ECI was still in the making; it came into force only later, in April 2012. This part touches on three points: (1) The European Citizens’ Initiative and its relationship to direct democracy. (2) Experiences with agenda initiatives on the local and national level. (3) Possible effects of the ECI in practice.
Not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.
Article 11.4 (Treaty on European Union)
Part 2 contains an evaluation of the ECI practice so far and a brief reflection on the place of direct democracy in the European Union. (Go to Part2)
1 Democracy has different meanings and they are contested. For me democracy basically means the process of forming a society of free and equal individuals. We cannot be free, if others decide for us. Therefore we need the right and opportunity to directly participate in decision-making when decisions, that regulate our living together, have to be made. As an individual I cannot be free in an unfree society; collective freedom is the condition of individual freedom – and vice versa.
2 Modern direct democracy gives citizens the right to exercise democracy also between elections by voting on substantive issues. It is not the same as classical assembly democracy that was born in ancient Athens. However, people’s assemblies are a form of direct democracy. Originally modern direct democracy meant direct legislation by the people through the right of proposal (initiative) and rejection (referendum). This was a principal demand of the early workers movement in many countries, for example in Germany, Austria, and Finland.
3 There are two kinds of instruments: those controlled from above and those controlled by the citizens, procedures designed to empower representatives and procedures designed to empower citizens. Direct democracy empowers people, not governments.
4 A referendum is initiated by a group of citizens and gives the last word to the voters. They either adopt or reject a decision made by parliament. A referendum is an instrument for citizens.
A plebiscite is a public consultation controlled „from above“. It is the powers that be (the President, Prime Minister, Parliament) which decide when and on what subject the people will be asked to vote or give their opinion. Plebiscites give ruling politicians additional power over citizens.
The distinction between referendums and plebiscites is fundamental for a proper understanding of direct democracy. This distinction is frequently not made. For example, the vote on the “Alternative Vote” next May is a plebiscite, not a referendum. However, in the UK the difference between the two is ignored.
5 To sum up: Direct democracy makes decisions on issues, not persons. It empowers citizens, not governments. At its core there are two types of instruments: initiatives and referendums.
6 A citizens’ initiative is the right of a minority, that is a specified number of citizens, to propose to the public the introduction of a new law or a constitutional amendment. The decision on the proposal is made by popular vote.
The citizens’ initiative may operate as a means of innovation and reform: it allows people to step on the gas pedal. In principle, initiatives enable people to get what they want. In practice, they are a means to synchronize the citizens’ view with the politicians’ view.
An agenda initiative is the right of a group of citizens to propose to a competent authority the adoption of a law or measure; the addressee of such a request is not the whole electorate but a representative authority, for example the European Commission. In contrast to the popular initiative, it is this authority which decides what is going to happen to the request.
7 A citizens’ initiative is a direct democratic process par excellence: a group of people makes a proposal to all the people which decide it at the ballot box. Citizens initiate the process, citizens formulate the ballot proposal, citizens decide on the proposal and take responsibility for it. The public debate is about an issue in view of decision-making and implementation.
The ECI process is launched by citizens, but citizens have no decision-making power, there is no ballot, the proposal is addressed to the Commission, lobbying becomes more important than public debate, maximum publicity is needed to mobilize people in order to put pressure on the decision-makers.
The ECI may look much like a real citizens’ initiative process, but it assumes a deeply different character due to the categorical imbalance of power between the citizens and the decision-makers. In a democracy it would be inconceivable that sovereign citizens are petitioning a non-elected body without democratic accountability, not so in the European Union. Citizens have no voice, this makes it more difficult to motivate people for “participation” and it makes signature collection more difficult as well.
It has been claimed many times that the ECI gives citizens the same right that the European Parliament and the European Council already have to demand that the European Commission takes legislative action. However, if we look at the corresponding articles in the Treaties we notice certain differences. The European Parliament and the Council “request” while the ECI “invites” the Commission to take action. If the Commission takes no action, it must inform the Council and the European Parliament of the reasons. But there is no such obligation for the ECI in Article 11.
8 The usability of the ECI depends on legal design and the support for citizen participation which is provided or not. Each design element can be shaped in a way that makes the ECI more user-friendly or less practicable. Another important and much neglected dimension of making participation possible is to provide citizens and initiatives with an adequate infrastructure and sufficient resources. Provision and quality of this dimension can be seen as an indicator for the willingness to welcome citizen participation.
9 Low thresholds, for example allowing sufficient time for signature collection, make the ECI more user-friendly. Shortening the time allowed makes the task to collect 1 million signatures more difficult or quite impossible. Sufficient time is also needed to create public debates, especially in case of innovative initiatives. Similar considerations can be applied to all the other elements of the legal design.
If the ECI cannot propose Treaty amendments, then the scope and value of the ECI is considerably diminished. For example, it would not be possible to use an ECI to propose the introduction of a real citizens’ initiative. This would undermine the hopes and credibility of those who consider the ECI as a first step towards real direct democracy.
A lack of support for citizen participation discriminates against weak groups. It indicates unwillingness to support democracy.
10 The ECI may become a door opener for real citizen participation or
it may turn out to be, on the contrary, a barrier to citizen participation.
Much will depend on the future use of the ECI in which direction citizen participation in the EU is developing.
As an agenda initiative the ECI does not allow citizens to participate in decision-making on issues, representative bodies still retain their monopoly of decision-making, the relation between people and politicians remains a relation of institutionalized categorical inequality with all the consequences that follow from it.
There are three main reasons for the failure of agenda initiatives:
1 Mentality: Established authorities and citizens view participation differently.
2 Bad design of the instruments
3 Lack of support for citizen participation
The basic problem is the imbalance of power between citizens and politicians which is associated with different understandings of participation, citizenship and democracy.
The top difficulty is how to implant a new political culture of participation, how to overcome old habits and traditional ways of thinking and acting on all sides – officials, politicians, citizens.
Top-down point of view
In the authorities’ view participation means primarily consultation, an instrument to get to know the opinions, needs and expectations of the citizens. Participation is seen as a prolongation of the authorities’ activities, responsibility is transferred to the citizens but no decisional power. Citizen participation should help to make decision making more efficient and more legitimate. The aim of citizen participation is service improvement.
Egalitarian point of view
For the people participation is implied in the principle of democracy and self-government. It means having a voice, making decisions together with others, power sharing. Participation is an instrument to bring one’s own view into public debate and the decision making process. The expectation is, of course, that participation has a significant impact on outcomes.
Provided the right conditions are met, the ECI can have the following effects:
- It provides a channel for constructive proposals
- It gives the EU access to the creative potential of the people
- It brings citizens and politicians closer to each other
- It advances democratic political debates on the European level creating EU-wide public spheres for specific issues
- It activates citizens to get involved in EU-affairs
- It contributes to define what questions are political
- It provides Education for (European) citizenship in practice
Obviously, the ECI is a weak instrument. There is a risk, that ECIs will have no real impact on EU decision-making, that only initiatives which are in tune with the interests of the established powers will be considered. So far the European Union has not shown great interest in establishing real democracy. Considering experiences with agenda setting initiatives on the local and national level (slide 11) should also caution against too high expectations. Agenda initiatives do not play a significant role in national politics; it is hard to imagine that in the European Union it will be different. How it goes, the future will tell.