At the beginning of this year, the European Commission launched its European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) which allows groups to collect support from at least 1 million citizens across a quarter of the EU’s member states to propose new laws. Despite its initial failings, Maja Troedsson argues that the European Commission’s provision of an online system for the collection of signatures and statements of support for initiatives shows that the Commission is serious about the ECI and its potential to redress the EU’s democratic deficit.

The creation of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) marks an unprecedented attempt to involve citizens of the European Union in the affairs of the European Union, by providing a mechanism to influence future legislation. The ECI is open to all citizens, although for an initiative to be successful, it must meet certain criteria, like the collection of one million signatures from across seven different member states. As such, the ECI has the potential to be a powerful tool in bridging the gap between the political elite and its constituents.

Potential aside, until the Commission decided to provide an online collecting system, that would allow those sponsoring specific initiatives to collect and securely store statements of support online, this tool seemed to have been rendered insufficient before it was even properly tested. Previously, the initiatives registered on May 9th this year were informed that they would have to finance their own online collecting systems, which would have put a more than palpable strain on the (mostly small) budgets of those involved. As this would have risked limiting the availability of the ECI only to those with substantial, ready – or corporate – backing, it would also have limited the basic idea of a channel of influence for the citizens. If so, then the gap between citizens and politicians would risk being widened rather than narrowed, fuelling accusations of distant, and elite governance.

For years, a recurring point of academic contestation has been the existence – or not – of a democratic deficit within the European Union. Arguments often arise from the EU as a unique organisation in its own right, legitimised by performance rather than by its democratic responsibilities, to the European Union as an elite organisation that fails to engage its very foundation, the citizens, in debates over leadership and policy. While the democratic deficit is not my focus, it can be argued that the significance and potential of the ECI is contingent upon a notion of citizen participation and democratic involvement as fundamental matters in sustaining the European Union. Whether one is a subscriber to theories of the democratic deficit or not, indications from surveys such as Eurobarometer are that although many citizens remain positive with regards to the European Union on the whole, levels of trust in its institutions have been slipping.

From a democratic point of view, the provision of a free-of-charge online collecting system is of utmost importance, as it makes the ECI accessible to ordinary citizens without financial backing, as ordering such a system easily amounts to several thousand euros. While the citizens’ committees heading each registered initiative may still of course opt for any solution of their choice, a basic means of online signature collection is crucial to the success of any initiative. Although signatures may also be collected on paper, like a good old-fashioned petition, this cannot in any way match the scope and range of modern technology. As such, the free online collecting system is important in levelling the playing field to give all registered initiatives a sporting chance, without cancelling out other options. After all, an ECI without means of collecting signatures is an ECI set to fail.

The decision to fund and provide an online collecting system also gives a hint as to the Commission’s true approach to the ECI. Treaties and regulations aside, there has been reason to wonder whether the ECI was created as a genuine tool for citizen influence, or a paper tiger aimed at appeasing critics of the democratic development of the European Union. Naturally, it is too early to evaluate the impact and scope of the ECI, both in mobilising citizens of the European Union and in shaping future legislation, but by removing the stumbling block that would have undermined the very foundation upon which the ECI stands – the opportunity to access, influence and take an active part in the legislative process – the Commission shows that it does in fact take its citizens, and its own legislation, seriously.

Several challenges lie ahead. The initiatives already registered must catch the attention of a million people already showered daily with hoards of information and be proven to be worthy of their support. Budding initiatives must get the go-ahead from the Commission as being within its legal competence. For the Commission, the most trying task will perhaps be to take in all the information that the ECI can provide about grass-root wants and needs. If the Commission manages to listen, the ECI has a good chance of bringing the European Union closer to its citizens; if it does not, the Commission runs the risk of being perceived as arrogant in disregarding available information and political impulses. However, there are plenty of reasons for optimism, as the number of registered initiatives continues to grow and the ECI is becoming more well-known outside of bureaucrats and political scientists. The first initiatives are set to begin collecting signatures in October, and the rest is up to the people of the European Union.

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Note:  This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the Author 

Maja Troedsson – Lund University
Maja Troedsson holds a Master’s degree in European Affairs from the Department of Political Sciences at Lund University, specialising on the European Citizens’ Initiative. She is currently a member of the Citizens’ Committee behind ECI Fraternité 2020. Maja Troedsson can be followed on Twitter @majatroe, and also tweets for @fraternite_2020.

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