The European Citizens’ Initiative was introduced under the Treaty of Lisbon with the aim of improving and expanding participation in European Union policy-making. Assessing the first three years of the initiative, Sergiu Gherghina and Adriana Groh argue that its potential is being hampered by poor citizen knowledge and multiple design flaws.
Introduced in April 2012 as the world’s first element of transnational participatory democracy, the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) aims to stimulate public participation, to provide a channel for communication between citizens and institutions of the European Union (EU), and to bring citizens closer to the European project. With the ECI citizens can make a proposal on the European Commission’s agenda. To support the initiative at least one million signatures have to be collected in at least 7 of the current 28 EU Member States.
The Commission has to react to this initiative but is not committed to take further action. While the ECI opens the floor to a bottom-up involvement in the EU decision-making process, many people simply do not know about the ECI and the opportunities it provides. More importantly, even those who know about the ECI are not eager to use it. This is somewhat peculiar, particularly given decision-making at the EU level has often been criticised for its apparent distance from its citizens. One might expect that as soon as people become aware about opportunities for involvement, they may be willing to take advantage of them.
A web survey conducted of 457 respondents from Germany (240) and the UK (211) between November 2014 and January 2015 revealed that when it comes to the ECI, many citizens do not wish to take action. The survey was not conducted on a representative probability sample and thus results cannot be generalised to the entire population. However, they remain illustrative and quite important in the context of a heavy presence among the respondents of young and highly educated persons; these are the usual suspects to hear about the ECI due to their exposure to information. In spite of these, only one third of respondents (36 per cent in Germany and 31 per cent in the UK) have heard about the ECI three years after its implementation. Since the survey aimed to also capture the willingness to use the ECI, all those respondents who were not familiar with this tool were provided with a short text that outlined its basic features.
All respondents were then asked whether they would use the ECI and only 10 per cent in Germany and 26 per cent in the UK answered positively. In spite of similarly low levels of knowledge about the EU, in the UK there are three times more respondents willing to use the ECI than in Germany. At a glance this observation is counter-intuitive since the level of Euroscepticism in the UK is considerably higher than in Germany and the interest in EU politics is arguably lower. A close look may provide an alternative interpretation in which the ECI could serve as an instrument to diminish existing problems and to adjust for the right decisions. Along these lines, the ECI could also be used to hinder EU decision-making processes rather than to support it. Somewhat more surprising is the fact that out of those who declared that they know what the ECI is, only 6 per cent in Germany and 20 per cent in the UK declared that they were willing to use it in the future. Consequently, knowledge about the ECI is not associated with further action.
One explanation for this result is that citizens may not see the ECI as an effective instrument. So far it has had a low rate of success and very few initiatives have gained enough support to get proposed to the Commission. Only three initiatives have reached the threshold of one million signatures and none of them ended up in legislation or policies. In essence, the ECI does not appear to deliver the promised involvement and thus citizens do not see the benefit of using it. In this sense, the more people know about it, the more likely they would know about its limitations and thus be demotivated to use it. Another possible explanation is the relatively poor advertisement of its existence.
In this case although people had heard about the ECI, the absence of in-depth knowledge concerning its potential advantages does not appear to trigger an interest in actually using it. Such an attitude can be seen in a positive light because citizens are not eager to use a tool about which they do not have detailed information. With these mechanisms in mind, there is more pressure on the EU institutions to improve the functioning and visibility of the ECI if they want it to perform its intended functions (i.e. addressing the democratic deficit and bringing citizens into the decision-making process).
Existing research has shown that many European citizens strive for better representation in the EU. One way to go about this is to give them a voice in decisions and the ECI aims, in theory, to provide such a means. However, its design flaws, limited impact, and poor visibility are likely to keep citizens away: they have little incentive to learn about the ECI and are not willing to use it. In the particular case of the survey conducted in Germany and the UK, only a very small share of those who knew about the ECI were willing to take action. This raises question marks about how meaningful and useful such an instrument is in its current form.
Note: This article originally appeared at our partner site, Democratic Audit. The article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Emiliano (CC-BY-NC-SA-3.0)
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Sergiu Gherghina – Goethe University Frankfurt
Sergiu Gherghina is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Institute of Political Science, Goethe University Frankfurt.
Adriana Groh – Goethe University Frankfurt
Adriana Groh holds a BA in Political Science and Sociology from Goethe University Frankfurt. Her research interests lie in European politics and the relationships between citizens and institutions.