The EU announced a while back that they would improve the democratic levels in the EU by allowing people to participate directly in the running of the EU. They launched the European Citizens Initiative (ECI) with a lot of fanfare.
The ECI allows citizens to influence EU law-making and is seen as the most significant democratic reform in Europe since the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. An ECI must have at least one million signatures in a minimum of seven member states in order to be able (or have the chance) to change EU policy.
Given all the hype, what has happened to the new democracy instrument?
Not much really. It’s typical for Brussels. A lot of talk and very little action. The first six officially registered initiatives are still pretty inactive. Not even one has started collecting signatures.
The online signature collection system offered by the Commission is not yet up and running thanks to the EU’s inability to act. This costs organisers of the various initiatives valuable time and creates the impression that the EU is only paying lip service to direct democracy. Organisers have only a limited amount of time to collect a sufficient number of signatures.
To add to that, officials at the EU central information services are still unable to answer the simplest questions about the ECI process. Apparently there is not enough staff. You really wonder why the EU, with their huge tax payer funded budgets, couldn’t fill those few jobs. And training of the existing staff on the ins and outs of the ECI is also inadequate.
But the worst is that the European Commission has simply refused to register several initiatives. The ECI – “My vote against nuclear power” – which seeks to phase out the use of nuclear energy within the EU – is one of those rejected initiatives.
The commission argued that the current EU treaties “cannot be interpreted as giving the Commission the possibility to propose a legal act that would have the effect of modifying provisions of primary law (namely the Euratom Treaty).” EU speak for ‘We don’t want to do this, so bog off.”
They also argues that it is not in the commission’s power to submit a legal act of the union for the purpose of implementing the treaties. In other words, the justification for the rejection of the Anti-Nuclear ECI is that proposals contravening primary law are inadmissible.
Both the environmental and pro-democracy movements got really angry about this view, as this would substantially devalue, if not actually invalidate, the entire ECI instrument. On the surface of it, the EU can just cherry pick the ECI’s it wants (or doesn’t perceive as a threat to their power.) Not quite what it said it would be with all their hype about direct democracy. It’s more like direct meddling.
According to the EU Treaties, the commission is itself entitled to propose amendments to treaties. So it should also be possible for citizens to launch initiatives that would result in treaty amendments.
How can this stalemate be resolved?
The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso must speak out and give some political guidance on the matter, or the European Court of Justice needs to decide on the commission’s narrow interpretation of the scope of the ECI. Whatever happens, it will take another long spell of tedious political manoeuvring before something might happen.
It looks like the ball has been kicked into the tall grass and the ECI will die a quiet death.
1-0 to the Mandarins in Brussel…..