You may not have caught it on the main news bulletins today (though kudos to Radio 4’s World at One for covering it) but today saw the launch of the European Citizens’ Initiative.
Despite the name, which has slight Orwellian overtones in English, the policy which was introduced under the newly in force Lisbon Treaty is actually designed to increase the direct access that citizens have to the EU level.
So what do you have to do to get your idea considered by the EU? Well, the Treaty says you need:
– one million citizens;
– a third of EU countries represented amongst the million (so nine at the moment)..
But it’s not as simple as that. Today’s announcement was related to the clarification of the rules that the European Commission has just launched following several months of public consultation.
Presumably in order to stop the accusations of token representation of some countries by having one or two signed up (see the formation of the ECR Group in the European Parliament for the type of debate I’m talking about), the Commission proposes that the number of signatures from each country must be proportional to its size – “4500 for the four smallest countries up to 72,000 for the largest, Germany”. So if I’ve got, say, 60,000 Germans in amongst my million, that may be an awful lot of individualsbut not enough to count as having representation from Germany and being able to tick off Germany as a Member State where interest has been expressed?
I guess what’s trying to be overcome is the idea of having 995,000 French farmers, or British hunt supporters or Greek public servants or Danish students or whatever on board with the remaining 5000 made up from a ragbag of other people who think the idea is interesting.
But is there anything so wrong with that?
Inside a country, if one part of that country felt so strongly about a specific issue, would it really escape discussion at the national level…? Or are other Member States with more federal structures (that’s federal as it’s really meant, with decision-making at clearly defined and subsidiarity-applied levels, rather than the perjorative sense in which UK Eurosceptics tend to use it) immune to discussion issues at the wrong level of decision-making?
And in the internet age, it might actually be quite straight forward to get 4500 Cypriots interested in something (via Twitter, Facebook etc.) whereas 72,000 is a big ask for anyone – this seems a small country bias?
The Commission is proposing quite a sensible mid-way stage – “once at least 300 000 signatures from citizens in a minimum of three countries have been collected, the petition will be registered with the Commission and a decision made on whether the initiative falls within the scope of its powers. From that point, the organisers would have one year to provide the outstanding signatures”.
As Michael Mann pointed out on the radio earlier “if a million people called for Mickey Mouse to be President, we couldn’t do that as it is not within the Commission’s powers“. Quite.
The antifraud measures are likely to be the ones that cause sensitivity to this idea in the UK. We’re used to having to provide our names and addresses for petitions but without a compulsory identity card we are unlikely to have passports on us and as for handing over our National insurance number for a petition… I feel slightly incredulous! Expect to see headlines about the huge potential for identify fraud with this proposal, ironically just what the Commission are striving to avoid. If anyone publishes anything on this at all in the UK, of course.
The “who’s the money?” point is a good one though. It would not be good if this worthy intitiative became an exercise in big companies buying influence.
Finally, once all of the signatures are in place and the request meets the criteria (another is apparently being in the spirit of the EU so I guess that stops one million “federalists” fed up with UK recalcitrants getting together a proposal to kick us out? ), then the European Commission has four months “to investigate and decide to pursue legislation, launch a study or forgo further action. It will need to explain its decision publicly“.
At this point there’s a new feature of decision-making. Although the Commission is the only Institution with the right of intiative, the idea is that the “proposed rules must be approved by parliament and council”. This is not the case if, for example, the Commission has some ideas in a White Paper – those might be presented at a Council but they don’t have to be endorsed (I’m happy to be corrected on this!)
I really want to believe that the Commission are going to get some initiatives under this scheme “potentially as early as 2011”. After all the requirements are setting the bar quite high.
And I hope that there will be a technological level of support for this initiative – will there be a section of the Europa set up to enable this?
My starting point for this is the “petitions” section of the Number Ten website, the UK Prime Minister’s website named after the official residence. While most petitions tend to get an answer along the lines of “yes the government recognises that this is an important issue and is doing x about it/ which is related to it/ which is nothing really to do with it but the civil servants really hope you won’t notice”, it is important that each petition is on there from a starting point of no one except the originator being signed up to it, and can grow virally (through promotion on subject related internet forums or social media campaigns, mentions in the press, friends telling each other, bake sales etc. etc.) and that the gvernment is seen to be facilitating this.
So that’s the challenge for the Commission now – it needs to be facilitating this process and making it as easy as possible for citizens to meet the criteria, and to be seen to be doing so. If it succeeds, then it can genuinely say that it is bringing Europe closer to the people. If not, then the EU remains that thing over there that imposes things on us in the popular perception. That’s not a challenge I’d want to see end in failure.