European commission ignores ECIs goal

epa03679776 A general view of the runners during the 36th Madrid's Marathon in Madrid, central Spain, 28 April 2013. Some 26,000 people took part in the event. EPA/Emilio Naranjo

The European Commission today released its review to Council and Parliament of the application of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), as legally mandated in Regulation 211/2011. As expected, this report takes a primarily formalistic, legalistic and technical approach to examining the first three years of the ECI. It does not explore if the ECI’s current design makes it an effective and meaningful tool for EU participatory and digital democracy, warns The ECI Campaign.

Created by the Treaty of Lisbon (article 11.4), the ECI allows one million citizens to invite the European Commission to propose a legal act to implement the treaties. EU leaders hailed the ECI as a democratic innovation to help “bridge the gap” between citizens and the EU.

The Commission report concludes that, since two ECIs completed the full process, all necessary procedures are in place for the ECI to work. It does note a few minor technical areas for improvement – e.g., changing the legal personality of the citizens’ committee, ensuring that expatriated EU citizens can support ECIs, including experts and diverse stakeholders in ECI hearings. Importantly, while acknowledging that 20 out of 47 ECIs were refused registration, it proposes no solutions to ensure that more ECIs can be launched.

Startlingly, this report ignores the tremendous and widespread frustration ECI users have encountered using the tool. This has led to a dramatic decline in ECI use, with only three ECIs currently open. The ECI is now widely considered within civil society to be “not fit for use”.

“The ECI is one of the core democratic principles in the Treaty on European Union. It’s the only EU tool for direct citizen participation. It should be user-friendly,” says Carsten Berg, coordinator of The ECI Campaign. “In reality, the ECI is so hard to use and its impact so limited that it creates great citizen frustration. The Commission’s review ignores the damage done to the EU when the ECI cannot deliver on its promise of participatory democracy.”

Based on the experiences of past ECI users, The ECI Campaign has identified 12 reforms needed for the ECI to work and fulfill its potential as a meaningful democratic tool for citizen involvement. It must be significantly easier to both register and run an ECI. Successful ECIs must lead to concrete actions. The Commission could do much more than it has to make the ECI a success, while still respecting the legal limits imposed by the EU treaties.

The implications of the Commission’s report for ECI reform will be publicly discussed on 13 April 2015 at ECI Day at the European Economic and Social Committee. The European Parliament and Council will debate potential ECI reform later this year.