Mind to mind, hand in hand, EU citizens can catalyze change

According to a new democratic right, established in 2015, any EU citizen, together with commonly concerned neighbors, can launch an initiative to be brought before the European Commission.

Any EU citizen has a mechanism at their disposal, through which EU policy and legislation could be influenced according to their concerns. The European Citizens’ Initiative is a channel through which citizens can propose policy changes directly to the European Commission. The vision of the initiative is that citizens across EU member states who share a common concern and desire, mobilize together to launch an initiative for legal change. Whether they seek to respond to a widespread need or a systemic problem in areas of EU influence (i.e. the environment, energy, transport, trade, or agriculture), citizens utilizing this initiative channel can form a committee across 7 countries and collect at least 1 million signatures to back their idea. Once their initiative has received the designated number of signatures from each of the 7 countries, the proposal will come before the European Commission to be carefully and intentionally considered.

Anyone who is of voting age can choose to pursue an initiative. To officially launch the initiative, seven EU citizens, each from a different member state, must rally around a common vision and together form a citizens’ committee. Although pre-existing organizations may back the committee pursuing the initiative, the organizing must remain on the individual level. Once the citizens’ committee is established, it can register the initiative on the European Citizens’ Initiative Official Register to receive confirmation. That will start the 1-year clock for collecting the necessary 1 million signatures. Anyone can sign onto an initiative as long as they are of voting age. They simply take and fill in the committee’s statement of support form.

When the initiative receives its designated 1 million signatures from the 7 member states, the exciting process of consideration begins. Within 3 months of receiving the proposal, the Commission is required to fulfill the following procedures. An official meeting is organized between representatives from the Commission and the citizens’ committee to flush out the details of the initiative in person. The committee, furthermore, is invited to the European Parliament to present the initiative at a public hearing. After this, the Commission responds formally to the initiative, explaining their plan of action as well as providing reasons for applying or not applying it. The College of Commissioners takes this response and publishes it in all of the EU languages. If the Commission finds good reason to respond with legislation, they will put forward the proposal to a legislator and in time, it may be adopted into law.

As of today, four initiatives have successfully received 1 million signatures and been put forward to the European Commission. Of these four, the most influential initiative proved to be the push for making water and sanitation a public good. Submitted in 2013, this initiative sought to make reliable water more available across Europe as well as systematize a more transparent way of monitoring water quality. The European Commission took to action in response. In 2014 and 2015 they organized stakeholder meetings on the topic of “benchmarking of water quality and services”. They declared that water and sanitation would be a top goal in the post-2015 development framework. Furthermore, they began to pursue partnerships with water operators and the public to support development toward better water quality and access.

The other initiatives received different levels of response from the Commission. One initiative focused on preventing the use of animals for experimentation and research. Another sought to ban and put an end to all financing for research, development aid, and public health relating to abortion. Both of these initiatives were not passed by the Commission. They were declined for reasons relating to improper timing, recent debate within the Commission on similar issues, and lack of relevance to current goals. An initiative to ban glyphosate-based herbicides and incentivize reduction of pesticide use was partially passed. The Commission could not assent to banning glyphosate for it lacked the scientific and legal grounds to do so, however it did consent to forming a legislative proposal to increase transparency in scientific assessment and ensure that the European Food Safety Authority used independent and trustworthy assessments in their decision-making.

When considering whether to pursue an initiative, one should determine whether the policy area to be influenced is under EU jurisdiction, and whether the European Citizens’ Initiative is the best channel for activating the said change. Once a citizens’ committee is established, they become the chief organizers and liaison to the Commission. To officially register the initiative and begin the collection of signatures, the committee must write a formal request. This includes a title, subject matter and objectives, the provisions of treaties that relate to the said proposal, personal details of the committee members, documents proving nationality and age of the members, and a list of the organizations and funding that will support the initiative. The Official Register, within two months of receiving the submission, will contact the committee as to whether the initiative has been successfully registered. The committee may then begin collecting their statements of support on paper and online.

Although established for only 4 years, over 6 million people have utilized European Citizens’ Initiative as a channel to voice their desires for political and legal change in Europe. Four initiatives have been successfully submitted, having received the designated 1 million signatures. This procedure opens up opportunities for active citizens to unite across member states and realize a common goal for positive change.

The greater the participation of EU citizens in influencing policy and legislation, the more enhanced and responsible the European Commission and legislative implementation will become. Member States should be aware of their democratic rights as active agents of positive change. This channel for change is unique in that it unites citizens from different countries to realize common goals.

A section called “European Citizens’ Initiative” is an integral part of the youth workshop within the R-EU Connected Erasmus+ project. Read more about this project and its activities (in Croatian language) here or on the project official website here.

Gong is a Centre of Knowledge in the area of Civil Activism and the Building of Democratic Institutions within the framework of Development Cooperation with the National Foundation for Civil Society Development.