Published on March 31, 2011

Putting European citizens before lobbyists: is the ECI the tool?

By Janice Thomson

Janice Thomson was Involve's EU Public Engagement Advisor. She left in January 2012. Her work focussed on understanding and enhancing public participation at European Union level. Please email info@involve.org.uk with comments or questions on Involve's work on EU Engagement.

A friend recently asked me to sign a petition opposing a soon-to-be-implemented EU directive which will effectively ban many herbal medicines. Putting aside the merits of the topic, my first reaction was “Why so late? The directive was approved in 2004!” It seemed a perfect example of how citizens typically first learn about EU decisions: when an EU law takes effect and it’s too late to do much.

Brussels is a paradise for business and special interest lobbyists. They have many formal and informal opportunities, ranging from positions as experts on official EU policy committees to lunches with EU officials, to quietly influence what the EU does. Most citizens, on the other hand, are both unaware of and have no opportunities to impact EU policy. National media rarely cover what happens in Brussels partly because their audience can’t influence it and so aren’t interested in it.

The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), which can be used starting on the 1st of April 2012, may help begin to change this situation. The ECI allows one million EU citizens from at least seven EU member states to invite the European Commission to propose new legislation. The Commission doesn’t have to oblige, but it must explain its actions in a public hearing with the ECI’s organisers.

Previous EU public engagement efforts, such as the European Citizens’ Consultations, facilitated in the UK by Involve, showed that citizens were interested in, could intelligently discuss and make recommendations on EU policy. But because EU leaders were not legally obliged to listen to citizens’ views and incorporate them into policy-making, most did not. With no clear impact, the EU has since simply stopped funding such efforts.

Provided the ECI does not prove too difficult to use in practice, the Commission actually does (more often than not) respond by proposing legislation and the ECI is not hijacked by already powerful lobbyists, it could provide a real albeit tiny space for the public to engage in the EU. With the additional support of enhanced transparency rules and EU electoral reform, that space could then be widened to include additional participatory democracy tools, including perhaps impactful citizens’ consultations.

During the next 12 months, EU member state governments will devise signature collection and verification rules that will effectively either encourage or discourage their citizens from using the ECI. At the same time, the European Commission will develop support materials and services for potential ECI organisers, ranging from signature collection software to legal advice. Given that the ECI is the only way citizens now have to directly influence the EU policy agenda, anyone who cares about enhancing public participation and democracy in the EU should do everything possible to make sure the ECI is a success.

To learn more, please see the new Involve briefing on how the ECI might impact public engagement in the European Union.

You can watch Janice talking to the Ethiopian News about the new initiative here.

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