Who’s afraid of the world’s first transnational participatory democracy tool?…

Europe will begin the first-ever experiment in transnational participatory democracy later this year with the launch of the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). This participatory agenda-setting tool allows one million European Union (EU) citizens to ask the European Commission to propose new legislation. Very simple in theory. Not so simple in practice.

The ECI was created by article 11.4 of the Treaty of Lisbon. Although law since December 2009, the European Parliament and Council must first agree to implementing regulations before it can be used. These regulations will determine the fate of this new tool and are currently a subject of heated debate in Brussels.

Until now, EU citizens could complain about the improper implementation of existing EU laws by petitioning the European Parliament or contacting the EU Ombudsman. But they could not ask the European Commission for new legislation. Now they can.

Ideally, the ECI would be a positive tool for ordinary citizens to shape the EU they want. Furthermore, the process of gathering 1 million signatures could lead to public debates on important issues with a European dimension, as well as encourage cross-border cooperation among activists. In sum, it could help reduce the great distance between the EU and its citizens.

Yet, for all its democratic potential, the ECI has provoked a surprising amount of resistance. Some critics irrationally fear the ECI would lead to mob rule or government paralysis, erroneously equating the ECI with a binding referendum. Others worry that public debates on controversial European issues could shake the very foundations of the EU. More realistically, many are concerned that wealthy individuals, corporate lobbies or powerful politicians will use the ECI to further their own ends, potentially discrediting the instrument as a citizens’ tool.

In the name of limiting abuse and fraud, regulations currently being considered by the European Parliament and Council will make it difficult for citizen groups to use the ECI – – while doing nothing to prevent its abuse by powerful interests. For instance, even though it is a non-binding initiative, citizens signing an ECI must provide their ID card numbers, as well as birth date and place. Similarly, although all legislation must eventually be approved using regular EU procedures, ECI signatures must come from a large number of citizens in each of at least nine countries. Yet, despite demanding requirements, the EU will provide no practical support to ECI organisers. It is difficult to see therefore how any but the most organised transnational lobby groups could ever sponsor a successful ECI.

Perhaps most worrying of all is that the draft ECI regulations do not specify how the Commission must react to a successful ECI. ECI advocates would like a mandatory participatory public hearing where their issue can be openly debated. But they could end up with an impersonal letter of a few lines. One ECI advocate recently compared this to a storybook prince crossing the moat, fighting the dragon, climbing the tower…and then not getting a kiss from the princess.

This interesting democratic tool promises citizens a fairytale ending of greater power at the heart of Europe. However, unless the Parliament and Council adopt more citizen-friendly regulations, it could end as a horror story of insurmountable barriers, nightmarish bureaucracy and shattered hopes.

For more information on what is needed for the ECI to work see the Initiative for the ECI or the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe.