Last week, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, the European Parliament approved temporary measures to allow new deadlines for the verification, examination and collection of signatures for the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI), thus protecting the rights of those who had already submitted initiatives.
This is yet another sign of the importance that the Citizens' Initiative has been gaining in recent years as a participatory instrument for Europeans to influence directly policy making at the EU level, following the new set of rules that entered into force in the beginning of 2020.
The process of revision of these new rules, which included the active participation and contributions of the European Parliament, aimed at making the ECI more accessible and intuitive, as well as give the organisers more flexibility.
Since its entry into force in 2012, there has always been some criticism of the ECI regarding its alleged complexity, the number of signatures needed or the demand for multinational subscribers.
Although slightly elaborate, the Citizens' Initiative is an important instrument to boost popular participation in the EU legislative process, as well as to engage citizens in the policy making process of the Union.
In order for that to happen, I believe that it is important to preserve its transnational aspect, through the rule of the seven proponents to be EU citizens residing in different member states, but also to ensure the broad support of the proposal by the European citizens - hence the one million signatures needed to subscribe an initiative.
Five so far
True, until now, the impact of the ECI has been modest, with only five initiatives that completed its full cycle. However, some positive signs should also be highlighted, especially since they demonstrate the existing interest of this procedure among European citizens.
Since its start, there were already 74 submitted initiatives and a total of 13 million citizens that mobilised to subscribe them.The increase in the number of people subscribing the initiatives over recent years goes in line with the inversion in the downward trend of low participation in the European elections.
In the last EU parliament election, there was an increase of participation, especially among young people, in the vast majority of the European countries, which seems to indicate a bigger interest in EU affairs and the importance of the Union on the daily lives of the European citizens.
Furthermore, with the new revised rules that entered into force this year, there will be less refusals on the submitted initiatives and the European Commission expects that the number of successful initiatives will soon double - going from five to 10.
The European Citizens' Initiative is only a part of a movement that aims at enhancing participation from citizens in the democratic process of the Union and the interaction with their elected representatives. The upcoming reflection on the Future of Europe will surely be a good opportunity to debate several aspects related to the European institutions and the democratic functioning of our Union.
The Conference on the Future of Europe itself must be an open debate, allowing for wide citizens' participation, without prejudice of proper democratic decision-making procedures according to our democratic representative system. The academia and a myriad of European think-tanks, as well as the European representatives themselves, have long debated the needs for improvement of the democratic procedures inside the EU.
The 2017 Bresso-Brok Report on improving the functioning of the European Union outlines several points where the EU institutions can build upon the potential of the Lisbon Treaty, demonstrating how it still entails a great number of unexplored possibilities. The inter-institutional cooperation must be reinforced, with the Parliament assuming a central role in the whole process.
As mentioned in the Bresso-Brok report, parliament's legislative powers and control rights must be guaranteed, consolidated and strengthened, including by inter-institutional agreements. This is a very necessary aspect to guarantee that the community method remains at the centre of the EU decision-making process, including in terms of economic governance.
Moreover, despite the fact that the reform of the rules of the European Citizens' Initiative were already a step in the right direction, the participatory mechanisms for citizens need further development, also building on the potential of the new e-democracy mechanisms.
The current political and economic situation in Europe urges the political leaders to be bold in times where uncertainty seems to be paving its way in the hearts and minds of Europeans.
The Conference on the Future of Europe give us the chance to improve the functioning of our institutions and to capitalise on the growing interest of the European citizens into EU policy to facilitate the engagement in much needed pro-European reforms.
Artigo publicado na revista online EUObserver a 15/07/2020.