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Vice-President of the European Commission
Responsible for "Interinstitutional Relations and Administration"
The Lisbon Treaty: enhancing democracy in the EU
Meeting of the Constitutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament
Brussels, 30 September 2010
I am particularly pleased to see that such important issues as the European Electoral procedure and the Citizens Initiative are discussed in the context of an interparliamentary committee meeting. This is a question of democracy – and therefore very naturally a matter for parliaments.
Early this year the Commission received several contributions from national parliaments on its Green Paper on the ECI [from the Czech Senate, the Portuguese, the Irish Parliament], which provided valuable input to the Commission in preparing its legislative proposal on this matter;
Later on, we received numerous opinions on our legislative proposal [from the two Italian Chambers, the Czech Senate, and the Portuguese and Cypriot Parliaments]; In our replies to these opinions, we explained that the Commission had tried to find a good balance between the need for appropriate and proportionate rules and procedures, and the need to keep the instrument simple and user-friendly.
The Commission welcomes and encourages the active participation of national Parliaments in discussions on key initiatives and proposals and would like to continue to involve national Parliaments more closely in European affairs. We are convinced that by doing so, we can jointly contribute to bringing Europe closer to citizens and to improving the process of policy formulation.
The Commission is determined to consolidate the partnership with national Parliaments, by enhancing and extending our 'political dialogue' and by intensifying our contacts and exchanges with national Parliaments, in full respect of the prerogatives of the European institutions.
The role of national parliaments of course is one of the most important themes of the Lisbon Treaty. And the European Citizens' Initiative is one of the Treaty's most important innovations. It adds a whole new dimension of participatory democracy to the Union. It represents a significant step forward in the democratic life of the Union.
It provides a unique opportunity to bring the Union closer to the citizens and to encourage greater cross-border debate about EU issues. It is therefore important that this new instrument is made available to citizens as soon as possible.
Since the Commission adopted its proposal on 31st March, work on this file progressed very rapidly in the Council, which adopted its initial position on the Citizens' Initiative in the form of a General Approach, on 14th June. Although we believe that the Council text would merit certain improvements, the Commission was able to broadly accept the text. This was a very important first step in the process, which I hope will help us to reach a first reading agreement.
The Commission's proposal is the result of in-depth preparatory work, which included a broad public consultation. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the national Parliaments which submitted their contribution in response to the Green Paper.
This proposal aims to strike a balance between the different views, positions and constraints that came to light during this preparatory work. It is a compromise, in particular, between:
The need to provide simple and user-friendly collection procedures and the need to ensure adequate and proportionate controls;
Burden for the Commission and Member States on the one hand and burden for the citizen on the other;
The need to make sure that the citizens' initiative is genuinely European on the one hand and that it remains easy to use on the other.
The key elements of the proposal are as follows:
The minimum number of Member States from which citizens supporting an initiative must come should be set at one third of Member States. We consider that this is an appropriate threshold since it mirrors other provisions of the Treaty which aim to ensure the representation of a Union interest (e.g. enhanced cooperation and subsidiarity).
What is important is to ensure that citizens' initiatives have a genuine European character and that they are not rooted in a specific local or regional context.
One can always discuss whether 1/3 or ¼ of Member States is more appropriate. However, a very low number of Member States (e.g. 4 or 5) does not constitute a significant number of Member States and therefore would not be in accordance with the Treaty.
To ensure true European representativeness, there should also be a required minimum number of citizens for each of those Member States.
We had initially thought of having a flat percentage of 0.2% of the population for all Member States.
Many respondents to our consultation considered that 0.2% of the population was an unnecessarily high threshold. Others considered that such a percentage would not be equitable, as it is much easier, for instance, to collect statements of support from 1 000 citizens (representing 0.2% of the population) in Luxembourg than 160 000 in Germany.
The approach ultimately chosen by the Commission therefore reflects these two concerns.
In order to ensure that the thresholds are based on objective criteria, they are based on a multiple of the number of Members of the European Parliament for each Member State. By using a multiplication factor of 750, the threshold for over half of Member States would be lower or significantly lower than 0.2% of the population, whilst for the smaller Member States the threshold would be higher.
Proposed initiatives should be registered in an online Commission register before signatures are collected.
The purpose of the register would be to ensure the utmost transparency and information about on-going initiatives but also to act as a filter for frivolous or abusive initiatives on the one hand and for those that would be manifestly against the values of the EU on the other.
We do not think that a formal decision on the admissibility of initiatives should be taken at this stage. Such an approach would entail a number of risks:
Firstly, such a system would clearly open the door to abuse since any individual citizen or organisation would be able to trigger a formal decision-making process within the Commission as regards competence issues, whether they are seriously planning to collect signatures for a citizens' initiative or not.
This would not only overload the system but would jeopardize genuine initiatives and undermine the seriousness of the instrument as a whole.
Secondly, and this was a point made by numerous stakeholders during our consultation, if a negative decision on admissibility is given prior to registration, it could be seen as censorship by the Commission, since an initiative could not proceed if it were not registered.
Finally, on the other side of the argument, a positive decision of the Commission on admissibility before any signature has been collected could be seen as an "endorsement" by the Commission even though the actual substance of the initiative could be politically unacceptable (think for example of initiatives aimed at repealing animal welfare legislation or watering down CO2 emission limits).
This is why the Commission proposed that the admissibility of an initiative should be checked once 300.000 statements of support coming from 3 Member States have been collected.
Following discussions within the Council and in view of reaching an agreement at the General Affairs Council in June, the Commission accepted to have a lower threshold of 100.000 signatures before the formal admissibility decision is triggered.
Of course, with this approach, the Commission is not suggesting to leave organisers in the dark in the beginning about whether an initiative falls within the framework of its powers or not.
There will inevitably be an informal dialogue between the Commission and promoters of possible initiatives before these are registered. Organisers would always have the possibility to ask the Commission for advice at the outset, and for this purpose the Commission would be ready to provide a form of "help-desk".
We are of course open to consider different alternatives that would address the Commission's concerns, but what we need to avoid is having to take a fully-fledged, formal decision right at the beginning before we even know whether an organiser genuinely intends to collect signatures for an initiative.
The organisers of an initiative should be responsible for collecting statements of support from citizens. They would have one year to do so. No restrictions should be placed on how signatures are collected.
It should be possible to collect them on-line as long as some minimum security features are guaranteed.
Given that online collection is more prone to fraud and problems linked to data protection than paper collection, the website of the organiser should be certified by the Member State in which it is located. The website needs to be certified once by one Member State but it could serve to collect statements of support across the EU.
Following discussions in the Council, the Commission is looking into developing open-source software, which would already satisfy all the requirements of the regulation and which organisers would be able to download freely and use for their online collection of signatures.
Once all statements of support have been collected, the Member States should be responsible for verifying the validity of statements of support collected from citizens. In order to limit administrative burden, it should be up to them to decide what checks should be carried out – for instance they could do so on the basis of random checks.
Some concerns have been expressed about the amount of personal data which signatories would be required to provide. This is a delicate issue. On the one hand we need to fully respect data protection concerns and on the other hand we need to enable Member States to carry out verifications.
In its general approach, the Council has developed this aspect of the proposal considerably to reflect the different traditions of the different Member States.
This issue will need to be worked on further in order to strike the right balance between verification requirements, data protection and avoiding overly complex requirements for citizens and organisers.
At the end of the process, if the initiative were judged admissible and once the signatures had been verified, the Commission would have four months to examine the substance of the initiative.
It would then have to decide whether to make a legislative proposal, to follow up the issue for example with a study, or to not take any further action.
If the Commission decided to make a legislative proposal or look into the matter further by carrying out a study, it would certainly be able to give an idea of the timeframe for its work.
The Commission would have to explain its decision and reasoning behind it in a formal communication.
As regards the role of national Parliaments around the ECI, they will not be directly involved in the formal process of an ECI as such.
However, they will be free to take position on any proposed initiative. In particular, in the framework of the political dialogue, national Parliaments will be informed of the communication adopted by the Commission following a successful initiative. National Parliaments will therefore have the opportunity to react and take position on the action the Commission intends to take and its reasons.
If a successful initiative leads to a legislative proposal, they will of course have to play their role in the subsidiarity mechanism.
In conclusion, I believe that the Commission's proposal achieves the right balance between the need for regulation to ensure that the instrument remains credible and is not abused on the one hand and the need to facilitate the widespread use of this instrument on the other.