Vice-President of the European Commission Responsible for Inter-institutional Relations and Administration
"The European Citizens' Initiative"
Conference organised by Women for Europe
European Parliament, Brussels, 21 September 2011
Under-Secretary of State, Mrs Wóycicka,
(and I should also add, though in the vast minority: dear gentlemen),
It is a great pleasure and honour to talk to you at the opening of your conference – not only as a man, but also as the Member of the European Commission who is in charge of the European Citizens' Initiative. I commend the organisers for this interesting event and welcome that it takes place in the premises of the European Parliament, which has played an instrumental role as co-legislator to adopt the ECI Regulation.
It is particularly relevant to talk about the European Citizen's Initiative in such a forum. To start with, I would like to mention an historical event, which did not take place in Europe. In 1893, a New Zealand woman named Kate Sheppard attempted her own "citizens' initiative" – a petition, calling for women to be given the vote. She succeeded in getting an incredible 30,000 signatures – at the time, nearly one third of the country's adult female population. In September of that same year, the Parliament agreed to the wishes of the people, and New Zealand became the first self-governing nation in the world to grant suffrage that was truly universal, to women as well as men. So we can see the important role that "people power", expressed through citizens' petitions, has played in the movement for female emancipation.
Moving forward 120 years, the EU's Lisbon Treaty creates, for the first time ever, the European Citizen's initiative, a new form of public participation in EU policy shaping. And it is the features of this new initiative I would like to talk to you about today.
Back in 1893, technology was not quite as advanced as it is now. Kate Sheppard's petition was signed on paper, and the individual pieces of paper – hundreds of them – were posted to her home, where she glued them together and wrapped them round a broom handle. Legend has it that she then took the petition, over 200 metres long, to the New Zealand parliament in a wheelbarrow, where it was physically unrolled down the central aisle of the chamber, hitting the other end with a sharp thump.
Since then, I am pleased to note, the mechanisms for gathering the views of the electorate have improved a little. I'll come onto the mechanics of the system in a moment. But the important thing to note is that, although the technology has changed, the central motivation remains unchanged – the motivation of giving a voice to the people, so that this voice is heard and acted upon by those responsible for taking the policy decisions that impact on people's lives. That principle remains exactly unchanged since 1893, and is one of the main reasons for many of the new provisions of the Lisbon Treaty, including the European Citizens' Initiative.
So, how will the process work? We want to ensure well-organised initiatives that command support from across the Union. So an ECI should be coordinated and proposed by a "citizens' committee". This is a committee of at least 7 EU citizens from at least 7 different Member States, which in the interests of transparency, will have to provide full information about how it is funded. The Committee proposes its initiative to the Commission, who will register it and publish it on the website. I should say that, in a very few cases the Commission may decline to register a proposed initiative on basis that the proposal is not serious, vexatious, beyond our powers, or contrary to the union's values. That is necessary to retain the integrity of the process, and to avoid giving a platform to offensive or extremist views: but we hope that this number will remain limited.
Then, it is up to the organisers to gain support for their initiative. They need to get one million signatures. We need to make maximum use of the alternatives which modern technology can give us – so the gathering of "signatures" can be either electronic or hard-copy. The signatures need to come from citizens of voting age; and they need to get a sufficient quorum of support from at least one quarter of all Member States. The signatures will ultimately be sent to the authority for each Member State, who will then need to verify that they are indeed genuine - though the exact process for doing that will depend on the Member State according to their own procedures. But ultimately if the target number of one million signatures from an appropriate spread of member states is reached, then the ECI is successful; there will be a European parliamentary hearing on the subject, and we in the Commission will meet with the organisers.
And, perhaps most importantly, the Commission will be obliged to produce, within three months, a communication explaining how we are responding to the Citizens' Initiative in question.
That is the result of the difficult negotiations we had with Council and Parliament on the draft Regulation. I know there are some design issues which some will find less than perfect. To that I would say: yes, the design is the result of a compromise. And yes, like all compromises it strikes a balance between the wishes of different stakeholders, like simplicity, security and ease of administration. But let's not lose perspective. This will be a brand new tool for participatory democracy, without precedent at EU level. A chance to strengthening the democratic foundations of the EU. A chance for the citizen to set the agenda and influence policy. And a chance to get EU policymaking outside the Brussels beltway. This is something we have never had before in Europe on such a scale. And that is something we should all be proud of. I am sure that Zita Gurmay, the S&D's rapporteur for the ECI and – besides Diana Wallis – the "mother" of the legislative proposal, will add her view and experience on that.
The Regulation itself comes into effect on 1 April 2012 – initiatives cannot be registered before then, and this gives time to member states to implement the administrative systems they need. I'm sure we can all agree that we want the launch to be successful, so we have to make sure the right systems are in place first. But, while it is too early to register, it is not too early for potential committees to think about how to make use of the new process. And I am delighted that this forum is already beginning that work. Of course it is not for me to say what the specific initiatives should be – that would mean the Commission telling the citizen what to tell the Commission, which I think you would agree would be rather odd! But to all those engaged, I wish the best of luck in organising their initiatives. And I hope that the petitions are as engaging for the citizen, and as significant in terms of their impact on policy, as that proposed by Kate Sheppard, nearly 120 years ago.