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Vice-President of the European Commission
Responsible for Interinstitutional Relations and Administration
The European Citizens' Initiative – bridging Europe's democratic divide
CoR - EESC seminar on the European Citizens Initiative
Brussels, 30 March 2012
Dear President Bresso,
Dear President Nilsson,
Dear Vice-President Papastamkos,
Honourable members of the Committee of the Regions and of the European Economic and Social Committee,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
We are now just two days away from the launch of the European Citizens' Initiative. The road to the ECI has been a long and sometimes difficult one, yet we are still far from reaching our final destination; indeed, it could be argued that the real journey is just about to begin, the one that will lead us to a new era of citizen-led participatory democracy and help bridge the democratic divide of which the EU is so often accused.
I'm delighted to be here today in the home of your two Committees to discuss the roles that local and regional government and organised civil society can play in the development of ECIs. I will also touch briefly on the final preparations for the launch of the ECI on 1 April.
Although this is a new initiative for the EU, the idea of citizens' initiatives and petitions is not a new one to either local and regional government or indeed to civil society. Just last week I was invited to speak at a conference on ECI hosted by the Land of Saxony-Anhalt – just one of many regions from across Europe that already operates citizens' initiatives similar to the ECI. And we only have to look at the speed and success with which the opposition to ACTA was mobilised, or the high-profile coverage at last week's Fisheries Council of the UK-based Fish Fight campaign to see that civil society is already well aware of the power of citizen-led democracy.
I know you are going to discuss other case studies and examples of successful campaigns later on today, and this experience will no doubt be of great benefit to the ECI once it finally becomes a reality on 1 April.
Another area that you will discuss later this morning, and one where I see that both local and regional government and organised civil society can be of great added value, is promoting the ECI to citizens – probably the biggest challenge we now face.
You both have privileged access on the ground to the people that we really want to target directly with ECIs – the citizens of Europe – and I am sure that many of you are already preparing, or indeed have already begun, to promote the ECI and to help citizens organise and prepare their initiatives, drawing in part on your own experiences.
This is certainly an area where the Commission is now focusing its efforts; again, just last week I met with the heads of the Commission representations in each Member State to discuss the ECI and what they can do in their respective countries, working also with national, regional and local government or with NGOs and interest groups, to spread the word about the ECI.
I encourage you all – both as institutions and as individuals – to do whatever you can to promote and publicise the ECI to the general public. We've produced brochures and posters to explain what the citizens' initiative is and how it works, in all 23 languages, and of course you are more than welcome to display them in your town halls, offices and headquarters. I am also delighted to see the banner promoting the ECI so prominently on the passerelle across rue Belliard outside – there certainly can't be a single person who has driven down this road that isn't aware of the launch of the ECI on Sunday!
Helping to promote the ECI is just one way that you can get involved, of course. In the recent revised protocol signed by the Commission and the EESC, there is explicit reference to the ECI and the role of your Committee, a response to your request to be involved in the ECI process. Your willingness to share your expertise is of course welcome, and as the EESC protocol states, the Commission will certainly recommend to the European Parliament that, if appropriate, your Committee be invited to attend the public hearings that will be held by successful ECIs, as the regulation allows. The same, naturally, holds true for the CoR.
I will leave further discussion of other inter-institutional issues, many of which you raised in your respective opinions, to the policy debate late today, where Lucy Swan, who will join my cabinet from the Commission's Secretariat General next week, will talk more about these broader aspects of the ECI.
Instead, I'd like to conclude with a quick round-up of the state of play on the preparations for the ECI as we approach the final countdown. At the ECI warm-up conference that I hosted in January and which many of you I know attended, I underlined the need for Member States to accelerate the pace of their preparations for the ECI, in particular when it came to designating the authorities that will verify and certify the statements of support for each initiative.
I'm happy to say that with just a couple of days to go before the official start of the ECI, these structures are now in place in most member states, and will be ready in all of them very soon.
I think it's worth stressing why I consider it so important that we are ready on 1 April: with public faith in the EU and its institutions at an all-time low, the ECI offers a real opportunity for us to reconnect with European citizens, to bridge that democratic divide. The ECI will offer the chance for many millions of EU citizens to share their views on matters of European interest, creating a truly European debate, almost for the very first time.
We, as the EU's institutions, must be ready to play our part in this new process – to show that we are not just paying lip-service to the idea of participatory democracy but that we too are committed to making citizen-led legislation a reality. That commitment starts, I would argue, with making sure that we are ready on time to allow citizens to register their initiatives and start collecting signatures – which thankfully is the case. But it also continues throughout the entire process, right through to the final Commission decision on whether to make a proposal based on an initiative.
As you have pointed out in your opinions, we need to make sure that organisers of initiatives are aware from the very outset what is likely to be admissible and what is not, as this will allow us to manage expectations more effectively, and I hope that you and your members will help with this particular aspect. But the Commission will also have to be clear in its explanations of why an initiative is accepted – or not.
This is another area where you can make a difference, I believe. Although not every initiative will be successful at the EU level, there is of course nothing to stop many of them being perfectly valid – and in the spirit of subsidiarity, more appropriate – at national, regional or local levels – and I count on you and your members to orientate initiatives in the right direction.
Regardless of whether they eventually make it into EU law, each and every ECI will contribute to enriching cross-border debate and the development of truly pan-European democratic space. This, I believe, is the real added-value of the European Citizens' Initiative: a concrete contribution to the idea of 'more Europe', the 'Europeanisation' of national politics and policies and increasing the understanding that for all their differences, the 500m EU citizens also have plenty in common as well.
I know that I can count on both your Committees to continue to support the ECI well beyond 1 April, and I am sure you already have plenty of ideas about how to improve the regulations when they are reviewed in 2015! For now, though, let's look forward to the first ECI registrations over the weeks and months to come, and seeing just how creative and exciting the citizens of Europe can be!
I wish you an excellent conference, and thank you for listening.