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Vice-President of the European Commission
Responsible for Interinstitutional Relations and Administration
"ECIs and petitions, giving citizens a voice"
Meeting in the European Parliament Committee of the Petitions
Brussels, 8 May 2012
Madam Chair, Honourable Members,
Last time I came to see you, in September 2010, we were still in the preparatory stages of the ECI, and I remember that you were urging me on. Now I'm pleased to be back, with the instrument up and running. I'm pleased to be able to tell you that initiatives started arriving from the very first opening day, last month, even though April 1st was a Sunday !
I think we have got off to a good start, and without wishing to spoil the media "scoops" tonight or tomorrow morning, I think you will be pleased to see that some of the first ECIs to pass the first hurdle concern matters which the PETI has already treated in the past.
Given the direct contact your committee has with EU citizens through the petitions procedure, I'm sure this will probably come as no surprise to you.
I am pleased to announce to you that we will register the 1st ECI tomorrow on the occasion of Europe Day. I believe that the registration of this first initiative - which is about young people and mobility across EU borders by enhancing the EU exchange programmes – augurs well for the success of this new instrument. We are also finalising our assessment of 5 other initiatives, which we hope to register in the coming days. [If asked: these concern mobile communications, citizens rights, animal welfare and research]
We may have the first registered ECIs, but for the process to continue, a lot now depends on the Member states. I'm glad to be able to confirm to you that all Member States have now designated the necessary authorities for certifying organisers' online collection systems and for verifying the of signatures collected, except for the Czech Republic. And there the law has already passed both Chambers, and is only waiting for Presidential signature, so I'm expecting a green light from there in a matter of days.
I won't hide that I did have some concerns about Member States readiness: in early March we had only 18 Member states that were ready. However after putting some pressure on my counterparts in the Member States, we now have a positive situation today. Moreover Member States have been able to learn from each other thanks to the expert group which we have created and which brings together the relevant people from the Member states to exchange best practices and advice.
For proposed ECIs that don't meet the criteria and thus are rejected at the time of registration, this is not necessarily the end of the road, however. We will inform the promoters about the judicial and extra-judicial remedies they have at their disposal. . In particular, they can always turn to the Ombudsman if they believe there was an administrative mishandling, and the PETI is of course the committee which provides Parliamentary oversight to the Ombudsman's work. From the moment they first access the ECI website, promoters are informed about the petitions routine as an alternative.
Last time I came to see you I was urging you to try out the Your Europe web portal, which is for citizens to get direct information – which can sometimes help with petitions. This time I'm urging you to have a look at the ECI site as well. These developments try to keep pace with what the technology can do for citizens; for the ECI there is a special extra: there's a button on there specially designed for sharing submissions via social networks. This is the sort of thing we should all be thinking about, nowadays.
A curiosity that might send some ECI your way in the form of petitions is the fact that EURATOM matters are excluded from the scope of ECI, but not, as you know from long experience of your own, from the Treaty right to petition. It will be interesting to see as time goes by how citizens' concerns are shared between the two routines. In any case, I regard this as an area for cooperation between us, if only to avoid that we don't cover the same things in parallel with one another.
Talking about doing things in parallel with one another reminds me of the fact that many of your petitioners are also "complainants" to the Commission, some of whom sometimes fit into one of our routines for verifying the correct application of EU law. Some of them even make a photocopy of their complaint to us, and then send it out a second time to you, as a petition.
Although they have the right, I don't deny that this practice bears certain risks. It can have the effect of creating, in your eyes, the feeling that we somehow privilege complainants over petitioners. I would like to reassure you that nothing could be further from our mind, and refer you to the very recent Commission Communication of March 2012 on our relations with complainants, which makes it all very clear. In particular, the standards for providing information to a petitioner who is in direct contact with us are exactly the same as those for a complainant.
As a matter of fact our routines are quite similar, when it comes to transparency. The further a file progresses, the more exposure it gets. In the early stages of a complaint, we try to deal with matters in conditions of serenity. But if it gets as far as a Reasoned Opinion, there will be a press release. Similarly, petitions aren't very visible unless and until they come onto an agenda of one of your meetings, but at which point they may even be webstreamed. More importance, more transparency; they go together. It seems to me to make sense.
There are other things on the application of EU law which I would like to highlight in front of your Committee, Madam Chair. Every infringement file is, for us, in a certain way a failure. It means we haven't succeeded, or at least not quickly enough, in bringing the Member states' law into compliance with EU law, by using all the other methods which are at our disposal. It is not a tool of first resort, but of last.
I know that you also dislike the time it takes for our way of working to bear fruit. But let me put it to you like this: if a necessary improvement to a national law was going through the national Parliament, and taking some time there, what am I to do? Tell the national Parliament to hurry up? You have indeed had some petitioners who have been "kept waiting", so to speak, for this sort of reason.
But if you need convincing of the relative merits of loyal cooperation, I would invite you to look into the statistics in the Commission's annual report on the application of EU law. You will see that the vast majority of problems are solved in a non-conflictual way. I think that is as it should be; and it has been confirmed by the Court of Justice in Luxembourg as well.
Let me come back to petitions more generally. You are currently working on your annual activity report for 2011 and from what I have seen so far let me say on a personal note that it is a very good and informative report, as always, and as you can imagine I am delighted by the mention of excellent cooperation with the Commission services, when you feel the need for their help with your petitions. We share this impression and very much welcome our smooth and constructive cooperation in this field. When the report comes to plenary you will hear me saying that again.
But there is a very important item in Mr Chichester's draft which is right on the zeitgeist of 2012: the plan to upgrade your direct contact with citizens via your web-interface. This kind of improvement is going on all around us. With up to half a billion potential customers and the capacity to handle only a few thousand petitions a year, you need an efficient interface. And so does the Commission in its fields of activity. This is what is behind some items in mainstream European business right now, principally the Internal Market Information System which is currently in first reading. We shall also be having another look at SOLVIT during the course of this year, which I know is another tool that interests you.
To conclude, I think we have a great deal in common, in our continuous efforts to serve EU citizens more effectively. I think that 2012 will go down as a good year in this respect, and I look forward to your questions.
Thank you for your attention.