My Voice Matters
The decrease in voter's participation at European Elections during the last couple of years might be the latest example of how much potential is untapped until the European Union can be defined as a fully democratic system. Simultaneously the election of former Luxembourg PM Jean Claude Juncker as the president of the next EU Commission is legitimately considered to be an “irreversible step for European Democracy” as, for the first time, the European Election's outcome was taken in account and the European Parliament proposed a favourable candidate giving a declaration of intent which the Council was more or less forced to respect.
While all heads were turned towards Brussels during mid-July, another piece of the puzzle towards more democracy was created by young people at a Transnational Workshop in Sorkwity, Poland from the 13th to the 20th of July 2014. “My Voice Matters” is a democracy project that involves around thirty young people from Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Poland encoring political participation and introducing them to the “European citizen's initiative” which still rests widely unknown amongst most young people. Although the Workshop was mostly a tool to raise more awareness of what options there are available for young people to get involved, simply introducing the European citizen's initiative but not necessarily proposing it to the Commission, the participant's reaction was overall positive. Most of them pointed out the possibility to encounter people their age from neighbouring countries. Various discussions and team building games throughout the whole week lead to various challenges creating a fruitful dialogue between people with different backgrounds.
None of the participants have heard about the European citizens' initiative before although around half of them were old enough to vote and thus eligible to start their own initiative. (The members of the citizen's committee must be 18 except for Austria where the voting age is 16).
So what exactly is the European citizens' initiative?
Generally speaking the ECI allows citizens to ask (or “invite”) the Commission to start a legislative process according to Art 11 of the Treaty on European Union. Once a citizens' initiative meets the given criteria, the Commission is obliged to submit the ECI proposal unchanged to the Parliament and the Council.
The initiative has to be proposed by at least seven EU citizens living in at least 7 different member states in order to register. If the Commission acknowledges the initiative's legitimacy, it will be published on the official website. To see the current initiatives, click here. In the following process the initiative has to be signed online by 1 million citizens within 12 months. The votes have to represent a quarter of EU member states. Once the initiative is submittable, the Commission will examine the proposal, a public hearing in the European Parliament will be held followed by the Commission's final answer. Only if the Commission decides to follow the initiative, the legislative procedure will start.
Hence, speaking of a direct democracy in that context is quite misleading. It has nothing to do with the original perception of direct democracy as it exists in Switzerland, Europe's poster child. The Swiss “Volksinitiative” is a federal popular initiative which is binding for the Swiss government once the initiative has collected enough signatures and thus is eligible to officially be put to the vote. If the overall majority and the majority in every canton of Swiss citizens are in favour of the initiative, it is binding for the Swiss government to implement it.
Despite the criticism of lacking binding character, the ECI certainly has the potential to be a future door-opener for reform proposals. The importance of its role will hugely depend on the Commission's attitude as they have the exclusive right to either accept or reject the initiative. However, the Commission's approval doesn't guarantee the initiative's implementation as the Parliament and the Council have to come to an agreement during the legislation process as well.
It is important for EU institutions to keep one thing in mind. Once an initiative is registered and surpasses the one million thresholds, the Commission as well as the other bodies have to decide carefully acknowledging the risk of giving the impression to simply ignore EU citizen’s proposals.
Over time this could lead to a further down thread of voter apathy and euro scepticism or, vice versa, lead to an up wind and more participatory democracy if it's downright.