Challenges with citizens’ initiatives are recognised not only at EU but also at a national level, in Member States. Polish citizens have the right to present a bill proposal to the national parliament. In order to compare the conditions of citizens’ initiatives and their effects in EU and Poland, I conducted an analysis of the civic bills recently submitted to the Polish parliament.
In Poland, a procedure exists under which citizens have the right to submit legislative proposals to parliament as long as they gather the signatures of at least 100 000 people with the right to vote in parliamentary elections.
The concerned citizens must establish a legislative initiative committee. At least 15 people are required for this. To begin with, they must collect 1,000 'initial' signatures to register such a committee. The 100,000 signatures must be submitted fairly quickly - no later than 3 months after the committee is registered.
In terms of logistics, leading the civic initiative process is a challenge comparable to that of the European Citizens’ Initiative. Collecting 100,000 signatures, moreover on paper, is a very serious undertaking requiring structures throughout the country. Although, compared to the European Citizens’ Initiative, it is certainly an advantage that we deal with only one country, one legal system and one language of communication with signatories.
Since December 2020, 13 civic proposals have been processed in the Polish parliament. These national initiatives mainly addressed the following problems:
- a) Local matters - e.g. the activity of hunters, the functioning of local government units, etc.
- b) Matters of an ideological or philosophical nature – e.g. abortion, changes in the penal code.
- c) Financial matters, e.g. related to the amount of public taxes or social benefits.
Almost none of the citizens' proposals submitted in Poland focuses on a topic that could be resolved at the European level. Noticeably, the causes Polish citizens are interested in are usually under national competence and less in the competence of the EU.
However, many commentators are sceptic about how well the civic initiative works in Poland. First of all, civic projects rarely gain parliamentary approval. It probably does not help that some initiatives tend to be controversial (e.g. easier access to abortion versus stronger protection of the foetus) or that the initiatives are only of interest to a small group of citizens and reflect the point of view of a minority. Clearly, involving citizens in the legislative process is a difficult and demanding process everywhere, and by definition, these tools are very difficult to disseminate.
To summarise, in my opinion, after taking into consideration the Polish experience with citizens’ right to present civic proposals, there are two challenges, which should be tackled if we want to develop instruments such as the European Citizens’ Initiative and make them more popular among European citizens:
- It should be possible to submit a European citizens’ initiative about a wider range of topics. Currently, European citizens’ initiatives may only concern areas falling within the competence of the European Commission, which are not widely known or understood. For this reason, some organisers may give up before submitting an initiative because they are afraid to be rejected 'from the start'. Many areas that do spark the imagination of citizens and mobilise big groups to fight for their rights indeed fall outside the Commission’s competences, and it would be very difficult to solve this challenge in the near future without expanding these competences, however, potential organisers can receive support in identifying whether their initiative falls within the competences of the EU by asking for help from the European Citizens’ Initiative Forum.
- Resolving some of the logistical difficulties associated with carrying out a European citizens’ initiative. The reform which entered into force in 2020 introduced changes regarding signature collection, which should make the process easier. Among other improvements, the European Commission now offers organisers translation support and provides them with a central signature collecting system. This can help groups of citizens who don’t have access to huge financial or logistic resources.
As you can see, participatory democracy faces challenges at both national and EU level. I hope that by comparing both mechanisms it will help us to improve the citizen participation in the democratic process.
Rafal Dymek is a Graduate from the Warsaw University and Warsaw School of Economics. He is the chief executive officer in Schuman Foundation in Warsaw. Active participant of the pro-European campaigns in Poland. Supervisor of several dozen of civic projects implemented with partners in more than 20 European countries. Expert on European, socio-economic matters and non-governmental sector matters in Poland. Awarded by the President of Poland by Gold Cross of Merit for his activity for European integration process.