On Europe Now

As the rollout of the provisions in the Lisbon Treaty continues apace, eyes have turned to the Citizens Initiative, a unique provision for the EU which compels the European Commission to consider a legislative proposal should one million of the EU’s citizens think that a new law is needed to implement the EU Treaties. Lisbon left it up to the Institutions to put flesh on the bones.

Several facets of the debate have begun. It has been agreed that the one million citizens will have to come from nine member states of the EU, with the Council suggesting that the combined total of these countries should be equal to one third of the EU’s population, the European Parliament wants this total to be lowered to a quarter, possibly to allow the citizens of smaller member states to club together.

The main issue of contention appears to be the admissibility of an initiative and signature checking. Proposals can only be submitted in areas where the EU has the authority to act i.e. where it is admissible. To ensure this is the case, the European Commission would like all petitions to be pre-registered so that they can be vetted before they go ahead with collecting signatures. They have also suggested that 100,000 signatures should be submitted up front (10% of the total required).

What hasn’t been made clear is how to ensure signatures are valid, as with all European Union legislation, implementation rests with the member states – could we see a role for member states in verifying the validity of a signature (or could we for instance find ourselves with an EU Citizen number?)

MEPs want to scrap the 100,000 requirement, Dianna Wallis MEP (ALDE – UP – Lib Dem) has argued that pre-registration is good enough without the need for the 100,000 deposit of signatures.

The Commission argues that pre-registration followed by the admissibility check with a 100,000 signatures is needed to avoid proposals which are silly or do not have broad support. As a compromise the idea of 5,000 signatures being required has been floated, although I can find no explanation for the sudden drop in numbers, nor does it fill me with any confidence that someone is actually working out a level based on scientific reasoning.

One factor which has not entered the debate is the repeal of EU laws.

The EU project is often blighted by grand philosophical projects, the early attempts at the European Political Community, the Constitutional Treaty, Common Foreign and Security Policy and CAP to name a few), these projects over emphasise the positive in an attempt to sell the good things the EU does (and yes, there are many. With the European Citizens Initiative this preference for the positive may have blinkered the EU into forgetting how the Initiative could be used by some to undo, rather than support, the ‘ever closer union’, after all to repeal a law you merely pass a law to repeal it.

It is not impossible to envisage a situation where EU advocacy groups develop a strong campaign to get rid of an EU law (a group has already been set up calling for a citizen-friendly Citizens Initiative). Finding support to undo the EU would not be a problem. The nine countries strong Eurosceptic – Europe of Freedom and Democracy gained well over one million votes in the last EU Parliament elections (over 3 million in Italy and 2.4 million in the UK). Lisbon does not rule out repeals, with the European Citizens Initiative being used (as described by Article II):

“Where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.”

By removing a law it can be argued that you are helping to implement the Treaties. The European Union process is not infallible and just because a law has managed to make it onto EUR-Lex doesn’t mean that it has sufficiently implemented one of the EUs Treaties, removing such a law could help to better implement another aspect of the Treaties? Say subsidiarity for instance?

Protocol 2 of the Lisbon Treaty lays out provisions for national parliaments to be the guardians of the subsidiarity principle, which calls on the EU to only legislate on an issue where it is best tackled at an EU rather than national level. The Protocol while an added advantage for national parliaments, requires quite a lot of jumping through hoops to stop the EU on an issue, could a Citizens Initiative kill off proposals which national parliaments had failed to stop?

I’ll leave it to other with bigger budgets to think up detailed examples of EU laws which in the right context it can be argued their repeal demonstrates better implementation of the EU Treaties.

This whole area of EU citizen action could open up a Pandora’s Box for the EU’s institutions with the Commission facing a disturbance in the force and the Council and Parliament possibly being sidelined by their own electorate.

On the other hand maybe Europe will start to argue about things, with the citizens’ initiative helping to foster a European demos and stronger trans-national parties? Maybe.

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  1. You raise an interesting point, but I don’t see ECIs aimed at repealing laws to be a bad thing in itself. After all, one of the Barroso leitmotifs is “better regulation”, which can mean getting rid of regulation that’s had its day.

    But what happens when one campaign starts up to remove a law, and in response a second one starts to defend it? What’s the EC supposed to do? Wait for the second to reach 1 million signatures or plough ahead with the first?

    It’s easy to see this rapidly getting silly, and very easy to game. It might get people talking, but there may be much more heat than light…

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