UK Politics

EU direct democracy: Cows, texts and stem cell research

A protester brandishes a placard
Image caption The EU website offers a new way to make your feelings known. But will it prove to be effective?

The first few policy proposals have emerged from the EU's flirtation with direct democracy, including bids to block funding for stem cell research, hinder water supply privatisation, and improve the welfare of cows.

These "European Citizens' Initiatives" have each been proposed by a team of at least seven people from at least seven of the EU's 27 member states, and have surmounted obstacles designed to prevent "abusive, frivolous or vexatious" submissions clogging the system.

Six have so far been published on the European Commission website.

If within one year they have been signed by more than one million people, the Commission will decide whether to try to turn them into law - or quietly ditch them.

So what are the priorities of the early adopters?

Cow welfare

Image caption Grazing should form a significant part of a cow's daily ration, campaigners argue

Protections for pigs and poultry in the EU are far ahead of those bestowed on their bovine counterparts, one initiative declares.

It therefore modestly seeks a "level playing field" for dairy herds, guaranteeing them minimum standards on housing, food, veterinary attention, and "the opportunity to express their natural behaviour".

Cattle prods should be banned, floors in shelters should be non-slip, and cows should have enough time for "exercise, grazing and socialising", the proposers of this initiative submit.

The best funded of the first six initiatives, it has received financial support from ice cream manufacturer Ben and Jerry's, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, and Compassion in World Farming, a charity.

'One of us'

Image caption Researchers believe stem cells could help develop treatments for conditions that are incurable now

Crucially, only initiatives that correspond to policy areas over which the EU institutions have any power stand a chance of getting anywhere.

This is why the "Uno di noi" (One of us) campaign, funded by Italian pressure group Fondazione Vita Nova, has not set its sights on altering abortion law.

Instead, it wants to ban EU funding for scientific research involving the use of human embryonic stem cells.

"The dignity, the right to life and integrity of every human being from conception" should be recognised in law, the proposal argues.

Roam free

Building on existing and forthcoming price caps on the use of mobile phones while abroad in the EU, this initiative aims to ensure that all EU networks providers offer customers a flat-rate, all-inclusive tariff to which roaming charges would not apply.

The measure would effectively "end roaming fees across Europe", its proponents believe.

Phone companies would be forbidden to charge more than 50 euros (£40) a month for the tariff, no matter how many texts are sent, calls made, or megabytes downloaded, anywhere in the EU.

'Water is a public good, not a commodity'

Image caption Water suppliers should spend their proceeds on infrastructure not shareholders, the initiative says

The default position of the European Commission is to press for the liberalisation of services in member states where competition is hampered.

But the advocates of one initiative are keen to exempt the provision of water. "For too long the market has been seen as a solution to problems in water supply and sanitation," they argue. "Creating a market in the case of water services would only mean creating problems."

Since water and sanitation are "essential public services", they should be recognised as a human right, according to the trades union-funded initiative.

'Let me vote'

People from other EU member states who live in the UK can vote in local elections and elections to the European parliament, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh National Assembly. But they have no vote on who represents their constituency in the UK Parliament.

The "political dimension of the European project" should be developed, a further initiative asserts, by "reinforcing EU citizens' sense of a shared destiny".

This would be achieved were non-nationals to have the same voting rights as nationals within the EU, it contends.

Keep the exchange

The Erasmus exchange programme has helped millions of students spend time in other EU countries.

But the last of the initiatives that have been published so far would greatly increase its funding.

A "united Europe based on solidarity among citizens" will be conjured up when the EU devotes 10% of its budget to this and similar programmes, the initiative-authors predict.