Power to the people EU-style

Campaign against long animal transports - Dan Jorgensen website (screen grab)
Image caption Animal welfare is an issue where ordinary citizens' mass support can make a difference

The EU has a troubled history when it comes to consulting the people. Remember the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, re-run after Irish voters said "No" first time round?

The treaty was bolted together from the wreckage of the European Constitution, which voters in France and the Netherlands scuppered in 2005.

The phrase "democratic deficit", a favourite of Brussels-watchers, still haunts the EU.

Turnout in last year's elections to the European Parliament was the lowest ever - just 43%, described by the European Commission as "a real failure for democracy".

In this age of social networking on the internet, and Obama-style election "crowd-sourcing", EU institutions are trying to address the image problem, recognising that many voters question their legitimacy.

So, among many other things, the Lisbon Treaty says the EU must create a new tool for direct democracy - under strict EU rules, of course. Next year we will hear a lot more about the European Citizens' Initiative (ECI).

Campaigns under way

The rules are to be hammered out in the next few weeks - after all, it is nearly a year since the treaty went into force in all 27 member states.

With sufficient support - at least a million signatures across the EU - ordinary citizens should be able to initiate a law or laws in Brussels. The internet has made that kind of mass mobilisation possible.

The absence of rules has not stopped campaigners vying to be among the first to get a hearing for their cause at the Commission.

In early October the environmental group Greenpeace said it had more than a million signatures supporting its call for a halt to the sowing of genetically modified (GM) crops in Europe.

It was a response to the Commission's authorisation of a GM-type of potato, called Amflora. A variety of maize is the only other GM crop allowed in the EU, amid heated debate - and much uncertainty - about the crops' effects on living organisms.

Powerful lobbyists

If the aim of the ECI is to get ordinary citizens more engaged in European issues the evidence so far suggests that well-connected pressure groups and politicians will still have the loudest voices. They are the ones with the lobbying experience that generates publicity and funding.

An internet campaign to prevent the EU from levying direct taxes is led by a Belgian MEP, Derk-Jan Eppink, of the European Conservatives and Reformists group.

"The citizens are paying more than enough taxes already. They don't want additional tax bills from Brussels," he says.

A Danish Social Democrat MEP, Dan Jorgensen, is gathering signatures to stop the practice of transporting live animals for several days. He wants the EU to set an eight-hour limit on such journeys.

The Lisbon Treaty says an ECI has to have support in a "significant number" of member states, to make it a genuinely European initiative. The Commission defines that as a minimum of nine countries - one-third of the EU states. The parliament's chief negotiators say six countries is enough.

The Commission, which drafts EU laws, will have the power to vet the initiatives. But MEPs argue that a public hearing is the appropriate filter to decide initially whether an ECI has a chance of becoming law.

Petitioning parliament

Disgruntled EU citizens can already petition MEPs to act on an issue. The parliament's petitions committee assesses the merits of the case and can then press for EU action.

Many petitions are local in nature - for example, complaints from UK citizens resident in Spain who object to certain building projects in their area.

But the ECI is a different beast - it is intended both to widen public debate on issues concerning Europeans in general and, where necessary, to trigger new legislation.

Yet will the EU manage to strike the right balance - engaging citizens in important policy areas without strangling them with red tape?

EU Administration Commissioner Maros Sefcovic says the method for gathering signatures must be "simple and user-friendly".

Verification of signatures is crucial to prevent fraudulent initiatives. But some citizens - perhaps many - will not want to submit personal data, however worthy the cause. The controls will have to avoid compromising personal privacy.

The ECI may appear too feeble for those who want fundamental change in Brussels - it will not give ordinary citizens the power to change treaties.

Those who want to stop the parliament's regular, very expensive trips to Strasbourg will be disappointed.

The liberal, anti-discrimination values enshrined in EU treaties may also block a planned ECI from far-right groups led by the Austrian Freedom Party (FPOe), who want to stop Turkey joining the EU.

Not going Swiss

Stephen Booth, an analyst at the Open Europe think-tank, says the new citizens' tool "won't tackle any of the really big issues such as agriculture, budget spending".

"It's good to get citizens to engage more… but it takes governments to reform the big things," he told the BBC.

According to Mr Booth, the pan-European spirit of the ECI also conflicts with "subsidiarity" - the EU principle that decisions should be taken as closely as possible to the citizen, in many cases at local level.

Speaking on the BBC programme The Record Europe, Liberal Democrat MEP Diana Wallis warned against over-hyping the ECI.

"It's not a Swiss-style system of initiatives and referendums. It's dipping the toe in the water of participatory democracy… an opportunity for European citizens to push the legislative button."

Your comments

I am one of the few citizens who participated in the public consultation on the future ECI Rules. There is no reason, in my opinion, why this initiative will not be able to tackle the big issues. On the contrary, the pressure of European people will allow the European Parliament and the European Commission to put the foot in the door and back their demands for more power and decision-making capacity against the Council - which is generally very good for the European citizen and traveller. More Parliament and Commission power means more rights for citizens and less stifling national regulation. Ioan-Luca Vlad, Bucharest, Romania

Citizens can now initiate formal debate, like UK councils, but with a much lower threshold (1% of the population, instead of a council's usual 10% or worse). A good example of the EU doing something right that few states would accept at national level. Charles Grove, London, UK

The problem with this idea, and democracy in general, is that the uninformed masses make mistakes. GM crops are the way forward, and to say otherwise shows ignorance. What we really need is a rule that voters are only allowed to vote if they are educated in the relevant area. So to vote on GM you'd have to be educated in both sides of the argument, including the science. Education would be free. Mike, Lincoln, UK

Important issues decided by a European-wide referendum would indeed be a good thing, and democratic. Would the European Parliament allow the 'people' to decide on such issues as whether Turkey should join the EU? Somehow I don't think they would risk a resounding "No". E Gatt, Malta

If the EU were serious about this they would provide a well advertised hosting site. The EU is anti-democracy and the MEPs and commissioners have become so full of self interest (and our tax money) that it will be a long time before we get any democracy other than what we witnessed over the Constitution followed by bully boy tactics in Ireland for the renamed Constitution. Kieran Marchant, Munich, Germany

Twenty years after independence the laws governing restitution, compensation, indemnity or repossession have not been addressed by legislation In Poland. The responsibility for dealing with particular cases is done as a result of lobbies, repurchases, gifts by the Land Agency to the municipalities or other parties. Yet at the same time religious land claims have and continue to be swiftly dealt with. If the aim is to bring the ECI closer to the people I think this would be the one problem that must be addressed as a priority. It is unjust that private citizens' rights are secondary to the confessional institutions. This issue touches upon the basic human rights. Kasper Pawlikowski, Krakow, Poland

Too little, too late! This is the best ploy yet from the EU. Let the people believe they have a voice in Europe, tax them directly and what do you get? A Europe that doesn't need national governments! Crystal Ball, Warsaw, Poland

This is all foul, because it doesn't care once again for the individual problems and feelings of smaller members with a comparably low number of citizens. Either Swiss-style or nothing, everything else is nothing more than fooling the population. That more and more people are fed up with the system (EU and national) can be easily seen in recent election results with the fast rise of right-wing populists. Just like in my home country Austria, where recent opinion polls put them on second place already very close to the leading social-democrats, ahead of the conservatives. And if the people are not addressed properly these parties may become so strong that in some countries no government can be made without them - for the usual price. Werner Schneider, Vienna-Austria

This prudent approach of testing the water is sensible. I don't know of any other groups of 500 million people having such a facility yet. Issue: a directly elected president of the European Commission. Peter van Leeuwen, Netherlands

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