Speech at the Committee of the Regions' plenary session on the European Citizens' Initiative

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Dear President Tzitzikostas, Dear Members,

Thank you for inviting me to your Plenary Session. It is a great pleasure and honour, and I hope this debate together is another step for a better cooperation and synergy between our committees.

I am also particularly happy to discuss this important tool for our European participatory democracy – the European Citizens' Initiative. The EESC has been supportive of the ECI instrument since its conception.

The European Citizens' Initiative has great potential to give EU citizens more influence, to set the agenda at EU level and to make their voice heard on the topics they consider important. This is particularly necessary in times of crisis and efforts for recovery. If well used, the ECI is a tool to restore trust between citizens and institutions.

The instrument has other advantages: it is also encouraging citizens to do campaigns and networking and to have contacts with civil society organisations that can act as multipliers to reach the million signatures. The ECI contributes to creating links between organisations in different countries and develops, in this way, the EU public space that we need for citizens to feel closer to the EU.

Nine years after its start, the ECI has not yet reached its full potential. The new rules of 2020 facilitate the use of the tool by citizens and should give them more chances to succeed. I salute the fact that some organisers have taken the challenge of launching an initiative in these difficult COVID times, as is the case of 'Voters without borders'.

So far, six initiatives have managed to collect the required number of signatures. Out of those six, five have been invited by the EESC to speak during one of our plenary sessions. We are happy to see that the European Parliament had a debate in plenary session on the 'Minority Safepack' initiative and that the Committee of the Regions is also organising such debates.   

Citizens are willing to participate but they also expect some concrete results. And the impact of the successful initiatives has been so far quite limited and late. For example, it took 9 years between the launch of the Initiative "Right2Water" and the entry into force of the legislation resulting from it - the revised "Drinking Water Directive".

The recent reply given by the Commission to the initiative 'Minority Safepack' is also rather disappointing in our view, not only for the organisers and those who supported them but also for those who support the ECI instrument and more generally citizens' engagement. Despite the support of the European Parliament and of several national and regional Parliaments, the Commission decided not to propose any legislation and suggested very marginal follow-up actions. 

One key phase of every participatory process is its impact. It is crucial since it determines its success in the eyes of the citizens. The lack of impact increases disenchantment, disengagement and frustration among citizens.

It is only by making the tool more popular and increasing its impact that the ECI will become a strong tool, able to reconnect the EU with its citizens.

It is important that our Committees support this instrument, to make it more known, to promote dialogue with the organisers and encourage EU institutions to take it seriously.

As I was mentioning at the beginning, the EESC has always supported the ECI. We have issued several opinions on the ECI, and the new Regulation has taken on board many of our suggestions.

We have also created, in our Committee, an ad hoc Group which will continue to monitor the developments around the tool and make any appropriate suggestion for its improvement. We will also continue our promotion of the instrument locally, notably via events in national economic and social councils and the participation of members in the events on ECI that are organised.

Last but not least, the Committee will organise the 10th ECI Day in June this year, and we are happy to count the Committee of the Regions among our permanent partners. This event remains the main arena for all supporters of the ECI to take stock, discuss best practices and network.

 

Dear President, dear Members,

Times are changing, and citizens want to participate in a more direct way in the decision-making processes. They must be able to take part, not only because decisions have an impact on their daily lives but also to better understand the challenge of compromise. The ECI is one option offered to them, not the only one, and the Conference on the Future of Europe will certainly offer some avenues for discussing ways of engaging with citizens.

Thank you for your attention. I am looking forward to hearing the other speakers and the Members of your Committee!

 

Closing remarks

Thank you again for the occasion to listen to the CoR members and the presentations on the two initiatives 'Minority Safepack' and 'Voters without borders'.

The entire discussion shows that engaging citizens helps develop policies that are adapted to their needs, that are better accepted and thus better implemented. This is particularly important when there are reforms going on for recovery and future resilience.

I hope that despite the difficulties generated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the new and simplified rules will encourage citizens to use the instrument and give them more chances to succeed.

What I can assure you, is that the EESC at the EU level, and its members, in their respective countries, will continue promoting the ECI, raising awareness on it so that the ECI is more known by citizens and therefore more used. 

I hope that we can continue to support initiatives, by cooperating between our two committees and by having regional and local authorities cooperating with organised civil society in the Member States. 

We need to put people at the heart of EU policies – be it through civil society organisations that are represented in our Committee, or directly, through instruments like the ECI. We want to keep citizens on board, and stimulate their engagement in a meaningful way – as the EU should be as close as possible to its people and deserve their trust.

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Speech at the Committee of the Regions' plenary session on the European Citizens' Initiative