The European Citizens’ Initiative has been called ‘the biggest innovation of transnational democracy’ since the introduction of direct elections to the European Parliament more than 35 years ago. Since 2012, the citizens of the European Union have the same right as a majority in the European Parliament and the Member States: to set the political agenda for a whole continent.
While the formal right to initiate pan-European legislation remains with the European Commission alone, the European Citizens’ Initiative constitutes a pre-legislative instrument for agenda setting. Interestingly, the ECI is also an entry door to the future of participatory politics: it is more direct, more transnational and more digital than anything before.
This is the reason why the ECI is not just another petition right, but is more of an everyday citizens’ activation right regarding the next issues to be put on the agenda of the European institutions.
In order to be considered politically by the European Commission, an ECI must be backed by at least one million EU citizens from at least seven of the 28 Member States within one year of registration. A minimum number of signatories is required in each of those seven Member States.ECI: Number of signatories required
An initiative can be supported by all EU citizens old enough to vote in the European Parliament elections (18 years of age, except in Austria, where the voting age is 16). To give their support to an initiative, citizens have to fill in a specific statement of support form provided by the organisers on paper or online.Voting age across the EU
An ECI is possible in any field where the Commission has the power to propose legislation, such as the environment, agriculture, transport, public health or international trade.
For detailed information please see the European issues and competences section and visit:
In order to launch a citizens’ initiative, citizens must form a citizens’ committee made up of at least seven EU citizens resident in at least seven different Member States. The members of the citizens’ committee must be EU citizens.
Within three months of receiving a successful ECI, the Commission will meet with the organisers, and the organisers can present their initiative at a public hearing in the European Parliament, after which the Commission will adopt a formal response. If the Commission decides to put forward a legislative proposal, the normal legislative procedure kicks off.
More information on the ECI registration page.
The European Citizens’ Initiative is sometimes compared to a Swiss army knife: a smartly designed, adaptable, multifunctional tool. As the ECI is available to more than 400 million EU citizens across 28 Member States (and across the world, if you happen to live outside the EU as an EU citizen), it is hard to predict its long-term impact on government and democracy in Europe.
What we already know, however, is how the first 50 ECIs have used, shaped and, to some extent, brought into question the initial set of ECI rules. We also know that the ECI process recognises at least three possible roles of active citizenship: organisers, supporters and observers.
As organiser(s), you are at the very heart of the process, as you are in charge of all key steps set out in the ECI regulation. You are also the responsible representative vis-à-vis the institutions, your supporters and the whole of Europe. For this reason, you need a great deal of careful consideration, patience, commitment and intensive communication and public relations work.
As a supporter of an ECI, you are asked to support a certain European cause as one of at least one million people in no less than seven Member States. Your main role involves becoming a signatory to an ECI, which means that you fill in a statement of support, either on paper or electronically. Make sure that you are signing a validated and formally registered initiative. For all open initiatives check the Official Register.
Finally, as an observer you may be curious to see what the ECI is about, want to understand it and possibly be able to offer interesting insights and comments to organisers, media, researchers and the EU. Should you yourself be an author of an ECI-related document and wish to share it with a wider audience, the EESC offers a free-of-charge, open-space ECIdocs database where you can upload your publication and make it known throughout Europe!
As an active organiser, supporter or observer, there are more aspects to think about before starting, signing or commenting. The key question is: what does a certain ECI want to achieve? What is your goal?
Do you want to propose something new to Europe? Or is it your idea to remove and abolish a certain EU policy? Many things are not simply black or white, good or bad: they may just need a bit of fixing. So you could also be mainly interested in changing parts of a law in the EU.
There are many ways to take action with an ECI – which you can use as:
- an accelerator in order to get the EU to do something new. Here you need to be very patient as it will take a long time to see this kind of ECI through to the end; you need to find an appropriate and workable legal basis first; and you need to see the public debate about your proposal as the main reward for your efforts.
- a brake to stop the EU from doing something. In this case timing is critical as you need to find the right moment to raise your concerns so as to achieve maximum impact and support, which means that you need to gather the signatures swiftly.
- a valve with the aim of making current EU legislation better. As you want to fix a certain problem by changing specific legislation, you need to keep things simple. Valve ECIs tend to be overly complex and hard to communicate so do everything you can to stick to the main gist.
- a bargaining chip, by using the ECI process as an additional element in an attempt to influence European policymaking. However, before you start such an ECI, assess your influence and political power independent of the initiative and check the possible additional benefits. Be clear about your intentions vis-à-vis supporters and be aware of the withdrawal option of an ECI and its timely use.
- a catalyst, to build broad alliances and networks across Europe. This is an especially appropriate option when you see your initiative as an element of a longer strategy to bring people across Europe together and/or to prepare a European election campaign.
- a canvasser, to make yourself and/or your group better known in the public sphere. In this case, you need to first identify a suitable and easily communicable substantive issue for your ECI. You should also be as open as possible about your goals to ensure that you do not deceive potential supporters.
The ECI offers many opportunities, but in the end it all comes down to your own understanding and capacities when assessing the options and limitations of an ECI. By becoming aware of the multifunctional capabilities of this new transnational and participatory process, you may be able to develop realistic expectations and thereby a realistic approach to your strategy and behaviour.
If you are not sure if the ECI is the best tool to meet your objectives, consider various aspects of your case in the Consider before you act section and read about other tools available on the European level in the Participation toolkit section.
Considering launching your own ECI? It will take you at least a couple of years, probably even more (and quite a lot in terms of resources) to make it happen. However, if you are smart and careful, the process will offer you new insights and teach you many new lessons — and (hopefully) enable you to make a difference for Europe. Here are 10 steps to expect during the ECI process.
You have an idea, project or concern which can be translated into European policy. Check first of all whether there are any other, possibly simpler and more accessible tools available to make your voice heard on this issue. If you opt for the ECI, go to step 2.
The European citizens’ Initiative is a process involving many legal and political implications. Learn everything about the options and limitations of the process when it comes to promoting your own future initiative. Try to evaluate whether or not you are prepared to face all the administrative and procedural challenges. If you believe that you are, then continue to step 3.
Another important checkpoint before taking the first formal steps is to establish what you want to achieve with your initiative and what you can realistically hope to achieve.
Define the aim, scope and specific function of your initiative. Keep it as simple as possible for everybody.
The wording and explanation of your initial proposal must be comprehensible in many different languages and even more political cultures across Europe. Like most organisers, you may want to use an online collection system: now is the time to set it up — and to use all available support. Consult the Official Register to view previous ECIs.
This is a huge hurdle for many organisers. You need to get in touch with the Commission services as soon as possible in order to ensure that your proposal is formulated correctly. It can be done if you put your mind to it! It is then time to officially file your ECI online and to wait for the Commission to carry out its admissibility check within a two-month period. During this time, set up your Online Collection System, so you are ready in time.
This is the best and hardest stage, when you have to convince more than one million Europeans in at least seven different countries in less than a year. This effort needs to be prepared well ahead by creating a pan-European network of supporting partners across Europe.
Without communication, you will have no supporters; dialogue with all possible friends (and even sceptics!) will be critical for the lasting success of your initiative. With this in mind, complement your signature gathering activities by reaching out via (social) media and at public events.
Dozens of requirements and hurdles have to be dealt with before you can finally submit your initiative with all the required certifications to the Commission. This requires a solid and well-prepared management team for your initiative. Silly mistakes will generate high additional costs, delays and frustrations.
Submitting your ECI is just the beginning of another important chapter: communication on an official EU topic, which will bring you onto the political centre stage. After being acknowledged as a successful initiative, new doors will open to you: in formal talks with the Commission and at a public hearing at the European Parliament. This will be a great opportunity to convince even more people — and possibly the right people!
At the end of an exhausting but hopefully empowering exercise it is important not to forget to do the back-office work, documentation and evaluation in order to learn (and share) the conclusions drawn. As nearly 60 ECIs have been filed since 2012, there is a lot to learn from them already.
Against privatisation: Right2Water > 1.6 million signatures
This was one of the first registered ECIs in history, making it (almost) all the way to the top. The Right2Water initiative, launched primarily by European trade unions, was based on the international right to free access to drinking water and quality sanitation and linked this to the EU discussion on allowing private investors to buy and sell water resources across the Union. As the ECI developed, the debate received much public attention and gathered almost a million signatures within days, putting the new online signature collection system to the test. As provided for under the ECI law, it finally reached the Commission, which welcomed the initiative but did not opt for new legislation.
Protect the Animals: Stop Vivisection 1.17 million signatures
Animal protection issues traditionally gather considerable public support. In the US, the main animal protection organisation, the Humane Society, is often called the most successful initiative proponent. In the EU, a similar movement gathered momentum in 2012-2013 with more than 1 173 130 statements of support, proposing new EU legislation essentially making animal testing in medical research illegal. This ECI was submitted to the Commission in March 2015. The initiative was not followed by a legislative proposal from the Commission.
Pro-Life Movement: One of Us >1.7 million signatures
‘The embryo is a human being, it is a baby conceived and still unborn; it is not reasonable to kill him in order to obtain stem cells’. With this fundamental argument and a proposal for new restrictive EU legislation on stem cell research, the organisers of the One of us initiative managed to use the ECI process as a strong campaign tool. More than other ECI organisers, they gathered considerable support on paper forms and finally managed to get more support than any other initiative so far. However, their proposal got very little response from the Commission, which angered the organisers and made them appeal to the European Court against the Commission’s inaction.