"The European Citizens Initiatives (ECI) is an instrument for citizens to take a role in European policy making. After 5 years of experience we see it is not working properly. It is time for the European Commission to act upon the institutions recommendations" said Michael Smyth, EESC Vice-President in his introductory speech at the ECI DAY 2016 on 20 April in Brussels, organised by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC). "Providing citizens with an effectively working instrument to voice their needs and concerns could have a tangible influence on European politics making it more targeted, relevant and in particular more democratic."
"How reliable is an EU which introduces an instrument for a more democratic and more participatory union in its treaty and then doesn't care whether it's working or not? Four years without a single result or follow up on an ECI, should be a wake up-call for the Commission." Many of the participants from civil society organizations voiced these concerns at the ECI Day 2016 and were not only disappointed that the Commission postponed the review of the ECI but also that Commissioner Timmermans was not present at the ECI Day.
ECI-The state of play
The hearing provided a platform for the European Commission, the European Parliament, the European Ombudsman and the Dutch Presidency to elaborate on the current state of play of the ECI. Emily O'Reilly, the EU's Ombudsman and a strong voice for a functioning ECI, was concerned of the Commissions' political attitude towards the ECI by quoting a College of Commissioners' meeting: 'Citizens' initiatives….tended instead to involve highly controversial and emotionally charged issues of greater interest to minorities….ultimately, generated Euroscepticism, called for a debate on how to rectify this situation… the Commission should take account of the political consequences that this mechanism could have in the longer term'. "What citizens and I want to know is the real honest thinking of the Commission about the ECI", concluded the Ombudsman and urged the Commission to finally explain what citizens ultimately can expect to achieve.
Commission postpones important decisions
The EESC is not alone in its endeavours to help the ECI finally becoming what the Treaty of Lisbon intended, namely an innovative instrument for transnational participatory democracy:
- The European Ombudsman drew up 11 guidelines for an improvement of the ECI;
- the European Parliament (EP) sent a resolution with clear and specific proposals for a revised ECI,
- the Committee of the Regions (CoR) adopted an opinion calling for a rapid and substantial revision of the ECI.
- Last but not least also the Commission in its report of April 2015 recognised that organisers face many difficulties and proposed amendments, however, instead of delivering these amendments it has postponed the review of the ECI.
György Schöpflin asked the Commission why it is not reacting when something is seriously going wrong. He assumed this non-reaction has something to do with the Commission's attitude towards EU citizens in general, asking "if we do have democracy without the demos?"
The same line took participants from the audience questioning "if the Commission doesn't trust the citizens why should we trust the Commission?"
What needs to be done?
After this first session, participants together with experts from all over Europe discussed in three different workshops how to improve the ECI and thus people's stake in European policy. The main conclusions will feed into the EESC opinion on a reviewed ECI which the EESC is currently setting up. The Committee has been actively involved in the ECI process as facilitator and institutional mentor. Every year it is organising the European Citizens' Initiative Day to assess the effectiveness of the ECI; it provides the ECI helpdesk office, mainly set up to provide translations of descriptions of initiatives validated by the Commission; and it gives practical guidance with the European Citizens passport and other brochures, and gives other support.
"This is not only a setback for European people but also for the democratic values of the European Union", said Antonio Longo, the rapporteur of the EESC's opinion on "The European Citizens' Initiative (review)" in his conclusions. "In times where trust in the EU institutions decreases and coherence within Europe loosens, it is more than important to give Europeans the feeling that their concerns matter. With an easy to handle and functioning ECI-instrument the EU can regain both reliability and authority. It's high time for the Commission to react."
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