Participatory democracy in the EU?

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europees verdragThe European Parliament approved last week the final deal on the European Citizens Initiative (ECI), which obliges the European Commission to consider proposals supported by the signatures of one million Europeans. The final deal is a compromise between the Commission and Council, who insisted on administrative hurdles that would have made it very difficult to collect the signatures needed, and MEPs who wanted fewer obstacles. But how much of a boost is this new instrument for democracy and citizens’ power?

The Citizens’ Initiative is presented as a tool to empower citizens. Such a tool is of course much-needed in a European Union that is suffering from a deep democratic deficit, and where citizens are largely sidelined in decision-making, contributing to a strong and deepening sense of political disempowerment. The vacuum that currently exists between citizens and the EU institutions is occupied by professional lobbyists, most of which represent big business interests. It is in this desperate context that the European Citizens’ Initiative is launched.

Introduced as a result of the Lisbon Treaty, the Citizens’ Initiative has even been referred to as a “tool for participatory democracy”. Wikipedia defines participatory democracy as processes that ensure “broad participation of constituents in the direction and operation of political systems” and create “opportunities for all members of a political group to make meaningful contributions to decision-making”.[1] Belgian Secretary of State for European Affairs Olivier Chastel, who negotiated for the Council during the EU Presidency, even claimed that “Thanks to the citizens’ initiative, we will change from representative democracy to participatory democracy!” [2]

But now that the final text on the process has been approved, it is clear that this is a wildly exaggerated claim for an instrument that merely obliges the European Commission to consider proposals that have received backing of one million signatures from at least seven Member States.

Once one million signatures have been collected, the Commission has three months to “set out the actions it envisages to take in response to it”, including “its reasons if it does not envisage taking any action”. In other words, these proposals are not in any way binding for the Commission. There is not – in contrary to in the US or elsewhere where citizens’ initiatives exist – the possibility of binding referenda or anything else that would justify the term participatory democracy. The Commission will continue to have the absolute monopoly on making proposals for EU legislation. The organisers of the petition do gain the right to present their demands at a “public hearing at EU level”, but this is a very meager compensation for having gone through such tremendous signature-gathering efforts.

Collecting one million signatories is never a simple exercise, but the final rules for the ECI add further hurdles. The European Commission and Council had initially insisted that all signatures should be complemented with ID numbers and perhaps even re-confirmed by the signatories, bureaucratic hurdles that would be virtually impossible for grassroots citizens groups to jump. In the final compromise the procedures for confirming the authenticity of the signatures is left to each Member State to decide. Bureaucratic hurdles will therefore vary from one country to another, but Member States are free to introduce quite excessive conditions. The signatures have to be collected within twelve months, a very short time frame. Significant numbers of signatures have to be collected in a quarter of the 27 EU member states (MEPs had insisted that one fifth was sufficient). These are important conditions that will determine whether the new instrument is available as a tool for grassroots groups or mainly for large well-funded organisations. This is one of the major lessons to be learned from the Citizen’s Initiative that already exists in California, US.

Lessons from California

The Californian Citizens’ Initiative, which has been in place for almost a century, is today rarely used by grassroots citizens’ groups because of fundamental flaws in its design. Ironically, it is more often used by big business interests. According to an in-depth study published by the Center for Governmental Studies, “Money often dominates the initiative process even more than it does the legislative process.”[3] In fact, there hasn’t been a single Citizens’ Initiative based on volunteer support since 1982 because of the high numbers of signatures required and the short deadline for collecting signatures.

Virtually all the initiatives put forward in California use expensive professional signature-gathering firms and “volunteer signature gathering has become a thing of the past.” The signature-collection stage – which is comparable to the ECI model – costs on average one to three million US$. This is a massive hurdle for grassroots citizens’ groups, but not for well-resourced NGOs, businesses or wealthy individuals, the actors that are using the California initiative system. “Money, rather than breadth or intensity of popular support has become the primary threshold”, the Centre for Governmental Studies concludes. The recommendations are two-fold: lower the threshold (lower number of signatures and longer timelines) so it becomes easier for lesser-financed groups to succeed in submitting initiatives and limit campaign contributions to ensure that wealthy groups or individuals cannot buy their way in.

A tool for citizens’ power?

It remains to be seen if the European Citizens Initiative will suffer from similar problems as the Californian model, but clearly the set-up of the ECI is far from ideally equipped to avoid this. The threshold is significant and likely to deter many grassroots groups from attempting to use the new tool, not least in the light of the Commission’s right to reject a proposal even if it passes the one million hurdle (the Californian model leads to a referendum with binding outcomes).

The risk that big business groupings will use the ECI to promote their demands is probably limited as they enjoy far more direct routes to agenda-setting via lobbying in Brussels. But attempts to abuse the ECI for corporate propaganda cannot be completely ruled out. In California it is very common for industry lobbies to launch counter-initiatives to defeat initiatives on social or environmental issues which they are unhappy with. This is typically done through industry-funded front groups posing to represent citizens. The most recent example is Proposition 23, an unsuccessful attempt to suspend a law aimed at limiting emissions of greenhouse gases. Americans For Prosperity, funded by oil giant Koch Industries, played a key role in propagating the ‘Yes on 23’ campaign. Lobby consultancies often play a key role in establishing such front groups. Will this happen in Europe?

It is positive that the organisers of citizens’ initiatives in the EU must provide “regularly updated information on the sources of support and funding for the initiative”. But it would have been far better to go beyond transparency and restrict who can finance such initiatives. Excluding corporate funding and large contributions from wealthy individuals would have been far more logical, considering that this is supposed to be a tool for ordinary citizens.

The first one million signatures for a citizens’ initiative had already been collected before the rules were finalised, providing an opportunity to put the new initiative to the test. Greenpeace, with the support of Avaaz, presented a petition calling for a ban on genetically modified (GM) crops.[4] Biotech industry lobby group EuropaBio were extremely annoyed, dismissing the petition as “a publicity stunt” and claiming that EU citizens are not concerned about GMOs.[5]

The Commission, meanwhile, has indicated it will not consider the Greenpeace petition because the signatures were collected before the ECI rules were finalised.[6] “Strictly speaking, they would have to do it all over again,” a Commission spokesperson said. This attitude does not bode well for the new initiative. For the Commission, brushing away the petition relieves them of responding to a demand that challenges its pro-GMO policies and decade-long alliance with the biotech industry.

While the ECI will not bring participatory democracy in any real sense, let alone increase democratic control over EU policy-making, it will hopefully serve a purpose in gaining attention for some of the numerous progressive citizens’ concerns that are routinely ignored by the Commission. And perhaps, over time, the Commission’s likely refusal of many demands, which are backed by millions of citizens will expose the deep lack of accountability that exists today — giving momentum to citizens’ movements demanding genuine democratic opportunities.

Industry front groups in Brussels

Edelman is one of the lobby consultancy firms in Brussels advertising “grassroots advocacy” services. The advantage of this approach, Edelman explains, is that industry lobby demands “will not be seen as biased, unlike your organisation”.[7] A recent example was the GM food tasting event held in the Renaissance Hotel, in front of the European Parliament, in June this year. The invitations for MEPs and journalists came from an unknown group called the Farmers Biotech Network, but the event was organised by Edelman.[8] On the menu was polenta made with Monsanto’s Bt-maize, produced in Spain. Only later Edelman admitted that it was biotech lobby group EuropaBio that paid for the event, a fact that was not disclosed to guests nor to the media covering the event. The demand to ‘give farmers more choice’ in growing GM crops is part of EuropaBio’s wider lobby campaign on behalf of large biotech corporations.

  1. 1

    “the Commission and Council, who insisted on administrative hurdles that would have made it very difficult to collect the signatures needed”

    Laat eens en vooral duidelijk zijn dat het democratische tekort van de EU volledig voor rekening van de nationale regeringen komt!
    En welke precies, daar komen we ook nog wel achter:

    In the final compromise the procedures for confirming the authenticity of the signatures is left to each Member State to decide.”

  2. 2

    Feit is dat de EC helemaal niet zo’n democratisch clubje is. Heb je ooit op Barroso of zijn kompaan van Rompuy kunnen stemmen?

    Dit soort wetgeving versterkt de greep van activistische lobbyclubs op Brussel. Alleen goed georganiseerde en internationaal werkende organisaties kunnen dit gebruiken. Die willen ook dat de EC meer macht naar zich toe trekt. Niemand kan immers Brussel controleren of wegstemmen.

    Het enige gevolg is dat het democratische stemrecht van de burger uitgehold wordt.

  3. 3

    A very careful and interesting assessment. The limitations of the European Citizens’ Initiative is clearly linked to the specific structure of the legislative process in the EU. However the citizens’ initiative is on the same footing as the Parliaments and the Councils; not too bad in a global comparison. Now, it will be about establishing a supportive infrastructure, similar to the European Parliaments one, and of course the very practice. We, the citizens of Europe, have to inform, educate and assists ourselves in making this new avenue of transnationala democracy a success! More reading at