We, as citizens of the European Union (EU), have been lately involved in the discussion over the European Parliament (EP) elections and hence heard about the concept of ‘representative democracy’. What has not been so popular in the debate is the complementary notion of ‘participatory democracy’ and, in particular, its operationalisation in the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI).
The latter is indeed an essential democratic tool in the hands of EU citizens, whose existence dates back to the Treaty of Lisbon.
Features and implications
Indeed, Art. 11(4) of the TEU qualifies the above-mentioned Initiative as an invitation that at least one million EU citizens can address to “the European Commission, within the framework of its powers, to submit any appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties“.
From the wording of the provision, it is apparent that the ECI is a peculiar instrument that nationals of a Member State can avail themselves with, in order to concretely participate in the democratic life of the Union.
Given its salience and the great scale of impact it might have, i.e. the possibility of creating a new legislation, the ECI’s discipline is set out in a Regulation which was originally issued in 2011 and which has been recently updated.
To quote former European Commission (EC) Vice-President Šefčovič, the objective of the Initiative is “bringing Europe closer to its citizens”: to achieve it, the ECI is designed to enable a certain amount of citizens to ask the Guardian of the Treaties to present a legislative proposal on a specific topic to the EP and the Council.
Such an initiative might have huge repercussions, both in geographical and practical terms. Therefore, this power is limited and well-defined in its contours.
As far as the number of citizens is concerned, there is a two-fold criterion to be met: first of all, it is established that the Initiative must be launched by at least 7 citizens residing in at least 7 Member States (MS). Secondly, once registered in the ad hoc EC register, it must receive the support of ‘at least one million citizens […] from at least one quarter of the MS’ to be valid.
The rationale is that of ensuring that the request does not come from a limited number of countries but is rather “pan-European“. For a citizen to support the initiative, it is sufficient that their ages allow them to vote in EP elections. What is also noteworthy is the fact that both the criteria are centred on the concept of residence rather than that of nationality, thus highlighting all the more the borderless nature of the Initiative.
When it comes to the scope of the invitation, it is specified that the initiative must fall within one of the legal domains in which the Commission has the power of initiative. These include, inter alia, the environment, energy, trade, and public health.
Should one or more of these conditions be missing, the initiative is invalid.
By looking carefully at the words of the relevant provisions, some of the ECI’s limits become apparent. First of all, the high threshold of one million signatories is a practical hurdle which might hamper the successful registration of a relatively high number of initiatives. What is more, the signatories must be collected within 12 months from the registration’s confirmation – this being an additional challenge for the ECI’s promoters.
Besides, the most remarkably constraining feature is the fact that, even when such conditions are fulfilled, there is nonetheless no obligation for the Commission to actually submit a formal proposal to the EU legislator.
As a matter of fact, the Commission is only bound by the duty of examining the proposed document and to set up meetings for it to be illustrated directly by the organisers. The latter – which form the so-called “citizens’ committee’”– will therefore convene in Brussels and have the chance of explaining in detail their proposal both to EC representatives and later in a public hearing at the EP. The whole procedure is finalised by a Commission’s communication where the reasons for either moving forward with or abandoning the Initiative are set forth.
This notwithstanding, since the entry into force of the Regulation, over 60 initiatives have been registered, counting up to 9 million statements of support collected. Among them, 4 initiative have met all the necessary legal requirements. What deserves special mention is the fact that all of them were related either to the environment and to public health – hence suggesting not only that topics in this legal domains are acquiring higher and higher salience in the public debate, but also that the general public sense a lack of action by the competent Institutions.
The amended Regulation
Together with the abovementioned limits, required by virtue of the very powerful nature of this instrument, some studies carried out in the past few years have underscored many ECI’s shortcomings. That is why, at the end of last April, the original 2011 Regulation on the ECI has been amended.
For instance, in an attempt to “making it more accessible, less burdensome and easier to use for organisers and supporters”, the ECI timeline has been made more flexible in the sense of allowing a revision of the proposal in case all the requirements for registration are not met. Furthermore, the number of forms at citizens’ disposal for supporting an initiative have been reduced from 13 to just 2  with a view to enhancing clarity over its use. The most important innovation is arguably the lowering of the age participation requirements from 18 to 16 years old , which enables “10 million more young Europeans to step forward and help shape the EU’s policy agenda”. To conclude, the new Regulation sets forth one central online collection system managed by the Commission itself, and no longer by the organisers, for whom cumbersome administrative burdens are consequently reduced.
Overall, such changes – which will apply as of 2020 – are expected to further encourage the successful employment of this powerful instrument of participatory democracy. The ultimate aim is to strengthen citizens’ right of participation in the democratic life of the Union and to achieve the essential objective of ‘an ever-closer Union’.
In conclusion, even if the ECI is not the only way through which we EU citizens can make our voice be heard, it remains an efficient tool of participatory democracy.
 Art. 11(4), TEU.
 Regulation (EU) No 211/2011 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 16 February 2011 on the citizens’ initiative.
 EC Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, Speaking points for Press Conference on the ‘European Citizens’ Initiative’, in European Commission Press Release, March 2010, available at: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_SPEECH-10-138_en.htm.
 Art. 3(1)(a), Regulation (EU) 2019/788 of the European Parliament and the Council on the European Citizens’ Initiative.
 Art. 14(2), Reg. 2019/788.
 European Commission, ECI Factsheet, in Official Register, last updated 3 July 2019, available at: Factsheet [EN].
 European Commission, Report on the application of Regulation (EU) No 211/2011 on the Citizens’ Initiative – 28 March 2018.
 Art. 6(4) second indent, Reg. 2019/788.
 Annex III, Reg. 2019/788.
 Art. 2, Reg. 2019/788.
 First Vice-President Frans Timmermans, State of the Union 2017 – Democracy Package: Reform of Citizens’ Initiative and Political Party Funding, in European Commission Press Release, September 2017, available at: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-17-3187_en.htm.
 Art. 10, Reg. 2019/788.
Born in Bologna in 1994, she graduated from Alma Mater Studiorum – University of Bologna with a thesis in EU Law on The Consequences of Brexit on Citizenship rights.
Currently enrolled in a Master in International and European Union Law (LL.M) at Tilburg University.
Writing on legal issues and topics is one of the ways through which she expresses her dedication to International and EU Law. Besides, she is VP in the traineeships area of the ELSA Bologna team and constantly looks for new stimulating challenges.
Her project is to become a EU Law experts, with a focus on environmental law and Human Rights.
She’s always down for a cup of tea and some chocolate, as well as for travelling around Europe with her beloved backpack.