The citizens’ initiative is the first participatory democracy tool at the European level. It enables one million citizens to directly submit a draft legislative proposal to the European Commission. Based on the 14 existing initiatives, the assessment made by their organisers today is rather bitter. The initiative’s democratic promises went against the multiple challenges of bureaucratic and technical implementation. Should we therefore refuse to play the game and give up? On the contrary, we believe that the initiative, despite its obstacles, or precisely due to its obstacles, offers a great opportunity to revive the debate on the conditions of genuine citizens’ participation.

Is the citizens’ initiative an invention of the Lisbon Treaty? Not really. The initiative appeared in the 2002 Convention, entitled “Convention on Europe’s future”, in which the European Commission consulted stakeholders and public organisations from European civil society (mainly Brussels-based umbrella organisations) in preparation for the European Constitutional Treaty of 2004 (A treaty that was rejected in a referendum by the French and Dutch). Therefore, it wasn’t the European Commission that came up with it. The new instrument was backed by civil society organisations, and was then incorporated into Article 11 of the Treaty of Lisbon.

Given the time that was needed for the European Commission to make its draft proposal, for the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers to vote this proposal and for the Members states to implement it, the first citizens’ initiatives could only be registered from the 1st of April 2012.

The citizens’ initiative took ten years to develop… is this an indicator of the pitfalls that its implementation would encounter?

The broken promises of the citizens’ initiative so far

The objectives or promises of the citizen’s initiative are laid out in the 2009 Green Paper by the European Commission: “the citizens’ initiative will allow citizens of the European Union to make their voices heard by giving them the right to address the Commission directly, asking it to formulate new proposals for action. It will give a new dimension to European democracy, it will complete all the rights related to EU citizenship and it will increase the public debate on European policies, thereby creating a real European public space.” In practice, these three goals have been thwarted.

A rough detachment from the traditional perception of civil dialogue

The first promise of a citizens’ initiative is to create, alongside civil dialogue, a more direct link between citizens and the European Union, to add new voices in the policy-making process. But what are the skills needed to launch a citizens’ initiative?

First of all, one must have the capacity to quickly create a solid structure at the European level: a committee of at least seven people, from at least seven member states, and among them, a representative and a substitute. Then, one must collect a million signatures from at least seven member states, with a minimum quota per participating country.

The citizens’ initiative also requires a European legal expertise. To be eligible, the legislative proposal submitted to the Commission must be within the scope of competence of the Commission and therefore have a legal basis in the Treaties.

Furthermore, the initiative requires an expertise of European bureaucracy: administrative procedures are burdensome and the Commission’s website does not provide adequate help in this respect.

Finally, it requires technical expertise. In theory, the organisers can choose to have their own system certified in order to collect signatures online, but this process is very expensive. Most of them use the free of charge system provided by the Commission. Its designers were unaware of how citizen’s campaigns work and it has not been sufficiently tested. As a result, it is very unattractive and not very operational. The translations are inadequate and it regularly malfunctions.

Realistically, who can possess all these skills (European structure, experience of the European bureaucracy, legal and technical expertise) if not the civil society organisations already present in Brussels?

The EU has introduced many participatory instruments for civil dialogue but participation has always been seen as the consultation of representatives of interests. It has been based on a partnership pattern rather than a participatory one, on a pattern of negotiation rather than on public pressure.

Participation is framed and it minimises its destabilizing effects. Could it be possible that the European Union is afraid of citizens’ participation? The participation of French and Dutch citizens at the 2005 referendums seems to have been a traumatic experience and has not been renewed ever since. The same tremors was triggered during the 2011 debate on the Greek government’s decision to submit the austerity package that troika wanted to impose to people’s vote.

In fact, the citizens’ initiative itself is not born out of popular pressure but as a lobbying activity (direct and informal exchanges revealed to be much more effective than formal consultations as organized in the 2002 Convention). There is a paradox when one knows that one of the organisations most active in the defense of the new instrument was Democracy International, whose purpose is precisely to promote direct democracy in Europe. Their means to achieve their goal was not so important. This is a challenge faced by all NGOs based in Brussels.

The citizens’ initiative is therefore in an indirect relationship with the citizen, being advertised and promoted by civil society organizations at European level.

And while 2013 is declared the “European Year of Citizens”, very few citizens are aware of the new instrument. The media, which could be a useful relay, doesn’t seem to give it too much attention either.

A rather disadvantageous cost / benefit ratio:

The cost of a citizens’ initiative is very important both in financial terms and in human resources. It was assessed at € 1 million. This cost is reinforced by the uncertainty of seeing legislation put into place (the Treaty of Lisbon does not oblige but “invites” the Commission to initiate legislation proposed by the citizens’ initiative). To this, one can add the incompatibility of the system used for collecting signatures with the requirements of a citizens’ campaign: many technical problems that discourage potential signatories, no interactivity, nor tracking information devices.

Therefore, several risks of misinterpretation arise. The issue of funding is primarily a risk of instrumentalisation of the initiative by interest groups, associations and especially commercial bodies. The initiative on the good treatment of the dairy cow, now withdrawn from the race, had obtained financial support of € 90,000 from Ben and Jerry’s, the ice cream company.

The numerous technical obstacles also bring a risk of focusing solely on the goal of every single citizens’ initiative from a quantitative perspective. The race for signatures from an audience that is already informed and easily accessible is undermining the whole process and the public debate.

What’s more, the regulatory differences at national level concerning the collection of signatures and the quotas for each participating country, induces between them a competitive environment. Another paradox of the citizens’ initiative is the fact that it claims to be opened to a transnational public but it withdraws in its implementation behind national borders.

If some initiatives are successful, would it mean that we are able to change the relationship that citizens have with Europe, and make them more involved in the policy-making process? Nothing is less certain if we judge from the debates that citizens’ initiatives have risen so far.

The ECI’s message lost in technical discussions

Since its introduction in the Treaty of Lisbon, the debates on the ECI concerned mainly legal and technical aspects: minimum age, number of countries, time to collect signatures, platform to gather signatures. Nothing is mentioned on its core issues, that the initiative seems to have ignored: the difficulty to get citizens involved, to create the conditions for a transnational public discourse, to create the conditions necessary for the implementation of this new right.

It is interesting to observe that if adding a new right to the European citizenship was one of the three objectives put forward in the Green Paper of 2009, the citizens’ initiative does not appear anywhere in the article 20 of the TFEU, which lists precisely the rights inherent to this citizenship.

Without greater support at European level, the potential of the citizens’ initiative, that we believe is real, will depend primarily on the organizers. We believe there are at least 5 reasons why we should not minimize the potential of the citizens’ initiative.


There are at least 5 reasons to be interested in the Citizens’ Initiative


The long list of obstacles that ECI is faced with could legitimately lead us to conclude that the problems come from the unwillingness of European institutions. But if we put it into a less satirical note, we can also highlight the lack of knowledge in implementing a very young, unexpected instrument that breaks, in essence, with the traditional experience, mainly the top-down dialogue with the European civil society. This break is the first but not the last of its assets.


First asset: a paradigm shift, from the negotiation of the elite to popular pressure.

Regardless of its organisers, one of the strengths of the citizens’ initiative resides in the fact that its success depends more on the ability to mobilise a large number of citizens, rather than on the technical expertise and lobbying activity of others.

In the traditional consultation process, there are mainly Brussels-based organizations and few local or national organizations. The initiative, on the other hand, must be organised within territorial boundaries. There is a shift from an umbrella type of network, oriented towards the negotiation of its members’ interests by a few specialists, to a more transversal and pan-European networking, focused on the population. From a dialogue focused on reaching a consensus to public pressure from citizens.


Second asset: the definition of another type of agenda.

Another strength of the citizens’ initiative is the fact that it submits a different agenda to the Commission. The European Citizens’ Initiative which received its first million signatures (but not its per country quota) Right2Water, calls on the Commission to recognise water as a public good and not as a commodity on the market. This type of proposal is differs greatly from the current European agenda.

Regardless of whether a large number of initiatives do not fulfill the eligibility requirements or do not get the million signatures, the challenge is to show to the European Commission that we, the citizens, are committed to participating fully in defining the public agenda.

The political parties, trade unions and the media, which traditionally played this role, are now in fact increasingly subject to the imposed political agenda (mainly on fiscal and economic issues, European correspondents are becoming more specialised in these fields).


Third asset: the crisis and the challenge of legitimacy for the European Commission.

Given the crisis of confidence of European citizens in the EU, it is unclear how the Commission could ignore the pressure exerted by a million of its citizens.

The citizens’ initiative could also reconcile the Commission with citizen’s participation, breaking with the threatening and destabilizing vision of popular pressure. The citizens’ initiative will not attack but can, instead, reinforce the legitimacy of the European Commission.


Fourth asset: a mutual reinforcement between participatory and representative democracy in 2014.

The involvement of national and European members of Parliament in these kind of campaigns (not as organisers, which is forbidden, but as supporters) also has the merit to reinforce the link between participatory and representative democracy. The first is often built in opposition to the second, but we believe they are meant to strengthen each other.

Some citizens’ initiatives address issues already undertaken by MEPs in their parliamentary committees or political groups. This is particularly the case for the Citizens’ Initiative for media pluralism.

It also shows that the EU is not a monolithic bloc, that the three institutions (the European Commission, the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament) represent a balance of power (albeit uneven), and that within the European Parliament there are different opinions and political views. The next European Parliament elections in 2014 are, in this respect, an important issue, especially as they will bring two important innovations: transnational political lists and the election of the Commission’s President by the Parliament.


Fifth asset: an opportunity to rethink the notion of citizen’s participation.

Finally and most importantly, it is a powerful lever to restart a debate on the conditions of social and civil dialogue, on the role of citizens’ participation and transnational debate in the political process. We doubt that this debate can be conducted on Twitter. It needs to revive the public sphere.



Article authored by Esther Durin, IHECS

Translation into English: Laura Visan