1989 Generation Initiative

This article is part of a series of papers based on the preliminary results of the 1989 Generation Initiative’s policy cycle “Tackling Populism: Hope over Fear”. The following article is based on the results of the Roundtable “Amplifying Voices” at its launching conference. Written by Martin Garrigue, External Content Officer.

Taking back control: The development of a European citizenship will pass through the empowerment of its citizens

Much of today’s rejection of whatever is understood as the “system” boils down to the sense of having lost control over one’s future. The old catchphrase of “taking back control of your life”, mantra of well-being coaches and other personal development gurus, has permeated to the political sphere. Much of the commotion over Chatham House’s poll finding that most Europeans supported Trump’s ‘Muslim ban’ last month missed out a crucial result: a significant majority of those supporters were also those describing themselves as ‘left-behind’ voters, those who do not believe the political order works for them anymore. Though the reasons for which voters feel ‘left behind’ are eminently complex and touch upon wider forces such as the economic effects of globalization, some member states have moved towards offering new channels for citizens to be heard; Europe must follow if it is to reattract those disaffected citizens.

Europe must follow in offering new channels for citizens to be heard

Citizen initiatives have been introduced or updated throughout Europe in recent years. France, hence, has introduced a limited form of local initiatives at its local level in 2003, while the UK government has moved its petition system online to facilitate access. Since 2012, 50000 Finish citizens can promote a citizens’ initiative to the Finnish Parliament. In other countries, like Switzerland, popular referendums are an integral part of the political landscape. These semi-direct democratic practices, evidently, are gaining ground as a response to citizen disaffection.

Yet significant resistance also exists: in 2015, the Irish assembly hence rejected the idea of a citizen’s initiative, feeling citizens already had enough direct access to policy-making. The uncertainties of direct democracy, particularly on highly technical questions, have scared decision-makers away from these forms of representation, an opportunity populists exploit by promising more referenda to voters as means to bridge the gap between them and the government. The existence and viability of channels for citizens to express themselves must hence be ensured to offer an alternative to the false sirens of populism, an understanding which brings us to the European Union’s own citizen initiative and its failings.

A voice for all Europeans: reforming the European Citizen Initiative

At its launch in 2012, Commissioners hailed the European Citizen Initiative as a means to “bridge the gap” between citizens and the EU. Five years later, of the 52 Citizens Initiative the Commission has received so far, only 3 were ‘successful’, with none of them leading to legislative proposals; 20 of them have been rejected without appropriate explanations, leading to cases at the EU Ombudsman or even the ECJ. The Commission has refused introducing reforms promoted by the European Parliament and NGOs and, in a Commissioner meeting’s minutes, the ECI is even labelled as a vehicle for Euroscepticism. To quote EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly, the ECI, at present, is in “existential crisis”.

Amplifying Citizens' Voices roundtable
The jest of the necessary reforms has already been outlined by NGOs and the European Parliament: harmonization of application procedures across Member States, the requirement to introduce a legislative proposal within 18 months if an initiative is successful or requirements to formally develop reasons for rejection of an initiative are amongst the reforms which have been brought forward by stakeholders. More important, the 1989 Generation Initiative believes, is to make the European Parliament, not the Commission, the first point of contact should an ECI reach the required thresholds for consideration.

At heart a political matter, ECIs should be considered by the most politicized of European institutions in the form of the Parliament: the main obstacle to most Initiatives has been their lack of conformity to the Commission’s tightly Treaty-defined prerogatives, a hurdle which the European Parliament can overcome. A requirement for initiatives to be debated in the Parliament, which could then amend them to make them palatable for the Commission if receivable, would go a long way towards increasing the salience of the Initiatives. In turn, the Parliament will then be able to hold the Commission accountable on the evolutions of the Initiative, a degree of political control which the current system does not provide.

The proposal, in a sense, asks merely to reproduce what is already in place at national level, with national parliaments at the receiving end of citizens’ initiative: in the context of the EU, the transfer of these initiatives to the Commission will require the formal recognition of a right of the European Parliament of legislative initiative, at least within the small remit of the ECIs.

A voice for all nationals: multiplying access points to European policy-making

The reform of ECIs, while central to citizen empowerment, is not enough by its own: the multiplication of access points for citizens to have their voice heard is essential if the European polity is to truly develop. The projects under the Europe for Citizens Programme, aiming at improving conditions for civic and democratic participation at the local level, must be rethought to better encourage the use of new technologies: phone apps promoting participatory democracy, like Flux or DemocracyOS, are but one example of avenues to explore.

At the institutional level, national parliaments can themselves provide an additional means through which citizens of a specific country can make their voice heard at the European level. The Early Warning System national parliaments dispose of, by focusing solely on the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and only activable following a Commission legislative proposal, is too weak: A system of legislative initiative by national parliaments, designed in such a way that it avoids the hurdles of national partisanship (by, for example, requiring a significant number of parliaments to be included in a legislative initiative for it to be receivable), would provide an additional channel towards making European citizens’ voice heard within the EU.

Reforming institutionsis not enough

The lack of channels for citizens to make their voice heard contributes to the ever rising disaffection with Europe and, from there, populism. In times where the process itself of representative democracy is under question, a reform of its representative institutions must necessarily be undertaken: lasting change, however, cannot be brought about without the complementary development of direct forms of citizen representation, as driver or as counter-balance to the proceedings of our institutions.

Photo by Mihai Simionica

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