The citizens' own initiative
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The citizens' own initiative

Should EU citizens be able to tell the European Union what to do? That will be pretty much the case as soon as a new European Citizens' Initiative, proposed just before Easter, goes through. The possibility, which is available thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, will be the first time that a form of "direct democracy" of this nature will be introduced at EU level. Using this initiative, EU citizens would be able to ask the European Commission to come out with a legislative proposal in any area that falls within the competence of the EU.

Here is how it would work.

The initiative would need to be supported by one million signatures - taken online or physically - from at least one third of the EU member states (currently, nine countries). This would enable citizens to take the initiative on what they would like to see the Union do and seek support for their own ideas.

One million signatures sound a lot but in a Union of half a billion, it's not much really. Nor does the system present a high threshold for small countries, such as Malta, because the signatures must be collected from at least nine countries.

The Commission is suggesting that the minimum number of signatures from each country should be calculated on the basis of the number of MEPs of that country multiplied by a factor of 750. This would mean that a minimum of 4,500 signatures would be required from countries such as Malta (based on six seats), Luxembourg, Cyprus and Estonia and a minimum of 72,000 from Germany.

This is hardly insurmountable.

On the contrary, given the reasonably limited number of signatures required from smaller member states, it seems likely that countries such as ours may be used as a testing ground for whether an initiative would fly.

As to subject-matter, the initiative must concern an issue that lies within the competence of the EU - and that's quite a list - but not in areas where the EU has no power to act. Thus, for instance, an initiative may concern issues dealing with, say, food safety or climate change, which are in the EU remit, but not with whether, say, a country should legalise abortion, which is not. Nor can initiatives ask the Commission to change the EU treaties for it is not up to the Commission to do so. These kinds of initiatives would fail the test of admissibility and run aground at the first hurdle.

Likewise, initiatives cannot go against the values of the Union. Nor would initiatives promoting extremist views be allowed. Thus, for instance, an initiative calling on the EU to introduce the death penalty or say, ban minarets, would fail the test.

On the face of it, therefore, these criteria would seem to exclude injudicious and embarrassing initiatives... but you never know.

As soon as 300,000 signatures are collected, initiatives can be submitted to the European Commission so that their admissibility can be ascertained. If they are found to be admissible, then the process can continue until the million signatures are collected. This must be done within a year from registration of the initiative.

When the signatures are collected, the Commission would have four months to study the proposal and publicly state whether it is in a position to accept it. Clearly, if the initiative is valid, the Commission would be hard-pressed not to go along with it no matter how much it may dislike it. In this event, the Commission would introduce the matter in its working programme and include it in its list of legislative proposals.

The law-making process would remain the same, that is, the proposal would still need to go through the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament for their consideration and approval.

The European Citizens' Initiative is a welcome development because it goes a long way in bridging the gap between citizens and the Union. Citizens would finally feel that they have a direct stake in the decisions taken on their behalf in Brussels, something that has long been sought over several years of stuttering treaty-changes.

Moreover, it also gives a stake to civil society and we are likely to see several non-governmental organisations from all sides and sectors come up with their own or participate in someone else's initiatives.

That will be good for Europe and good for democracy.

Finally, it might also spur us in Malta to follow the lead and introduce our own Maltese Citizens' Initiative. Many EU countries already have it in place at national, regional or local levels. Perhaps it is time for us to take the cue.

Readers who would like to ask questions to be answered in this column can send an e-mail, identifying themselves, to contact@simonbusuttil.eu or through www.simonbusuttil.eu.

Dr Busuttil is a Nationalist member of the European Parliament.

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