High hopes for the first European Citizens’ Initiative

Less than ten weeks remain before EU citizens will be able to register the very first European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). From 1 April, citizens will be able to call on the European Commission  to propose legislation on any issue where it has the competence to legislate. That could be virtually anything from culture, education and the environment to consumer protection, equality or transport. Great! Fantastic! At last, an opportunity for ordinary people to gain access to the College of Commissioners and truly influence policy making and the legislative process in Europe. Well it is, but the procedures for proposing an initiative are neither quick, nor simple.

The ECI was born out the Lisbon Treaty and is part of a drive by the EU to improve transparency and democracy. Essentially, if an initiative receives one million signatures from citizens who come from at least seven of the EU’s member states then the European Commission will consider the proposal.

So how does it work? Well, before an ECI can be launched at least seven citizens from seven EU member states must form a “citizens’ committee” and officially register the ECI online. Then the committee can begin to collect signatures, and organisers have a year to do so. Any EU citizen can sign an initiative (so long as they are old enough to vote in European Parliament elections) and must complete a specific statement of support, either online or on paper. Once one million signatures have been collected, representatives from the Commission will meet with organisers and discuss the initiative in detail. There is also an opportunity for a public hearing at the European Parliament. The Commission will then adopt a formal response to the ECI’s proposals and set out its next course of action, if any.

This is a long process. Initially, the Commission has two months to register the proposed initiative. If you want to be able to collect electronic signatures for your ECI (and who wouldn’t in this digital age), then it takes a further month to build an online collection system that can handle the appropriate technical and security demands. This also has to be certified by a national authority in the member state where the data is going to be stored, before any signatures can be collected. Organisers have a year to collect signatures, and then a further three months are allowed for national authorities to verify the statements of support.Once organisers have received certificates verifying the signatures they submit these to the European Commission, who have a further three months to examine the initiative and prepare a response. Potentially, that’s 21 months of work from start to end, not to mention the work that goes in before an initiative is first launched.

Critics argue that the process is too complex, too long-winded and that ultimately, the European Commission is not legally bound to propose legislation as a result of an initiative. There are also fears that the ECI could be hijacked by civil society organisations pushing their own agendas. The Commission has tried to prepare for this by announcing that initiatives can’t be run by organisations. However, organisations are allowed to promote or support an ECI provided that they do so “with full transparency.”

On the plus side, this really is a rather revolutionary step for the EU and it has never consulted its citizens like this before. Last year the UK government introduced e-petitions, a similar measure for citizens to influence policy by way of a petition (only 100,000 signatures are needed for a subject to be raised in the House of Commons) and the website has been hugely popular. If the ECI receives the publicity it deserves on 1 April, it should get people talking and, hopefully, mobilised. One million signatures is a huge number to collect but in the digital age this might not be quite such a mammoth task. Time will tell and the first ECI is just around the corner.

This post was published by The New Federalist on 8 February 2012. 

Metric Martyrs and Bendy Bananas: When is a Euromyth, a Euromyth?

European Union

I wrote my master’s thesis on Euromyths and Euroscepticism – a topic I find fascinating – and recently contributed an abridged version of it to The New Federalist. Euroscepticism is alive and kicking in all of the EU’s member states, not just the UK. We are right to question the decisions and processes of the EU – it is such a huge, complicated beast that affects our lives in more ways than we realise, but at the same time we shouldn’t necessarily shun it or be fearful of it.

When needs must…

Over the last two years I’ve increasingly taken to travelling by coach. I’m not sure if this is a sign of my increasing poverty (various political internships then a return to higher education), the rising price of budget airlines/Eurostar or of my general thriftiness. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three.

Many of my friends balk at the idea of sitting on a coach for hours on end but on the whole it really isn’t that bad. One French housemate even said to me once, “But it’s so dangerous! The kind of people that travel on that bus!”

I’ve travelled with Eurolines (National Express in Britain) from Brussels to London, Zürich, Paris and Amsterdam. Yes, it is very slow. Yes, there is a risk you may be sat next to someone who has questionable personal hygiene (that will serve me right for attempting to take up two seats with my luggage until that seat was the last one left). But yes – it is very cheap.

I paid just €26 return to go from Brussels to Amsterdam and visit my family during reading week. When my friend got married in Switzerland two years ago, I almost cried when I saw the price of the plane and train tickets. Fortunately, there was a way of getting there for just €40 one-way as opposed to €80, it just mean sitting upright on a coach overnight through four different countries (which when you come from an island like me, is an adventure in itself).

In 2009 an American friend and I travelled to Paris by coach for a long weekend. He was anxiously waiting to find out if he’d been accepted at his dream university and I was miserable and wanted to forget about my ex-boyfriend.We had a blast in France – impromptu picnics of brie, baguette and cheap red wine followed by hours of walking around the city, admiring the architecture and the chicness of the place.

On the journey home we sat opposite one woman who took off her shoes so she could pick and file her dry, cracked heels onto the coach floor for the entire journey. It was so revolting and my friend spent the best part of an hour trying to make me laugh about it.

We stopped for a break just before the French/Belgian border, and the coach driver told us we all had fifteen minutes to grab a coffee, smoke a cigarette and have a wee. Fifteen minutes, then the coach would be leaving – with or without you. Most of the passengers were back in time, with the last few stragglers arriving a few moments later.

The driver switched on the engine and slowly began to pull away. The last passenger then emerged from the kiosk, clutching a paper cup of coffee and waving his free arm began to sprint towards the bus. The coach driver saw him straight away of course, but instead of stopping to let him on he just smiled and said wickedly into the PA system “Let’s have some fun with him!” and then proceeded to drive another fifteen metres, then stop. Then drive another fifteen metres and stop. After the third go the driver really did stop and let the furious passenger get on. There was lots of shouting in French, several wild hand gestures and the poor bloke was left wiping his burnt, coffee stained hand. Personally, I would have dropped it long ago.

Could I have had such experiences on a plane or a train? Probably not. The Eurolines coach is not perhaps the most glamorous way to travel, but when I’m skint and needs must then I’m pretty pleased that it’s there!

Brussels: Tips from an insider

Living in Flanders has given me the perfect opportunity to discover Brussels. The city is not just the capital of Belgium, but also the unofficial ‘capital of Europe’ as it hosts many of the EU’s institutions as well as NATO’s headquarters, which are tucked away in a particularly nondescript part of the city.

Brussels is great in the respect that it is small enough to navigate on foot yet large enough to have many things to do. It is just as easy to see it on foot as it is to take the metro or tram. Neighbourhoods are diverse and Brussels truly is an international city. You meet people from all over the world here.

Brussels is also a mecca for newly qualified graduates hoping to land their dream job working for the EU, a think tank, lobby group or just about any of the other international organisations based here.

One of my favourite Brussels pastimes is a visit to the Sunday market at Gare du Midi train station. The market is huge and bustling, selling absolutely everything from flowers, fruit, veg, clothes, cheese and electrical goods. You name it, they’ve got it. There are bargains to be had and the atmosphere can be loud and exciting but make sure you’re prepared to fight the crowds.

Brussels is also home to a number of museums. One of the best is the Magritte Museum which opened in 2009. Situated in the heart of Brussels’ museum quarter in Sablon, it hosts a collection of Magritte’s best known works, including the painting of the man with an apple for a head (Son of Man) and the one with the old man’s smoking pipe that says “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (The Treachery of Images). Even the gift shop is brilliant – so many cool postcards and prints for sale. The museum is extremely popular, so if you decide to visit at the weekend it’s probably worth reserving your tickets online in advance.

With the summer coming and it’s proximity to London, Paris and many other European cities, Brussels is extremely easy and convenient to get to and the summer is a pretty good time to go – the weather tends to be perfect for sitting outside a cafe with a pintje! Definitely worth a visit.