General Q&A on the European Citizens' Initiative
1.What does the Treaty of Lisbon say on the European citizens' initiative?
The Treaty of Lisbon introduces the European Citizens' Initiative. It provides that "not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the 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." (Article 11.4 TEU)
It also sets out that the procedures and conditions required for such a citizens' initiative, including the minimum number of Member States from which citizens must come, will be determined in a Regulation, to be adopted by the European Parliament and the Council on a proposal from the European Commission. The Commission adopted its proposal on 31 March 2010. The European Parliament and the Council adopted the Regulation on 16 February 2011. At the request of the Member States, it did not apply until 1 April 2012 (see question 27).
2.When will it be possible to launch the first citizens' initiatives?
From Sunday, 1 April. That’s the date from which the Commission can accept requests to register proposed initiatives. This is the essential first step before citizens start collecting statements of support.
3.What happens in a case like the recent Greenpeace petition? Can that be resubmitted now the Regulation on the citizens' initiative applies?
Petitions like the recent Greenpeace one cannot be considered as a citizens´ initiative. As the Treaty specifies that the procedures and conditions required for the citizens' initiative are determined by a Regulation adopted by the European Parliament and the Council, initiatives launched before the Regulation applied cannot be considered as "citizens' initiatives", since the rules and procedures were not yet in place. Signatures collected before the date of application of the Regulation cannot be used later; the Regulation provides that the statements of support can only be collected after the registration of the proposed initiative with the Commission.
4.What is the added value of the ECI?
The Lisbon Treaty is clear: the functioning of the European Union continues to be founded on "representative democracy", and European citizens continue to be directly represented at Union level in the European Parliament.
However, ECIs will widen up the sphere of public debate, allowing citizens to participate more intensively in the democratic life of the Union, through this new “participatory democracy” tool.
Whilst the Commission retains its right of initiative and will therefore not be bound to make a proposal following a citizens’ initiative, it is committed to carefully examine all initiatives that fall within the framework of its powers in order to consider whether a new policy proposal is appropriate.
The Commission therefore believes that this new instrument will make a very positive contribution not only to European democracy but also to EU policy making.
5.What is the difference between an ECI and a petition?
The right to petition the European Parliament, which already existed under the previous Treaties, differs substantially from the new citizens’ initiative introduced by the Lisbon Treaty. Petitions can be submitted by citizens of the Union as well as by natural or legal persons residing or having their registered office in a Member State, either individually or in association with other citizens or persons and must concern matters which fall within the Union's fields of activity and which affects him, her or it directly (e.g. a complaint). Therefore petitions do not necessarily concern new policy proposals. They are addressed to the European Parliament in its role as the direct representative of citizens at Union level.
The citizens’ initiative, on the other hand, enables at least one million citizens to call directly on the Commission to bring forward new policy initiatives.
6.Are there citizens’ initiatives within the Member States?
Citizens' initiatives already exist in a majority of Member States, either at national, regional or local level. Citizens' initiatives at national level can be found for instance in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and The Netherlands. Regional citizens' initiatives exist in Austria, Germany, Spain, Sweden and The Netherlands, etc. Local citizens' initiatives can be found in Belgium, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, etc. Citizens' initiatives are also present outside the EU (Switzerland and the USA for example). These initiatives differ considerably in their scope and generally operate according to different procedures.
7.Can an ECI deal with ‘x’? Would that pass the admissibility test?
This is not the place to offer a legal analysis of every possible proposal that can be imagined here and now. The criteria are fairly clear cut: an initiative will be registered unless it is manifestly outside the Commission's competence, manifestly abusive or frivolous or manifestly against EU values.
8.Can citizens launch a revision of the Treaties with an ECI?
No. In accordance with the Treaty and as also stated in the Regulation, citizens’ initiatives can only concern proposals on matters where citizens consider that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.
9.Can third country nationals residing in the EU sign up to an ECI?
No. In accordance with the Treaty, third country nationals cannot sign up to an ECI. Indeed, the Treaty clearly states that only citizens who are nationals of the Member States can sign up to an initiative.
II. Q&A on the Regulation: how does the ECI work?
1.Who can organise an initiative?
Citizens' initiatives must be organised by citizens' committees composed of at least 7 citizens residing in at least 7 different Member States. The members of the citizens' committee must be citizens of the Union, and of voting age in the European elections (18 in all Member States except Austria, where it is 16). They have to designate one representative and one substitute who is mandated to speak and act on behalf of the citizens' committee throughout the procedure. Members of the European Parliament cannot be counted for the purposes of reaching the minimum number required to form a citizens' committee.
2.Can organisations be the organiser of a citizens' initiative?
Organisations cannot organise citizens' initiatives. Nevertheless, any entity can promote or support proposed initiatives, provided that it does so with full transparency.
3.Are there provisions on transparency of funding?
In the interests of transparency and democratic accountability, the organisers of initiatives are required to provide, throughout the procedure, regular updated information on the organisations that support an initiative and on how the initiatives are funded. This is in the interest of citizens considering signing up to an initiative; it is also in line with the Commission's European Transparency Initiative.
4.Will any form of EU funding be provided to the organisers of an ECI?
No EU funding is foreseen for this purpose.
5.How can citizens find out about ongoing initiatives?
All ongoing initiatives are registered and made publicly available on the Commission's website. This allows for the follow-up of ongoing initiatives and provides a tool for communication and transparency.
6.How will the Commission verify that the groups launching initiatives are serious?
The Regulation foresees that proposed initiatives which are obviously not serious (e.g. those that are frivolous, abusive or vexatious) will not be registered. Nevertheless, as the organiser of a citizens' initiative has to be a citizens' committee, the number of non-serious proposed initiatives should be limited.
7.How will the Commission stop extremists using this tool as a platform for their views?
The Regulation foresees that the Commission has to reject the registration of proposed citizens' initiatives which are manifestly against the values of the Union, so as to avoid giving publicity to extremist views on the Commission's website.
8.Isn't the criteria for rejecting abusive or frivolous initiatives an open door for censorship by the Commission?
No. Initiatives would have to be clearly abusive or frivolous: that means that there shouldn't be much doubt about their abusive or frivolous nature. In any case the initiators would have the possibility of bringing proceedings before the Court of Justice of the EU or filing a complaint with the European Ombudsman if they disagree with the decision (see question 25).
9.What are the requirements in order to register a proposed initiative?
The organisers of an initiative have to ask for the registration of their proposal with the Commission. They have to provide the following information in one of the official languages of the Union, in an online register made available by the Commission:
-the title of the proposed citizens' initiative;
-the subject matter;
-the description of the objectives of the proposal on which the Commission is invited to act;
-the Treaty provisions considered relevant by the organisers for the proposed action;
-the full name, postal address, nationality and date of birth of the seven members of the citizens' committee, specifically indicating their representative and their substitute as well as their email addresses;
-all sources of funding and support.
The organisers also have the possibility to provide more detailed information in an annex, including a draft legislative text.
Based on this information, the Commission will register the proposed initiative, provided that the conditions foreseen in the Regulation are fulfilled - in particular the fact that the proposed initiative does not manifestly fall outside the framework of the Commission's powers to submit a proposal for a legal act of the Union for the purpose of implementing the Treaties.
10.Which language do the organisers have to use to ask for the registration of a proposed initiative?
The organisers can ask for the registration of an initiative in any official language of the Union.
11.Will the Commission translate the proposed initiatives?
No. It will be the responsibility of the organisers to translate their proposed initiative into the languages they want. After the confirmation of the registration in one official language, organisers will have the possibility to ask for the addition of other official languages to the register. Before uploading them in the register, the Commission will check to make sure there are no manifest significant inconsistencies with the original version of the title, the subject matter and the objectives.
12.How can potential organisers be sure that their idea falls within the Commission's competences?
The Commission has provided information on its competences on the website of the citizens' initiative. This information should allow potential organisers to find out if there is a Treaty provision allowing the Commission to act in the field concerned.
13.Why say that signatories of an initiative have to come from a quarter of Member States? Why not just from one?
It was necessary to establish the minimum number of Member States from which citizens must come in order to ensure that a citizens' initiative represents a genuine, European interest and to reflect the fact that the Treaty says citizens must come from ‘a significant number of Member States’.
The number agreed by the Parliament and the Council is one-quarter of Member States, which currently means seven, even after Croatia’s accession.
14.Why use a multiple of the number of Members of the European Parliament as the threshold for the minimum number of statements of support per Member State?
In its Green Paper, the Commission had suggested setting the threshold at 0.2% of the population of each Member State. However many respondents considered that 0.2% of the population was an unnecessarily high threshold to achieve the objective of ensuring representation of a European interest. Others considered that such a percentage would not be equitable. It is much easier, for instance, to collect statements of support from 1,000 citizens (representing 0.2% of the population) in Luxembourg than 160,000 in Germany, making it easier to count small Member States than large ones.
The approach chosen therefore reflects both these concerns. The Regulation provides for a fixed threshold for each Member State, which is digressively proportional to the population of each State with a minimum threshold and a ceiling.
In order to ensure that these thresholds are based on objective criteria, they are based on a multiple of the number of Members of the European Parliament elected in each Member State. The multiple chosen was 750 in order to, on the one hand, reflect the demands of many stakeholders to set a threshold below 0.2% of the population, and on the one hand, to take account of concerns that the threshold in small Member States should not be too low.
This system thus allows a proportionately lower number of signatories for large countries and a proportionately higher number for small countries.
The minimum number of signatories per Member State is listed in Annex I of the Regulation.
15.What about the statements of support collected in Member States where they do not reach the minimum threshold?
These statements of support will of course be added to the total number of signatures, but the Member States concerned will not be counted in the quarter of Member States required.
16.How old do citizens have to be to sign up to an initiative?
All citizens of the Union who are of voting age in the European elections can give their support to an initiative. This means a minimum age of 18 in all Member States except Austria (16).
17.Do citizens need to be registered to vote to sign up to an initiative?
No. Citizens of the Union will only have to be of voting age in the European elections.
18.If a citizen is a national of one Member State living in another Member State, in which Member State will his/her statement of support be counted?
This depends on the data the supporter provides and therefore on the Member State which verifies his/her statement of support. If the supporter provides the data requirements corresponding to the Member State of residence, he/she will be counted in the Member State of residence. Likewise, if the supporter provides the data requirements corresponding to the Member State of nationality, he/she will be counted in the Member State of nationality. For example, an Austrian national living in Estonia can either fill in the form to be verified in Estonia and therefore be counted in Estonia, providing his first names, family names, address, date and place of birth, and nationality, OR fill in the form to be verified and counted in Austria, providing in addition to the previous data a personal identification number among the list accepted by Austria and available in Part C of Annex III of the Regulation (passport or identity card number).
In any case, citizens are only allowed to sign up to an initiative once.
19.Is it possible for citizens of the Union residing outside the EU to sign up to an initiative? In which Member State will their statements of support be counted?
For citizens of the Union residing outside the EU, the possibility to sign up to an initiative will depend on their Member State of nationality. Some Member States are not able to verify statements of support from their nationals living outside the EU. The original Commission proposal offered the possibility to sign up to all citizens of the Union residing outside the EU. But given the new requirements asked by the Member States, some citizens may not be able to sign up. For those who do have this possibility, they will be counted in their Member State of nationality.
20.Is it possible to sign up to an ECI online?
Citizens have the possibility to sign up online. For this to happen, the organisers have to set up an online collection system complying with the technical and security requirements set out in the Regulation. The Commission has developed technical standards and made free, open-source software available to help organisers to build their system.
21.How can citizens be sure that signing up to an initiative online is secure?
Prior to starting the online collection, the organisers will have to ask the competent national authority where the data will be stored to certify their online collection system (including when the organisers use the open-source software provided by the Commission). The national authorities will check that the security and technical features of their online collection system comply with the minimum requirements fixed in the Regulation. This will ensure that signing up is secure.
22.How can citizens who give their support to an initiative be sure that their personal data will not be used for any other purpose?
The Regulation ensures that data protection is fully assured by all the relevant actors - organisers, Member States and the Commission. This protection applies to both the organisation and follow-up of a citizens' initiative. Legislation in force on personal data protection will apply to the processing of personal data carried out for the purpose of a citizens' initiative. The organisers of a citizens' initiative, as the data controllers, will be liable for damage they cause in accordance with applicable national law, and subject to appropriate sanctions for infringements of the Regulation.
23.How will statements of support be checked?
In their statements of support, citizens will have to fill in the information required by the Member State they come from (either their Member State of residence or their Member State of nationality). This can include their first names, family names, address, date and place of birth, nationality as well as, for a number of Member States, a personal identification number. Part of this information (like full address, place or date of birth) is not required by some Member States. The details of the data requirements are available in the two models for the statements of support form contained in Annex III (Parts A and B) of the Regulation. As for Member States requiring a personal identification number, the list of documents/numbers accepted by each of them is available in Part C of Annex III.
Organisers have to use separate forms according to the Member State which signatories come from. This means that all signatories on any one form must come from the same Member State. Organisers will then have to send these statements to the national authority of that Member State. The national authorities will then carry out appropriate checks in order to certify the number of valid statements of support collected. Random sampling can be used to do this.
24.How will the Commission respond to successful initiatives?
The rules give the Commission a time-limit of three months to examine a citizens' initiative which has gathered the necessary statements of support. Before setting out its conclusions in a Communication, the Commission will receive the organisers at an appropriate level so that they can explain in detail the matters raised by their initiative. The organisers will also be given the opportunity to present their initiative at a public hearing organised at the European Parliament.
25.What happens if the Commission decides not to act on a citizens' initiative? What right of redress do people have?
The citizens' initiative is an agenda-setting tool and therefore does not affect the Commission's right of initiative. It will, however, oblige the whole Commission, as a college, to give serious consideration to the requests made by citizens' initiatives. If it decides not to act on a citizens' initiative, the Commission must clearly explain its reasons. This political analysis on the substance of the initiative by the Commission cannot be subject to an appeal procedure.
On the other hand, the decision on the registration of the proposed initiatives, which is based on legal grounds, can be contested. When registration is refused, the Commission will inform the organisers why, and provide information on all possible judicial and extra-judicial remedies available to them.
26.Is it possible to present an initiative which opposes another ongoing initiative? Is it possible to present the same initiative several times?
The Regulation does not impose any rules as regards the successive presentation of the same or similar citizens' initiatives. Likewise, it does not prevent opposing initiatives from being launched.
27.Why did the Member States need a year to implement the ECI?
Many Member States needed to adapt their national laws to be able to carry out the verification of statements of support and/or to ensure that organisers are subject to appropriate sanctions for infringement of the Regulation.
28.Doesn't the regulation make the ECI far too bureaucratic?
The citizens' initiative is not subject to unnecessary bureaucratic rules. The rules agreed achieve the right balance between the need to make sure that this instrument is credible and the need to keep it easy to use for citizens.
Moreover, the Commission has drafted a comprehensive and user-friendly guide making it easier to understand the different stages of the procedure. This can be downloaded from the website. The point of contact, Europe Direct, backed by the Commission services, will also answer citizens' queries.
29.Numerous ECI attempts might be turned down, for lack of a legal basis or poor fit with 'EU values'. Could a high 'kill rate' damage the reputation of the ECI process or even of the Commission?
The Commission believes that most proposed initiatives will not be turned down. The criteria for rejecting an ECI are fairly limited and clear, i.e. if it is manifestly outside the Commission's competence, manifestly abusive or frivolous or manifestly against EU values. The ECI is an innovative instrument of participatory democracy and, as with any new system, there may be a trial-and-error period at the start, but this does not necessarily mean a high rate of rejections. Quite the opposite, the Commission is convinced that the organisers of any ECI will take the exercise very seriously and ask for registration in full knowledge of the above-mentioned criteria. Therefore damage to the reputation of the ECI or the Commission is unlikely.
30.Isn’t this all just window dressing? It won’t really have an impact!
A million signatures from at least seven Member States will most certainly have an impact. As long as an initiative meets the limited criteria and gathers the required signatures, there is no question of it being swept under the carpet. The Commission will receive the organisers at an appropriate level so that they can explain in detail the matters raised by their initiative. The organisers will also be given the opportunity to present their initiative at a public hearing organised at the European Parliament. The whole decision-making machinery of the Commission will be mobilised to produce a Communication, adopted by the entire College, setting out how the Commission intends to follow up the initiative. Even if legislative action is not finally taken, the issue will have a thorough airing across Europe, at the European Commission and in the European Parliament.