Documents considered by the Committee on 14th October 2015 - European Scrutiny Contents


15 The European Citizens' Initiative

Committee's assessment Politically important
Committee's decisionCleared from scrutiny
Document detailsCommission Report on the application of Regulation (EU) No. 211/2011 on the citizens' initiative
Legal base
DepartmentCabinet Office
Document Numbers(36780), 7737/15, COM(15) 145

Summary and Committee's conclusions

15.1 The European Citizens' Initiative was introduced by the Lisbon Treaty to encourage greater democratic involvement of EU citizens in the legislative activities of the EU. It allows one million EU citizens from at least one quarter of the Member States to call on the Commission to propose legislation on any matter for which it has the power to act. The right to propose a European Citizens' Initiative is enshrined in the EU Treaties. The rules and procedures for doing so are set out in a Regulation adopted in 2011 ("the 2011 Regulation"). To qualify as a European Citizens' Initiative, the initiative must be formally registered with the Commission. Since 1 April 2012, when the 2011 Regulation took effect, the Commission has registered 31 European Citizens' Initiatives and rejected a further 20 on the grounds that they failed to meet the criteria for registration.

15.2 The report published by the Commission provides its first assessment of the application of the 2011 Regulation since becoming fully operational. It identifies a number of challenges, accepts that there is scope for improvement, but concludes that it is "still too early to assess the long-term impacts of the European Citizens' Initiative on the EU institutional and legislative process" and proposes no further changes to the 2011 Regulation.[ 97]

15.3 The Explanatory Memorandum provided by the Minister for Constitutional Reform (John Penrose) was disappointingly brief, noting only that the Government was open to exploring measures to reform the 2011 Regulation but offering no view on the value of the European Citizens' Initiative as a tool for greater democratic involvement of EU citizens in the activities of the EU, or on the practical obstacles which may be impeding participation and how to overcome them. Our First Report, agreed on 21 July, invited the Minister to clarify the Government's position on the challenges identified in the Commission report, as well as possible solutions to improve the operation of European Citizens' Initiatives, and requested an assessment of the contribution that such Initiatives have made to strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

15.4 We are grateful for the Minister's response which addresses the questions we raised in our First Report. We note the Minister's reluctance, at this stage, to comment on the contribution that European Citizens' Initiatives have made towards strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU, but welcome his openness to considering reform proposals to improve their operation. We are content to clear the Commission report from scrutiny, but ask the Minister to inform us promptly of any specific reform measures the Government wishes to put forward, as well as any practical or legislative changes which are proposed by the Commission.

Full details of the document: Commission Report on the application of Regulation (EU) No. 211/2011 on the citizens' initiative: (36780), 7737/15, COM(15) 145.

Background

15.5 Our First Report, agreed on 21 July, explains the process for launching European Citizens' Initiatives, lists those which have been successfully registered by the Commission and those it has rejected since the Regulation took effect in April 2012, and summarises the main findings of the Commission report.

15.6 We concluded that there were evident problems with the operation of the European Citizens' Initiative. We noted that a significant proportion of proposed Initiatives were not registered by the Commission, suggesting a mismatch between citizens' perceptions of the purpose of European Citizens' Initiatives and their scope as set out in the EU Treaties and the 2011 Regulation. Of the 31 European Citizens' Initiatives registered since April 2012, only three had obtained more than one million signatures and met all the requirements of the 2011 Regulation. Since the launch of European Citizens' Initiatives, there had been a marked decline in the number registered with the Commission each year, suggesting that citizens appeared to be losing faith in their power to influence and inform EU decision making.

15.7 The Commission report highlighted "challenges" with the operation of European Citizens' Initiatives and alluded to findings and recommendations made in a detailed study commissioned by the European Parliament, as well as guidelines proposed by the European Ombudsman following an own-initiative inquiry. We asked the Minister for the Government's view on the following recommendations which identify a need to:

·  clarify the scope and purpose of European Citizens' Initiatives to establish whether they are primarily an "agenda setting" tool, a tool for implementing specific legislation within the EU's existing competences, or a means of proposing wider changes to the EU Treaties;

·  provide robust, consistent and comprehensible reasons for refusing to register a proposed European Citizens' Initiative — we drew attention to the complex legal reasons given by the Commission for rejecting a proposed Initiative entitled "STOP TTIP", currently the subject of a legal challenge before the General Court;[ 98]

·  provide free translation services for the organisers of European Citizens' Initiatives;

·  simplify and standardise the statement of support forms and ensure that all EU citizens, including those resident in another Member State, are able to sign European Citizens' Initiatives;

·  ensure that procedures are inclusive and transparent and that public hearings at the European Parliament involve a broad range of stakeholders as well as both parts of the EU legislature (Council and European Parliament); and

·  ensure full transparency of funding for European Citizens' Initiatives.

15.8 We also asked the Minister whether he agreed with the European Ombudsman that some provisions of the 2011 Regulation "clearly have placed administrative and bureaucratic hurdles in the way of citizens, every one of whom has, according to the Treaty, the right to participate in the democratic life of the Union".[ 99]

15.9 We invited the Minister to comment on the contribution made by European Citizens' Initiatives to strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU. We asked what conclusions he drew from the reduction in the number of European Citizens' Initiatives since their high-water mark in 2012, and from the number of legal proceedings brought so far (six to date) to challenge the Commission's refusal to register proposed Initiatives. In light of the Commission's refusal to register the proposed "STOP TTIP" Initiative, we also asked whether the Government would support an amendment to the 2011 Regulation to make clear that EU citizens may ask the Commission not to act, or to prevent it doing something within its existing powers.

15.10 Finally, given the possibility that some UK nationals resident in another Member State may be unable to participate in a European Citizens' Initiative, we asked whether the Government would consider including this category within its own procedures for verification of statements of support.

The Minister's letter of 23 September 2015

15.11 The Minister describes the contribution made by UK officials to the Commission's review of European Citizens' Initiatives ("ECIs"), through their participation in review meetings in Brussels involving the Commission and other Member States. He continues:

    "Member States and other EU institutions are also reviewing the Regulation and the outcome of the review currently being undertaken by the European Parliament, which is on ECI policy rather [than] its implementation, may have an impact on some of the areas you raise […]. The Cabinet Office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are contributing to this process. Once it is more advanced — we expect the European Parliament's own report to be adopted in October/November — we will be in a better position to consider wider proposals."

15.12 The Minister considers that European Citizens' Initiatives are "a (small) step in the right direction" towards making European institutions "which often seem remote or unresponsive, more accountable to British citizens". He recognises that lobby groups have made greatest use of European Citizens' Initiatives but adds:

    "That isn't, of itself, automatically a bad thing; there is a role for civil society and pressure groups to engage in this way and it is right that they are able to do so. But they shouldn't be the only ones to use the ECI, and other groups of concerned citizens should have access too."

15.13 The Minister describes some of the "inherent limitations" which may explain the difficulties encountered in making effective use of European Citizens' Initiatives:

    "For example, we do not have a pan-European demos and it may be that strongly held views in one Member State may not exist in another. And while new technologies can make it easier to bring together people with the same views across the entire continent, we cannot ignore the practical, demographic, cultural and other differences between Member States. The range of issues which will gain pan-European support may end up being limited. We will monitor how the current and future ECIs progress."

15.14 The Minister explains that the UK is continuing to engage with EU partners to promote reform and improve the operation of European Citizens' Initiatives, particularly on practical issues:

    "These include working out how British citizens resident abroad can take part in an ECI; and how to create a user friendly digital 'hub' to support potential ECIs. We are continuing to consider how the verification process could be simpler and more efficient yet remain cost effective. And, more fundamentally, we are concerned that the Commission's progress with the ECIs that have reached the one million threshold seems rather slow.

    "Ultimately, many of these improvements […] will need to come from the Commission and, until they are resolved, citizens of Member States may feel that the ECI is not an effective way to achieve change. The absence of an effective tool only reinforces the importance of national Governments lobbying and negotiating for changes at EU level."

15.15 The Minister draws a parallel (and contrast) with the House of Commons Petitions Select Committee which scrutinises and champions issues of importance to the public, adding:

    "It means that — unlike with an ECI — British citizens are able to initiate a petition on any issue which the Houses of Parliament and Government are responsible for, including relations with the European Union and its internal workings. I applaud this as an effective, practical way to support greater democratic engagement."

15.16 The Minister expresses the Government's support, in principle, for the majority of recommendations made in the report commissioned by the European Parliament on European Citizens' Initiatives, but identifies areas in which further information or clarification will be needed:

    "For example, in relation to translation services we would want to know whether there is a demand. We expect the Commission would want to consider the cost implications and weigh up the costs and benefits before making a financial commitment. And […] we are exploring with the Commission options for UK nationals resident in other Member States to sign ECIs.

    "The Government considers it inevitable that any initiative may come with costs and additional processes. However, care should be taken to seek value for money and ensure processes are proportionate and not bureaucratic."

15.17 The Minister notes the year-on-year reduction in the number of ECIs since their launch in 2012, as well as the number of legal proceedings brought so far (six to date) to challenge the Commission's refusal to register proposed ECIs, but says it is not yet clear what conclusions can be drawn about the impact of ECIs in strengthening the democratic legitimacy of the EU.

15.18 Finally, responding to our question about the complexity of the legal reasons given by the Commission to reject a proposed European Citizens' Initiative entitled "STOP TTIP", and the need to clarify whether an ECI can be used to stop or prevent the Commission exercising its powers under the EU Treaties, the Minister comments:

    "It may be possible for the Regulation to make clear that EU citizens may ask the Commission not to act, or to prevent it doing something within its existing powers. However, the Government would want to work in partnership with other Member States to test the appetite for this reform."

Previous Committee Reports

First Report HC 342-i (2015-16), chapter 9 (21 July 2015).


97   See p.15 of the Commission report. Back

98   Commission reply refusing registration. Back

99   See the Ombudsman's Decision, para 33. Back


 
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Prepared 14 October 2015