The structure of the European Union is such that the European Commission has the ‘right of initiative’ in most policy areas, meaning that while it is for the other two most important institutions (the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament) to pass laws, it is for the Commission to propose them. This gives it the power to get the ball rolling with a new policy proposal.
The European Citizens Initiative (ECI) is essentially a mechanism whereby this chance to get the ball rolling is passed on to the citizens rather than being reserved for Commission officials. Of course, it has to be a policy proposal which is within the competence of the Commission. It also has to have widespread support from the citizens themselves (the rules require a million signatories spread over a number of member states). The process of collecting and verifying signatures, while avoiding any legal challenges and doing so within a fixed time period of one year, can be demanding, but the Commission provides assistance both in ensuring that an ECI is within its competence and in making sure the sponsors understand how to collect the signatures. Even so, it isn’t easy to get the support of a million people, and it is probably a good idea to sound out potential support (for example, interested non-governmental organisations (NGOs)) before starting the clock on collecting a million supporters.
Why do it? Though the Commission is obliged by any successful ECI to explain its response, it may not do what the sponsors of the ECI ask for. One example is the ECI seeking to ban the use of an allegedly carcinogenic herbicide called glyphosate. It managed to secure a million signatures in 2016 but, faced by pressure from the chemical industry, the Commission would only reduce the length of time for which it would continue to authorise glyphosate from fifteen years to five (2017-2022). It was a partial victory only, and supporters of the herbicide are now seeking another extension of its use from 2022.
However, a successful ECI is not pointless, even though the Commission is not compelled to propose new legislation on the basis of it. After all, in exactly the same way the other two institutions are not obliged to accept any formal proposal made by the Commission. The benefit of a successful ECI is that even though it cannot guarantee that new legislation will be passed, it brings an issue to public attention. A serious debate follows which may result in real change, even if it is less than that desired by the sponsors of the initiative.
Should ACTION try to launch an ECI on the issue of buffer stocks? What do you think? The issue of buffer stocks and food reserves is an awkward one, because in this instance the Commission will feel that it has ‘been there before’. But that might be a reason why it would consider the issue again. And by picking up support and intertest along the way, ACTION would arguably have done some good even if new European legislation cannot be guaranteed as the outcome.