Citizens’ voice gets louder in the EU

by Eeva-Maria Hooli, Jenni Juntunen and Johanna Yrjölä

Have you ever played with the idea of enacting a law? Would you like to add an extra day to your weekend? Close down the nuclear power plants? Or remove the alcohol tax? Since the first of April 2012 you have the possibility to try. But you will need 999 999 other supporters for your proposal.

The upcoming European Citizens’ Initiative will bring more participatory democracy in the European Union. Because of the new law everyday Europeans are able to contact the European Commission and take the initiative in the matters they would like to see changing.

“There is a certain need for the initiative. Currently the EU citizens can only affect on the parliamentary elections and it is not enough. More direct democracy means are needed”, states Matti Niemi, the President of JEF Finland, a European youth organization.

The EU institutions are often criticized of being remote from the citizens they represent. Many Europeans hardly know what the Parliament can do or recognize their own MEPs. When the citizens get more influence it is very likely that they get more interested in the EU as well.

Nowadays the only way to appeal the decision-makers is a petition. Any citizen can deliver one to the Parliament and wish that it has some consequences. Unlike the petition, the citizen’s initiative has to be reacted by the Commission. However, this is not a power that overwrites the original legislation process. The Commission will still have the final decision on whether to propose a law or not.

“I assume that the first initiatives are proposed by some traditional organizations, like Greenpeace and Amnesty. They are used to work in similar ways. Also the labor unions will probably take initiatives”, Niemi says.

In fact, the first initiative has already been proposed. Last December the environmental organization Greenpeace handed an initiative to the European Commission calling for a moratorium on GM crop production. Greenpeace collected one million names in only eight months. However, the initiative was rejected, since it was launched before the law was in force.

So how can I take my own initiative?

When proposing an initiative one faces strict guidelines. When you have contacted the Commission it will register the proposed initiative and make it public. The initiative can be refused only if it is manifestly abusive, frivolous, vexatious or contrary to EU values. Commission can’t register it either if the subject is outside the framework of Commission’s powers.

The initiator has twelve months to collect one million signatures. The signatures have to be collected from at least seven different countries of European Union. There are no restrictions on how to do it, whether it is in streets or on social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter.

One million signatures may sound more than one can shake a stick at. But on the other hand it’s only 0.2% of the E.U.’s total population. In the era when musicians like Lady Gaga and Kanye West have millions of followers on the social media sites, collecting the names should be a piece of cake.

“It is difficult to say how popular the initiative will be. But there has already been apparent interest towards it. I’m sure some of the parties will launch their initiative as soon as the first of April comes”, Niemi states.

The amount of signatures from each country is proportionate of the size of the country. For example 72, 000 signatures are needed from Germany and 9,750 from Finland.

The specialists advice to collect at least 1.25 million of signatures, because 20 percent of them could be invalidated by national authorities.

Finland will have its own initiative too

In addition to the European citizen initiative many countries like Austria, Italy and the Netherlands have an equivalent system on a national level. Soon this might be possible also in Finland.

The former Finnish Parliament has already accepted the legislative amendment. It includes regulations on citizen’s initiative on a state level. Because of being a constitutional change the new parliament must still approve the law.

If it’s accepted the citizen’s initiative law comes into operation on March 2012. So far, the initiative has only been possible to take at the municipal level.

“Finland does not have strong traditions in direct democracy. Even the advisory referendum has been rarely used. It has been organized only twice, regarding to the Prohibition of alcohol and joining the EU”, says Tuula Majuri, The Counselor of legislation who has taken part in preparing the law.

Due to the initiative any Finnish citizen can propose a new law or changes to an old one. The initiator has to collect 50 000 signatures on paper or online during six months. All in all the system has many similarities with the EU initiative.

“Finnish initiative is more difficult to get through than the European. There are 50 000 names demanded, against the 9 000 Finnish names in the European initiative”, Niemi says.

He thinks that the state should arrange for a website where people could visit and sign the initiative. Otherwise the system won’t work if the signature isn’t well organized.

Tuula Majuri in turn thinks that collecting 50 000 signatures is not difficult on the internet. For example the website adressit.com is an effective tool to collect supporters for a petition in short time.

Majuri is also able to see the good half of the Finnish initiative. “Compared to the European citizens’ initiative the Finnish one is a stronger tool. The initiative goes directly to the parliament, which is obliged to take it into consideration.”

Yet it is however difficult to predict which topics will inspire citizens to take an initiative. Majuri self supposes that they will be made on issues close to people, like the ones related to work and family. Also ethical and populist issues such as immigration could raise initiatives.

“Citizens’ initiative has probably some part to play in the Finnish democracy. It’s not completely useless. It has also a symbolic meaning, when the government offers the citizens this kind of opportunity for participation.”

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One Response to “Citizens’ voice gets louder in the EU”

  1. peterverweij Says:

    story is interesting. Why don’t you use split or extended post. only one link in the story. It is scanable, video and picture included.
    Why is JEF a good source? I miss the EU view on this; representation of cie for example. The initiative is paret of Lisbon, which should be mentioned. Conditions: the check on credibility of signatures is still a problem.
    About future initiative: not very clear; Greenpeace, but what about? Would have liked a specific EU issue.
    What is relationship between the EU and Finish referendum?

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