In this Article
Citizens in the EU
This article provides an eloquent explanation of EU citizens’ rights with regards to their options to influence policy at the EU’s top levels. After a brief explanation of the EU vis-à-vis citizens’ rights, we discuss the democratic instruments citizens in the EU can take advantage of, to effectively play a role in decision-making.
What is the EU?
In very general terms, the European Union (EU) is a political alliance between its Member States (MSs), which currently comprises 27 countries. Its history is a fascinating one, growing from an economic accord between European countries after WWII to rebuild their economies and societies, into a fully-fledged political union encompassing all aspects of European citizens’ lives.
The institution in itself is sui generis, an organisation unlike any other, requiring thorough understanding of legal structures and policy-making in order to truly comprehend the way in which it shapes and moulds the rights and obligations of its subjects. However, either because of its slow development; slowly accumulating political power over decades, or its complex mechanisms (probably a bit of both), many EU citizens remain somewhat opaque on how the EU works, what it does, and how it affects them. Perhaps the most poignant example is the aftermath of Brexit and UK citizens googling such questions.
Yet, the EU remains a part of Europeans’ daily lives and seems to dictate much time in producing and enforcing laws that govern them. By the ways of a good old democracy, any passionate ancient Athenian would insist that it is therefore clear that citizens are duty-bound to engage with the EU in all modes permissible, to truly embrace the notion of European citizenship – despite its elusiveness. How then, can the average citizen influence decisions made at the top level?
How can an average citizen play a role in EU decision-making?
Maybe the best way to understand this is by turning back the clock, to the roots of the EU and the notion of direct effect. Arguably, the foremost reason why the EU is sui generis is that its subjects are two-fold; on one hand the member states and on the other their citizens. Consequently, there are rights and obligations to which both are subjected. The concept of EU citizenship, from which the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) was derived, was first introduced in the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. A particular right which is associated with the ECI is the right to submit a citizens’ initiative. It has been defined as “an important instrument of participatory democracy in the EU” which in turn encompasses new ideas in the Union.
This is an exercise rooted in legal statutes. The right to submit a citizens’ initiative is enshrined under Title II of the TEU (provisions on democratic principles).
More specifically, Article 11(4) of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) establishes the normative framework for that right, and Article 24 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) sets out the general principles for a regulation defining concrete procedures and detailed conditions. In so doing, it allows citizens residing in “one quarter of the member states” to invite the commission in submitting, ex officio-like, a legal act to implement the acting EU Treaties. These treaties comprise the basic legal documents of the Union. These are mainly the TEU and the TFEU, in tandem with the Charter of Human Rights.
To accentuate how important this programme is, the EU itself has constantly amended and enhanced the initiative and its processes. Without question, ever since the ECI Regulation became applicable, the instrument’s functioning has been criticised. The EU Parliament in particular has repeatedly called for reformation of the ECI Regulation, aiming to simplify and streamline procedures, taking into consideration that they directly affect citizens who are not necessarily akin with EU law. Eventually, a text was agreed upon and adopted by Parliament on March 12th 2019 and by the Council on April 9th with the final act published in the Official Journal of the European Union (OJ L 130) on May 17th 2019. The new ECI rules have been in application since January 1st 2020.
The procedure works as follows: an organising committee (referred to as the ‘citizens’ committee’) is composed of at least seven people who reside in at least seven different MSs. This committee is legally required to register the initiative with the EU Commission. The Commission ought to, amongst other responsibilities, outline the legal basis of the procedure and has two months to decide whether to register the proposed initiative or not. Once the initiative is registered, the organisers can start collecting ‘statements of support’. The ECI must gather one million statements of support within 12 months. Organisers then submit them to the national authorities who have three months to certify the statements of support. If the procedure is followed correctly, the organisers are given an opportunity to present the initiative at a public hearing held by Parliament. More details on the exact procedure can be found here.
Other Ways Citizens in the EU can Influence Policy
Are there other means through which policy at local, national, or regional level can end up at the forefront of the EU agenda? The short answer is a resounding yes and the obvious premise is to influence EU parliament representatives. However, the effort one needs to exert is greater than what is required to influence local or national politics. Advocacy and lobby groups, NGOs, petitions, and protests are part of the democratic system for a reason: they influence it.
It is note-worthy that citizens themselves elect members of the EU Parliament; in Malta’s case, six members are elected. This electoral process is legally grounded by a number of legal documents which includes Article 14 of the TEU, and Articles 20, 22 and 223 of the TFEU. In considering that the electoral process is akin to a human right, it is also encompassed in Article 39 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights.
A concrete second option would be a direct petition. Petitions can be submitted by EU citizens or by natural or legal person(s) who are EU residents; they must address matters that fall within a field of activity of the EU and that affect the petitioner directly. Petitions are addressed to Parliament in its capacity as the direct representative of citizens in the EU.
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