The introduction of the citizens' initiative will enable the voices of ordinary people to be heard in Brussels and foster true cross border political debates – writes European Commission vice-president
The European Union has taken a big step towards its people with the European Citizens' Initiative, which will offer the possibility of participating directly in shaping the development of EU legislation. This new tool will enable citizens to call directly on the European Commission to make legislative proposals. An idea supported by one million EU citizens will be put on the commission's agenda, discussed by the college and could even lead to new legislation being proposed.
While many EU countries have such agenda-setting schemes in place at national or regional level, this instrument is without precedent at transnational level. Consequently, I believe that this new right will open a fresh chapter in the democratic life of the EU – not only because it will provide a direct gateway through which citizens will be able to make their voices heard in Brussels, but also because it will foster real cross-border debates about EU issues and create a genuine European public space.
A proposed initiative will be born not from one individual citizen or organisation with a specific concern, but from the discussions of a group of citizens from at least seven member states. Indeed, a scheme can only be proposed if it is backed by such a committee, ensuring that ideas are genuinely of pan-European interest.
Once an initiative has been proposed and registered on the commission's dedicated citizens' initiative website
, the committee will need to gain support from people throughout the EU, with a minimum number of signatories in at least seven countries. This is a perfect illustration of what the EU is all about: we will be able to see, for example, citizens from Finland joining forces with those from Portugal and Cyprus to press for a common cause.
I am convinced that the citizens' initiative will change the way we discuss things: getting one million people together in one place to debate a certain issue could be tricky, but with technology they can all be present at the click of a mouse. The commission is facilitating this by providing free software that organisers will be able to download in order to collect signatures online. Social media will also play a crucial role in fostering support for initiatives in all four corners of the EU.
Aside from the importance of the debate, we need to consider the end result. After all, supporters of an initiative will want it to be acted upon. Although the commission retains its right of initiative and is not obliged to follow a suggestion, the demands of one million EU citizens cannot be ignored. I strongly believe that these demands will always be taken fully into consideration. The commission will be obliged to produce, within three months, a communication explaining how it is planning to respond to the citizens' initiative in question, which could in some cases initiate a process leading to a proposal for legislation.
Although this tool has been long in the making, it became a reality on April 1 2012, when the regulation setting out the detailed rules governing this new tool will begin to apply. In January, meanwhile, the final pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place when I hosted a conference in Brussels to take stock of preparations to launch the new tool, including the use of social media.
Many citizens and stakeholders have been gearing up for this new right and already have initiatives in the pipeline. I now look forward to seeing the many interesting ideas that will be put on the table.Maros Sefcovic is vice-president of the European Commission responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration. This article first appeared in PublicServiceEurope.com's sister publication Public Service Review: European Union