The ECI launch in 2012 was accompanied by high expectations of citizen-led policy making and citizens closer to EU institutions. A dramatic drop in ECI proposals and citizen support soon followed and this innovative democratic tool appeared to be stillborn. In 2017, though, there have been signs of a fragile recovery with favourable Court decisions, reform of the ECI legislation underway, and citizen re-engagement.

A less restrictive approach in response to the court

A major problem to date for the ECI has been excessive institutional control. Commission interpretation of registration criteria led to almost 40% of ECIs being refused registration in the early years. This unjustly limited public debate. There has been strong criticism of the Commission’s approach to ECI registration and several ECI organisers started legal challenges to the Commission decision-making.

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Upcoming review of ECI legislation

As well as the encouragement from the Court decisions to reduce the institutional control of the ECI, Vice President Timmermans announced - at the ECI day in April - a full review of the ECI legislation later this year. Resisted until now, this promise shows further signs of stronger Commission support for direct citizen participation.

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The ECI, citizens and the European Parliament

Although reform of the law relating to the ECI and not just a technical review seems likely, pressure continues during the legislative process from civil society and citizens. For example, a 100,000 strong petition for ECI reform was submitted in August this year, and 5000 citizens participated in the ECI reform consultation urging deep ECI reform. The European Parliament also continues to be an important ally for the ECI. A legislative own initiative report proposing changes to the ECI has been submitted by the European Parliament constitutional affairs committee (AFCO). This is one of the strongest political weapons in the European Parliament’s armoury, used here to enhance citizen participation through the ECI.

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New life has been breathed in to the ECI and its reform will strengthen the voice of EU citizens, but its recovery is still fragile. Much depends on the depth of ECI reform, on the Commission’s response to the next successful ECIs, and the attitude of the European Parliament to this important tool of direct democracy.

Written on behalf of the ECI Campaign by Dr James Organ, Lecturer in Law, University of Liverpool