Participatory Democracy in the European Union: The European Citizens’ Initiative

Eastern Europe experienced a rapid decline in democracy in 2011, according to the EUI Democracy Index 2011 : In 12 countries of the region the democracy score decreased in the past twelve months. In the same year, seven Western European countries also experienced a decline in their democracy. The erosion of sovereignty and democratic accountability were cited as the main reasons. Democracy, as measured by the EUI, refers to the level of civil liberties in a country, possibilities for political participation and the overall and transparent functioning of government.

The idea of the European Citizens’ Initiative

The core possibility for political participation in Europe is every citizens’ right to elect members of the European Parliament. However, citizens often feel that they have little opportunity to make their voices heard on European issues besides the European Parliament elections. There is no obvious forum within which they can discuss these issues together.

The new European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) could be a solution. It could be a tool to foster rising EUI democracy scores again. Launched in April 2012, this new democratic instrument introduced by the Treaty of Lisbon, will let one million European citizens propose new legislation for the European Union.

In my point of view, it can be seen as part of the broad movement in advanced industrial democracies towards institutions that offer more direct control to citizens. I believe, the ECI could strengthen democracy in the European Union (EU) by helping to restore trust in the democratic system of government. It could be seen as a pilot project to test whether a more participatory form of democracy could work in the EU. It is a major step forward in the democratic life of the Union. It is a concrete example of bringing Europe closer to its citizens, and it will foster a cross-border debate about what we are doing in Brussels and thus contribute, I hope, to the development of a real European public space.

Could a democratic deficit be resolved by the ECI?

The importance of properly targeted and citizen-focused reform is to offer more power and choice to voters as well as to provide for more direct democracy. Eight months ago, the European Commission launched an innovative initiative for civic engagement and democratic action. Analyzing the impact of active participation, citizen engagement can only take place in the context of the legal and constitutional laws in place in a country, according to the initiative. Avoiding conflicts with representative democracy, it opens the prospects of modernizing the practice of representative democracy for all European citizens.

National governments are the primary instruments of democracy in societies. With their main role in preserving democracy and encouraging civic participation, they should support local and national communities which have been important contributors and collaborators in the making of the ECI as a process. Only through an active citizenry is the existence of good governance ensured. For this reason, national and local democratic institutions should help citizens to contribute their own European initiatives which allow them to sling their concerns onto the EU agenda, helping to reduce democratic deficit and bring Europeans closer to the EU institutions.