EU opens the door to citizen petitions for new laws

For the first time, citizens of the 27-member European Union will be able to collect signatures and suggest Europe-wide laws through a citizens' initiative. This may narrow the gap between the public and a distant-feeling EU government in Brussels. Possible topics: animal rights and modified food.

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    A Greek pensioner shouts slogans during a protest in Athens Dec. 15. Demonstrators clashed with riot police in protests against new austerity measures by the debt-hit Greek government. The austerity measures were demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for loans.
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Californians, they’re not. But the citizens of Europe will soon have the opportunity to catch the California spirit and offer up signature-driven initiatives that could eventually become European law.

This week the European Parliament approved the European Citizens’ Initiative, which allows members of the public for the first time to directly suggest Europe-wide laws.

Anything that makes the government of the 27-nation European Union more accessible to citizens is a good thing.

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I lived as a reporter in Germany for five years and I still have trouble keeping all those EU institutions straight. But it isn't just me. “Brussels” – shorthand for the EU, because it’s based in the Belgian capital – also feels distant and impenetrable to many Europeans. In 2005, French and Dutch voters sunk an effort to create a new EU "constitution." They deemed it "elitist," among other things.

The initiative idea can help close that gap. Under the provisions approved this week, it will take a million citizens from at least a quarter of the EU member states to get a proposal going.

But it won’t be like the ballot proposition process that Americans are familiar with. A European initiative would have to first be submitted to the European Commission – the executive arm of the EU. It is the Commission that has the power to actually propose legislation. The Commission may choose to submit the citizen petition as legislation, or it may choose not to.

It could, for instance, follow up in some other way, or ask for a feasibility study, or decide not to take any action because the petition doesn't fit with EU values or violates EU treaties. And of course, the citizen petitions can only be in areas that are within the Commission’s Europe-wide purview, though that covers a lot of ground, including the environment, trade, transportation, consumer protection, health, social welfare, justice, and development aid.

You can expect some pretty dicey issues to come up through this process. Some being talked about now are initiatives concerning genetically modified organisms, artificial addition of vitamins to food, a tax on financial transactions, and animal welfare.

Most Europeans generally view the EU favorably – 68 percent, according to this year's Transatlantic Trends survey. But specifics make them angry, such as austerity measures demanded by the EU in debt-hit member nations.

My worry is that citizens will get discouraged by the initiative process, though “Brussels” has tried to streamline it. Still, supporters say that initiative organizers will at least get a guaranteed response and explanation from the Commission within three months, and also be able to present their initiative at a public hearing at the European Parliament.

At a minimum, this is a chance for more public participation in Europe-wide debates.

Supporters also point out that this is the first official transnational instrument of participatory democracy in world history. In layman’s terms, that’s having citizens propose laws across countries. Truly experimental, and another step in the evolution of the EU, whose member countries are still learning how to keep their sovereignty and share some of it at the same time.

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