After over a decade of experimentation, the first transnational democratic tool in the world falls short of matching its democratic potential.

European Citizens’ Initiatives (ECIs) were launched in April 2012 as a mechanism for citizens to suggest legislative proposals at the EU level. The promise was ambitious: ECIs would become the first transnational medium for direct citizen participation in policymaking processes. Specifically, an ECI allows seven EU citizens to invite the European Commission to propose new policies in areas where it has the power to do so. The campaign must collect 1 million signatures from EU citizens. ECIs therefore offer a rare opportunity for direct democracy at the EU level.

The limited success of European Citizens Initiatives: at best, only partial wins, at worse, no response

Yet since its inception, only 10 ECI campaigns – out of 110 that were validly registered – have collected the 1 million necessary signatures to trigger a response to the Commission. More critically, none of the successful ECIs materialised into a legislative proposal fully capturing the campaigns’ demands – ECIs have at best led to partial victories. 

For instance, Ban Glyphosate was an ECI calling for an EU-wide ban on glyphosate-based herbicides. Despite meeting the signature threshold, the Commission concluded that there were no scientific or legal grounds to ban glyphosate. The Commission did however consider one of the secondary aims of the ECI to merit legislative action, and made a legislative proposal ensuring that the scientific evaluation of pesticides for EU regulatory approval is based only on published studies commissioned by competent public authorities. 

More often than not, the Commission dismisses the ECI’s demands entirely, either because it believes there is no appropriate legal basis, or because there already exists legislation addressing the issue at hand. One of Us (campaign to protect life from the point of conception), Stop Vivisection (ban on animal testing), Save Cruelty-Free Cosmetics (ban on cosmetics tests on animals), Minority SafePack (call for increased protections for national and linguistic minorities), among others, are examples of this. Wouldn’t it make more sense to let the petitioners know before – and not after – they have embarked in the herculean task of signature collection? 

The unprecedented success of the End the Cage Age European Citizens Initiative and the Commission’s betrayal

In October 2020, the “End the Cage Age” ECI was validated by the Commission after having collected 1.4 million signatures. As its name suggests, the campaign called for a ban on the use of cages for farmed animals. The Commission’s response, published in June 2021, announced its intention to publish a proposal to phase out, and finally prohibit the use of cage systems for all animals mentioned in the ECI by 2023. This decision made this the first ECI to secure a commitment on behalf of the Commission to publish a legislative proposal aimed at tackling the main policy ask of an ECI.

Despite its promise, the Commission ended up omitting a ban on caging farm animals in its Animal Welfare package. Similarly, no proposed ban was included in the Commission’s 2024 Work Programme.

The Commission’s backtracking – and refusal to offer an alternative timeline – led to the End the Cage Age campaign to revert to legal action. On 23 November 2023 the campaign filed a complaint to the EU Ombudsman, and on 18 March, launched legal proceedings against the Commission, taking the case to the European Court of Justice.

Whereas the Commission wields considerable discretion in determining the direction and timing of proposed legislation, this does not exempt it from a duty to abide by the principle of good administration. According to the ECI Regulation, this also includes the duty to motivate and maintain transparency and open channels of communication with the ECI committee and the public at large.

With its previous commitment, the European Commission had generated legitimate expectations among European citizens, who now are left without a clear timeline and no assurances that a proposal will be made in the future.

In a recent event at the European Economic and Social Committee, Deputy Secretary General of the Commission Pascal Leardini admitted that the proposal to ban caged farming is “probably more complicated than we thought,” citing recent unrest in the farming sector: “there have been problems in the area of agriculture,” he added. However, the political and technical complexity of the policy-making does not exempt the Commission from the obligation of fair and transparent administration, which also includes the obligation of the administration to give reasons for its decisions (art. 41 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights). 

“Why bother to get a million signatures when you can hire a lobbyist, or a tractor” 

When first established, the ECI tool promised to revitalise civil society participation in EU decision-making. 12 years later, the verdict is less than impressive. Up to this point, it appears that successful ECIs have only had a marginal impact on the Commission’s agenda. Successful ECIs routinely fail to fully convince the Commission to make legislative proposals. Given that the Commission is not obliged to take up ECI proposals, the responses offered to campaigners are never particularly detailed. Sometimes the Commission argues that an ECI proposal, whilst meritorious, does not suggest the most appropriate solutions to tackle its objectives (e.g. Stop Vivisection). One could presume that the Commission wants to avoid proposing laws whose failure is all but assured.

A less charitable interpretation of the situation is that the Commission is not taking successful ECIs seriously enough. As per Article 11(4) of the Treaty on European Union, ECIs are designed to offer citizens the opportunity to invite the Commission to submit a (legislative) proposal, however, certain remarks by Commission officials make us wonder whether the Commission does not merely view ECIs as a glorified public consultation, meant to serve as inspiration for the Commission’s long-term planning. During the aforementioned event at the European Economic and Social Committee, Leardini seemingly downplayed the purpose of ECIs by repeatedly claiming that the Commission had no obligation to publish legislative proposals following successful ECIs, and arguing that the mechanism is  primarily an “agenda-setting tool”.

EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly recently appeared on the EU Scream podcast, hosted by James Kanter, where she lamented the limited success of the ECI tool. She also wondered what message to civil society when recent protests carried out by farmers had a bigger impact than the “gentle and democratic effort” that is the ECI mechanism. 

If ECIs are to become a useful tool for civil society, campaigners would benefit from a better understanding of how to craft their demands in a way that is likely to lead the Commission to actually propose a legislative initiative. There have now been 133 ECI attempts, millions of signatures collected, a significant amount of money spent, and little to show for it. “Why bother to get a million signatures when you can hire a lobbyist, or a tractor,” as EU Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly recently noted.

End the Cage Age may determine whether citizens really have a say in EU policy making.

It remains to be seen whether the promise made to the End the Cage Age campaign will be upheld by the next Commission, which according to polling data will likely be less committed to environmental concerns and animal welfare. Yet the immediate objective of an ECI is to get the Commission to make a legislative proposal – not necessarily to sway the Council and Parliament in favour of it. Let the Commission propose a ban on the caging of animals, and let the co-legislators deliberate on the matter. At this point, the End the Cage Age ECI is less about animal welfare, and more about whether citizens can have a real voice in EU policy making beyond casting their ballot box.

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