The constitutional treaty explained: The citizens’ initiative

In every European country, the national constitution sets out procedures whereby draft laws are proposed by the government and approved by the national parliament. In some countries, such as Italy or Switzerland, there is another route by which a political idea can become a law: if a petition is signed by enough citizens, it can be put directly to a popular referendum without going through the normal parliamentary process. Advocates of this system argue that it encourages popular participation in democracy, which is especially necessary given that turnouts in elections are in a long-term decline.

The constitutional treaty includes a provision of this sort, but with a fundamental difference. As with the traditional model of citizens’ initiative, the starting point will be a petition. A threshold of one million signatures has been set as the minimum number any petition must achieve (in Italy, it is 100,000, in Switzerland, it is 50,000). Rules might be set in due course specifying any minimum geographical distribution or other conditions that must be respected by those million signatures.

The difference is that the result of a million signatures will not automatically be a referendum but rather a request to the European Commission to propose a law. That proposal will then proceed through the normal legislative procedure, in the same way as any other proposed law. Article I-47 therefore respects the principle that the Commission, which is the guardian of the common European interest, has the monopoly on the right to propose legislation, and it also maintains the careful balance between the different institutions and between the different member states. However, respecting that principle and those balances, it creates new opportunities for citizens to participate in the democratic life of the European Union.

This commentary was contributed by Richard Laming, member of the Federal Union committee, on 22 October 2006. He may be contacted at richard@richardlaming.com. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of Federal Union.

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