The first day of November – ironically a public holiday for the European Union institutions – is an important deadline in the early life of the European Citizens’ Initiative, a device introduced by the EU’s Lisbon treaty to increase participatory democracy.
ECIs are a way of channelling popular demand for the EU to take legislative or policymaking action – the theory was that ECIs might close the much discussed democratic deficit between voters and the EU. Before 1 November, the first registered ECIs must pass the required threshold of at least one million signatories drawn from at least seven member states of the European Union. Of the eight initiatives in that first batch, two have already passed the threshold.
However, the subject-matter of these first two suggests something of a nightmare scenario for EU policymakers. The morning after Hallowe’en, the EU may find that it has unleashed a demon that it cannot control.
The two front-running ECIs were launched by pressure groups to lift socially divisive or politically contentious issues from the national to the EU level. The first – titled “Water and sanitation are a human right! Water is a public good, not a commodity!” – was launched by public-service unions to block the privatisation of public water and sanitation utilities in the member states and to shield these utilities from the EU’s internal-market rules. The second, “One of us”, aims to end EU funding of abortion-related activities in research, development aid and public health – in effect, to de-fund aid agencies that provide abortions or advice that might lead to abortions. Both initiatives are on divisive issues that have until now been debated primarily at national level.
Once the initiatives are submitted, the European Commission has three months to respond with a communication adopted by the college of commissioners, following a meeting with the organisers and a public hearing in the European Parliament. The Commission will be obliged to issue its communication before 1 February, just as campaigning for the European Parliament gets serious before the elections on 22-25 May.
“One of us” would have the more immediate impact of the two, and is likely to be more politically incendiary. “The EU should establish a ban and end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health,” the initiative demands. The organisers’ publicity materials are very clear that they are not seeking to change the regulation of abortion, since that is a national competence. Instead, the initiative wants to cut off EU funding for scientific research that involves the use of human stem cells from embryos and for aid agencies supporting abortion. Among the main targets, named on the initiative’s website, are the International Planned Parenthood Federation and Marie Stopes, two non-governmental organisations that currently receive substantial EU funding.
A report by European Dignity Watch from March 2012 accuses the Commission of funding abortions abroad, through its support for organisations active in sexual and reproductive health, without having the requisite legal authority. The “One of us” initiative follows on from that accusation, and seeks to stop the practice.
The initiative puts the Commission in a difficult spot. By instinct, it is likely not to want to act on the initiative. It has the freedom, under the ECI rules, to refuse to do so, (although it has to explain why). Responding with a legislative proposal might be seen as undermining its own assertion, in answer to MEPs’ questions on the topic, that it has acted fully within its legal and political mandate in funding the development organisations. It would also impose awkward restrictions on the ways that foreign aid is spent. (The American experience with a similar measure, known as the Mexico City policy, initiated by the Reagan administration, overturned by the Clinton administration and restored by George W. Bush, only to be overturned again by Barack Obama, gives an indication of the likely difficulty.)
The second Barroso administration will also be disinclined, just months before the end of its mandate, to burden its successor with pursuing such a contentious matter – a point that incidentally applies to the other initiatives in this group as well.
But if the Commission does opt for no action, it will be condemned by many who have had their expectations raised. The Catholic News Agency reported this month that: “Since ‘One of us’ has met the requirements, the European Commission will ask the EU ‘to end the financing of activities which presuppose the destruction of human embryos, in particular in the areas of research, development aid and public health’.”
Tackling the big issues
ECIs were seen as a way of ensuring that burning issues that have been neglected by the EU can be put onto the European agenda through the concerted action of citizens. A more responsive EU, the thinking went, would appear less threatening to increasingly sceptical national audiences. But preventing the privatisation of municipal water supply is hardly a neglected cause lacking powerful advocates. It is backed by public-service unions and by political parties. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, told a meeting of the mayors of some 1,000 German towns and cities in April that she would “fight hard for water” and block anything in Brussels that would force the member states to privatise utilities.
The water initiative is an attempt by powerful entrenched interests – municipalities and public-service unions – to protect the status quo. The anti-abortion initiative is a grassroots effort by social conservatives backed by the Roman Catholic Church to resist social change in Europe and abroad. Taken together, the two suggest that pinning high democratic hopes on the European Citizens’ Initiative might be unrealistic.
After initial difficulties following the launch of the European Citizens’ Initiative last year, the collection period for signatures for the first crop of initiatives was extended to 1 November 2013. (Organisers normally have 12 months to collect the required signatures.) There are 17 open initiatives, of which eight end on 1 November. Six initiatives have been withdrawn by their organisers. The European Commission has rejected 12 initiatives that did not meet the validity criteria (in most cases because they concern matters over which the Commission has no power).
An initiative requires signatures from at least one million EU citizens in at least seven member states, with minimum numbers of signatures in each of those member states.
‘One of us’ has received the backing of the Pope, and various Roman Catholic bishops across the EU have helped organise the collection of signatures. The initiative’s powerful backers have now prompted a counter-mobilisation. “If [the initiative] proceeds any further, then those working in favour of women’s health are probably going to come out and explain how dangerous this initiative is,” says Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development in Brussels, a group of European parliamentarians lobbying for reproductive health and women’s rights.
Datta, whose organisation published a briefing paper about the initiative this week, describes ‘One of us’ as “the best-organised attempt to date to impose limitations on EU development aid”. “The initiative is being pushed by the anti-choice lobby; they have lost the anti-choice argument in Europe and are now looking for alternative venues, and one of those is EU development aid.”
According to the latest figures available from the European Commission’s development department, Marie Stopes received five grants worth €3,739,701 in 2012, for projects such as improving access to sexual reproductive health for marginalised and low-income women in Bangladesh and strengthening civic groups in rural communities in Zambia. The International Planned Parenthood Federation received one grant worth €572,535 in 2012, to help young people with learning disabilities in Europe protect themselves against sexual abuse and violence.
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