An initiative that should not be hijacked
The citizens’ initiative, an innovation of the European Union’s Lisbon treaty, is taking shape – much to the alarm of those who fear demotic politics. The treaty provides that if citizens can gather together one million signatures from a “significant number” of member states they can invite the European Commission to come forward with legislative proposals.
The Commission, the European Parliament and the member states are now discussing the practicalities of how the initiative would work. What constitutes a “significant number”? What conditions should be set on the distribution of signatures through the member states?
The balancing act is a difficult one. The citizens’ initiative is a nod towards direct democracy, from an EU that is sensitive to the charge that it is out of touch with its citizenry and that it legislates de haut en bas. But the citizens’ initiative as constituted by the Lisbon treaty does not amount to full-blooded direct democracy. The Commission is not obliged to put forward legislation in the wake of an initiative; it can choose to ignore it (although that might be politically dangerous). Moreover, the other mainstay of direct democracy, the popular referendum on draft legislation, is entirely missing from the treaty. Even if a million (or, indeed, ten million) EU citizens demand a ban on genetically modified organisms or caps on immigration, it would still be up to the Commission, the member states and the Parliament to enact legislation.
If the citizens’ initiative is to achieve credibility, then the earliest attempts to launch such initiatives will be very important. The mechanism’s critics warn that it will be exploited by bigots and knaves. The initiative has to show that it can enrich the political life of the EU. Sadly, even before the procedural niceties have been ironed out, Werner Faymann, Austria’s chancellor, and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s opposition leader, are leaping on to the demotic bandwagon.
The pair announced this week that their social democrat parties would launch a petition this summer for the introduction of an EU-wide tax on financial transactions. “We are doing something for justice together with our people,” Faymann declared.
This is just what the citizens’ initiative does not need: it is the wrong proposal from the wrong quarter.
The mechanism is supposed to give a voice to those who were lacking a voice. It should not be being hijacked by a head of government and an opposition leader who was until recently Germany’s foreign minister. Citizen Faymann and Citizen Steinmeier have been regular attendees at meetings of the European Council and the Council of Ministers. Was it for them that the citizens’ initiative was invented?
Moreover, the subject-matter is ill-judged, for at least three reasons. Firstly, the thinking was that the citizens’ initiative would introduce a demand for legislation where none was being contemplated. That is not the case with the tax on financial transactions. Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor and Steinmeier’s sometime partner, has previously expressed support for the idea and reiterated that support yesterday (19 May). Nicolas Sarkozy, France’s president, has also been supportive of the idea, on condition that there is international consensus at the G20 (even further removed from its citizens). This is hardly bottom-up politics.
Secondly, taxation is a desperately divisive issue, capable of tearing the EU apart over what powers belong to the EU level and what powers belong to the national or regional level. If the citizens’ initiative is to be a success, it should steer clear of taxation in its early years.
Thirdly, a tax on financial transactions is fiendishly technical and so ill-suited to decision by petition.
Europe’s leading social democrat politicians are going through a lean period. They are in power in only a handful of EU member states. Their numbers are down in the Parliament. So the temptation to resort to the citizens’ initiative is understandable. But the temptation should be resisted.