24/04/2012 03:39 BST | Updated 22/06/2012 06:12 BST

A New Take on Creating Legislation


If two heads are better than one, a million must be a veritable diamond deposit ready to be extracted. Starting this month the EU will be mining ordinary people for ideas on new legislation. Under the European citizens' initiative, bright sparks can ask the European Commission to propose new laws on issues under its jurisdiction, provided they collect one million signatures from at least seven member states. It seems to be an instant hit judging by the flurry of petitions that are currently being prepared around Europe.

There is a good reason for the European Parliament's key role in the citizens' initiative, as one of the long-running concerns regarding the EU is the democratic deficit. If EU laws affect everyone, shouldn't everyone have a chance to influence the process? In order to represent the people, in 1979 the European Parliament became the first and, so far, only directly-elected EU institution. Over the years it has gradually gained additional powers allowing it to fulfil that role better, but Members of the European Parliament have long been on the lookout for opportunities to give citizens even more influence.

Over the past 10 years MEPs have been pushing the idea of giving citizens the power to suggest legislation directly. At first they lobbied to have it included in the constitution but after French and Dutch voters rejected it in referendums, they campaigned for its inclusion in the Treaty of Lisbon. During negotiations they made sure the initiative would be more user-friendly than originally proposed.

So how does the citizens' initiative work? You will need a citizens' committee, made up of at least seven people from at least seven different member states. You will then need to register the initiative with the European Commission in one of the EU's 23 official languages. The Commission will then have two months to tell you whether the initiative meets all of the necessary conditions. A key requirement concerns the topic - it can't be something abusive, frivolous or contrary to the values of the EU. Also, it has to be something the EU is allowed to legislate on, for example the single market. It can't be on something that is within the exclusive competency of the member states or something that would require the existing treaties to be renegotiated. This would, for example, rule out changing the seat of the European Parliament, as this is set down in one of the treaties. If the initiative is rejected, then the Commission will have to explain why. If approved, it is time to collect signatures.

Organisers will have one year to collect one million signatures, either on paper or online, from at least seven member states, to ensure the initiative has cross-EU support and a truly European dimension. Once all the signatures have been gathered, they must be checked by the member states and the initiative submitted to the Commission. The Commission then has three months to say what it intends to do with the initiative and why. If all goes well, it will draw up a proposal for new legislation on the basis of the initiative.

Thanks to the European Parliament, the process will be a lot easier than originally proposed. MEPs managed to negotiate several improvements, such as the Commission being obliged to help organisers of an initiative by providing a user-friendly guide, setting up a point of contact and proving free software for collecting signatures online. Also, the Commission will have to check the admissibility of an initiative straight away instead of after having collected 300,000 signatures and the minimum number of member states from which signatures must be obtained is now one fourth of all member states instead of one third.

Parliament continues to help by promoting the initiative, for example by having an interactive application on its website to explain the initiative. It will also organise a public hearing for those initiatives that gather one million signatures.

The institutions have done the preparatory work to make the citizens' initiative possible. Now, it's over to you.