Skip to main content
European Citizens´ Initiative Forum

Citizens catalysing change in the European democratic landscape

Updated on: 26/03/2024

“The European Citizens' Initiative undeniably marks a significant stride toward fostering citizen engagement and building a more participatory and transnational European Union”, writes Paola Ladisa, an Italian student and professional in her Master's thesis titled "The European Citizens' Initiative: a pathway towards transnational democracy in Europe?". “However”, she continues, “…it becomes evident that challenges persist. The limited enthusiasm among citizens and the Commission's cautious approach in fully embracing ECI requests raise uncertainties about its potential to serve as a transformative catalyst for transnational democracy in Europe.”

In this article for the ECI Forum, Paola Ladisa summarises the main arguments of her research. (note to the reader: the article only presents the views of the author and can in no way be taken to reflect the views of the Commission). 

Changes and progress within the intricate machinery of the EU are driven by a complex and often-cited technocratic decision-making process. However, this process has undergone and continues to experience a gradual democratisation, favouring increased involvement of civil society and European citizens. A groundbreaking example of this evolution is the European Citizens' Initiative, a transnational democracy tool that stands as the first of its kind at the European level. The initiative empowers 1 million citizens from at least seven different Member States to propose a legislative initiative to the European Commission.

Are we witnessing a new era of citizen-driven governance in the heart of Europe? The exploration of the potential and functioning of this instrument proves to be not only intriguing due to its connection with ongoing debates about the essence of the European Union and the most fitting democratic model for it, but also because it prompts thoughtful reflections on citizens' opportunities and rights.


Europe's democratic puzzle: fitting democracy into the heart of Europe

The ongoing political evolution of the European Union necessitates heightened legitimacy derived from its citizenry. Responding to these evolving demands, the Lisbon Treaty incorporates a dedicated section that introduces innovative democratic mechanisms, encompassing both representative governance and direct engagement. European citizens are granted access to a diverse array of participatory tools extending beyond formal political representation. These tools include agenda-setting instruments, notably petitions to the European Parliament and the European Citizens' Initiative. Additionally, there are input mechanisms in policy formation, such as public consultations, access to documents and ex post reviews and complaints on maladministration addressed to the Ombudsman The European Commission consistently involves citizens and stakeholders in public consultations throughout the policy development and law-making processes, thereby tapping into valuable insights from interest groups. Although this approach offers civil society opportunities to influence agenda-setting and pose significant questions, it falls short of being a direct manifestation of the "rule of the people". Notably, the Commission retains significant discretion in deciding whether to engage with interest groups and civil society, as well as in determining how to leverage the acquired information. Moreover, the intricacies and interconnected nature of the European legislative process and bureaucracy contribute to the widening of a gap, further distancing citizens from this cumbersome system.

The imperative for expanding participatory democracy aligns with a global redefinition of the democratic concept. Diverse theories have endeavored to unravel the democratic essence of the European Union, delineating the contours of the purported democratic deficit and proposing potential remedies. Among these, the transnational democracy theory, intricately linked with the European Citizens' Initiative, emerges as a key perspective. Pioneered by Bohman (2010), the progenitor of transnationalism, this theory posits that the EU's legitimacy and democratic shortcomings stem predominantly from a sociological standpoint, particularly the lack of citizen engagement. Consequently, Bohman suggests a reframing of the issue as a “deliberative deficit" rather than a democratic one. 

The focus of the transnational democracy theory is a network of vigorous interactions across borders aimed at transforming and exerting power across borders and levels. In Bohman’s own words “Democracy across borders means that borders do not mark the difference between the democratic inside and the non-democratic outside of the polity, between those who have the normative power and communicative freedom to make claims to justice and those who do not. It is not a democracy beyond borders, but across borders; not a democracy of a single community, but many different communities; not of one demos, however multileveled, but of many demoi”.


Unlocking transnational democracy: decoding the potential of the European Citizens' Initiative

The contemplation on a possible redefinition of democracy in the EU directs our attention to a pivotal instrument: the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI). Introduced in 2011 by the Lisbon Treaty, the ECI serves as both an agenda-setting tool and a participatory democratic mechanism. Unlike traditional approaches, it has the potential to transcend national boundaries, transforming democracy into a transnational participatory form. The European Citizens’ Initiative empowers European citizens by providing a unique platform for proposing legislation, fostering direct engagement with the EU decision-making process.

This innovative tool allows 1 million citizens from at least 7 different Member States to invite the European Commission to submit a legislative proposal on a matter required for the purpose of implementing the Treaties. The legal reference in EU secondary law is Regulation (EU) No 2019/788 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 17 April 2019 on the European citizens’ initiative. The Regulation lays down ex ante and post ante requirements to successfully submit an initiative. The steps are briefly outlined in the image below. 

Process of ECI Flow Chart - Set up of the Citizens' Committees - The Commission eventually registers and publish the initiative - On paper or Online collection of statements of support (12 months) - Verification of the statements of support by national authorities (3 months) - Submission of the initiative - Meeting with the Commissioner(s) (within 1 month from submission) - Public hearing at the European Parliament (within 3 months from submission) - Commission's Communication (within 6 months from submissi

For more comprehensive understanding of the requirements and the process, see  Regulation (EU) No 2019/788 of the European Parliament and of the Council on the European citizens’ initiative

By enabling the pooling of efforts and signatures across borders, the ECI amplifies individual voices, addressing common issues that transcend national boundaries. Beyond its legislative role, the ECI contributes to the politicization of issues within the European Union, fostering resource exchange and giving rise to citizens' concerns. The ECI serves as a catalyst for public engagement and debate, fostering communicative discourse within EU policymaking. It encourages organizers to present rationales before the Commissioners and at public hearings in the European Parliament, enhancing transparency and accountability. Through this collective approach, a unified European identity might emerge as a tangible reality.


Crunching some numbers: assessing progress and unleashing potential for enhancement

Examining the data, it is challenging to assert that the European Citizens' Initiative has achieved the recognition it deserves. The instrument has, to date, garnered limited resonance. Nonetheless, as Greenwood aptly pointed out, assessing the ECI's success should transcend empirical metrics. Instead, it should be gauged by acknowledging its democratic and transnational potential. Building on Greenwood's insights, Paola Ladisa suggests proceeding with an analysis of the ECI on three dimensions

1. Examining its impact on broadening the spectrum of topics considered by political institutions; 2. Assessing its role in fostering public discussions; 3. Evaluating the enduring presence of the transnational network of organisers and supporters over time.


Analysing responses to the 10 ECIs successfully submitted as per July 2023, reveals that the Commission, while demonstrating significant support during the initial stages of the submission, exercises caution in accepting the organisers' proposals. This cautious approach may stem from the Commission's reluctance to share its exclusive legislative initiative powers with citizens. Nonetheless, this reluctance could serve as an incentive for the network's continued activity even following the Commission's response. The second noteworthy aspect to highlight pertains to the substance and breadth of citizens' requests. In nearly all instances, these requests introduced fresh perspectives to the Commission's agenda, with a pronounced focus on matters related to environmental conservation and sustainability (1st dimension).

In creating public discourse (2nd dimension), the ECI proves promising by drawing participants from a wide array of Member States. It is worth noting the pivotal support from non-governmental organizations (NGOs), a distinguishing factor between ECIs that successfully reach the threshold and those that do not.  This positions the ECI as a potentially powerful form of outside lobbying.

Examining the enduring networks of organisers and supporters (3rd dimension) reveals ongoing advocacy efforts and a potential foundation for a European public sphere. Notably, organisers have adopted focused social media campaigns, targeting the 21-30 age group, a demographic frequently engaged in social media, hinting at a winning strategy for "bringing Europe closer to its citizens".

Group of organisers sitting on table - StopFinningEU

While the ECI holds immense promise, it is crucial to acknowledge that it alone may not be the panacea for all the democratic challenges facing the EU. The evolving landscape necessitates a continuous process of evaluation and adaptation to address the dynamic nature of our times. 

Nonetheless, this transformation is one that can and must commence at the grassroots level, propelled by the support and interest of the citizens themselves. When was the last time you exercised your voting rights in national elections? How about in the European elections? When was the last time you visited the ECI website?


Paola Ladisa

Paola Ladisa, an Italian student and professional, has undertaken academic endeavours across various European countries, cultivating a diverse and multicultural background that has profoundly shaped her intellectual and personal development. During her tenure as a trainee at the European Commission, Paola played an active role in policy-making in the field of fisheries policies . Notably, she contributed to the Commission's response to the European citizens' initiative "Stop finning – stop the trade" an experience that served as inspiration for her Master's thesis titled "The European Citizens' Initiative: a pathway towards transnational democracy in Europe?".

Leave a comment

To be able to add comments, you need to authenticate or register.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed on the ECI Forum reflect solely the point of view of their authors and can in no way be taken to reflect the position of the European Commission or of the European Union.