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European Citizens´ Initiative Forum

United in Diversity: a survey among national authorities shows huge differences in the popularity, legal status and impact of citizens’ initiatives in the EU Member States

Updated on: 26/10/2023

A recent survey among national authorities in 13 EU Member States revealed significant differences between the instruments they use for citizen participation in public policy decision-making, particularly in terms of their popularity, legal status, and impact.

The survey conducted by Democracy International from March to June 2023 aimed to gather best practices regarding national agenda setting initiatives or similar petitioning instruments at the national level. The survey aimed to gather rules for organisers on how to set up initiatives, what support services are offered, the online infrastructure related to the initiative, how digital signatures are managed, and the minimum number of signatories for national initiatives across Member States.

The survey also aimed to understand how successful citizens are in registering their national initiatives and how successful registered initiatives are in becoming legislation, as well as how awareness of these instruments is raised among citizens. Valid responses were received from 13 of the 18 countries with citizen participation tools: Austria, Bulgaria, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia and Spain.

When looking at the registration rate of national citizens’ initiatives, only Austria, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, and Latvia reported over 30 registered initiatives annually. Bulgaria and Slovenia reported between 11 and 20 registered initiatives, while the Netherlands, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia and Spain rest behind with only one to 10 registered initiatives per year. These disparities reflect the country-level differences in the popularity of national citizens’ initiative instruments, the allotted time for signature collection, and the minimum number of signatories required. 

Number of National citizens' initiatives registered per year

 

The following sections present an overview of the national citizens’ initiative instruments available across the 13 countries studied. Due to discrepancies in statistics among countries, they are grouped based on the number of initiatives registered per year, but the descriptions of national instruments are presented separately.

One to 10 initiatives per year: the Netherlands, Lithuania, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, and Spain

The Netherlands

Initiating a successful citizens’ initiative in the Netherlands is more complex compared to other countries surveyed. Besides gathering 40,000 signatures, the proposed issue must not have been discussed in Parliament for at least two years prior. Due to this requirement, the success rate of initiatives reaching the Parliament is relatively low, with only two initiatives meeting the criteria. Although successful initiatives are debated in a plenary parliamentary session, the ultimate decision-making power rests with the responsible government official. Therefore, the instrument remains non-binding.

Lithuania

Since 2000, Lithuania has registered 23 citizens’ initiatives, out of which 10 have successfully gathered the necessary signatures. However, the final decision on whether further action should be taken lies with the Seimas (the Parliament), making this instrument non-binding.

Poland

In Poland, the citizens’ initiative must collect 100,000 signatures for the proposal to be presented in the Sejm (lower chamber of the Parliament) within three months. However, the fate of the proposal depends on the discretion of the Members of Parliament, as there is no obligation to legislate on the proposal. The most recent successful citizens’ initiatives in Poland occurred in 2019 when two proposals gathered the required support.

Portugal

The citizens’ initiative tool is not widely used in Portugal. On average, about three initiatives are registered annually, and in the previous legislative term, out of ten initiatives, only four managed to gather sufficient support. Overall, three laws have been implemented based on Portuguese citizens’ initiatives

Slovakia

Slovakia’s citizen initiative instrument is among the most recent to be adopted by a Member State. The collection of signatures takes place fully online, and organisers have 30 days to gather 15,000 signatures. If an initiative is successful, the government discusses and decides on it through a resolution. The resolution may assign relevant ministers or heads of government bodies to take follow-up measures, such as drafting legal regulations or non-legislative proposals. To date, no initiative has yet gained sufficient support.

Spain

Since 1982, Spain has a rich history of citizens’ initiatives, with a total of 161 proposals that have been presented and over 110 of them have received 500,000 signatures. However, the lack of binding effect behind this tool has resulted in only three initiatives successfully completing the parliamentary process with positive results, ultimately resulting in a law.

 

Eleven to twenty initiatives per year: Bulgaria, Slovenia

Bulgaria

In Bulgaria, the process of collecting signatures for initiatives is quite unique. Organisers have three months to collect as many signatures as possible, with no minimum requirement or threshold to be surpassed. The National Assembly does not discuss the initiatives once the three months have passed, and there is no legal procedure for dealing with initiative proposals.

Slovenia

The citizens’ initiative tool is gaining importance in Slovenia, especially since the outbreak of COVID. However, since 2013, only 22 initiatives have successfully gathered the required support. As is the case in other countries, it is the parliament that has the final say regarding these initiatives.

 

More than 20 initiatives per year:  Austria, Denmark, Finland, Hungary, and Latvia

Austria

Austria’s citizen's initiative tool is best used for agenda setting as it lacks binding authority. Nevertheless, this tool was reported to be ‘very popular’ by the Austrian authority, with over 30 initiatives registered annually. Despite 33 initiatives garnering the necessary support since 2018, it is important to note that this tool serves as a platform for proposing ideas, but the ultimate decision rests with the Parliament. 

Denmark

The Danish example stands out as the most effective instrument among the Member States surveyed, with a total of 1,500 proposals published on the government website. In the past five years alone, 45 proposals garnered 50,000 signatures, successfully reaching the minimum number of signatures required. Once the threshold is met, the bill is treated like other resolutions in Parliament. While there is no legal obligation to pass a successful initiative, the bill will be debated in the parliamentary chamber and relevant committees. Members of Parliament will vote on it, just as they would with any other bill.

Finland

In Finland, successful initiatives are subject to discussion at the discretion of the Parliament. This tool, widely embraced by citizens, has demonstrated its potential to influence new legislation, despite lacking binding authority. Over 30 initiatives are registered annually, with approximately 6 achieving success within the same timeframe. To qualify as successful, an initiative must gather at least 50,000 statements of support verified by the Digital and Population Data Agency. As of June 2023, citizens have initiated 1,555 proposals, of which 66 garnered the necessary backing to proceed. Those that succeed in this process are then deliberated within the Parliament. So far, four initiatives have resulted in the enactment of new laws: the Equality Marriage Law, the Maternity Law enhancing the rights of female couples, the prohibition of female genital mutilation, and the prevention of water supply privatization. 

Hungary

In Hungary, the most recent valid and successful referendum took place in 2008, resulting in a legislative change. Despite over 30 initiatives being submitted, the last successful ones did not culminate in a referendum due to a decision by the constitutional court. Nevertheless, should an initiative prove both valid and successful after a referendum, it mandates the Parliament to enact corresponding legislation.

Latvia

Signature collection in Latvia poses a significant challenge for legislative initiatives to succeed. Since 2013, no initiative has managed to gather the necessary number of signatures. However, if one-tenth of the electorate supports the initiative within a 12-month period, it advances to the Central Electoral Commission. From there, it proceeds to the President, who then submits it to the Saeima (Parliament). Should the Saeima fail to adopt the draft law or constitutional amendment without alterations, a referendum will be conducted. While it is difficult to reach the signature threshold, this national tool of participatory democracy offers the most serious legislative follow-up compared to other tools, resulting in 59 pieces of legislation to date. 

 

Read also: National citizens’ initiatives vs the European citizens’ initiatives: proportionally, more signatures, within a shorter timeframe, required

 

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