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Citizens’ right to propose new EU laws has entered its deepest political crisis

By Dr. Carsten Berg, Director of The ECI Campaign, first published in The Brussels Times 

Hailed as the first transnational instrument of participatory democracy in world history, the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) allows citizens to call for new European laws on issues that matter to them.

However, due to lobbying pressure, the European Commission has now plunged this instrument into its deepest political crisis, having abandoned its legal obligation to implement the ‘End the Cage Age’ Initiative and prohibit cages in animal farming. Without batting an eyelid, the Commission is taking the risk that citizens’ trust in the EU institutions might be permanently damaged.

Success with mixed results

The ECI involves the most thorough process for democratic participation in the world, provided that citizens manage to collect at least 1 million signatures in at least 7 EU countries. The signatures need to be validated by civil servants from the Member States. Some countries have added hurdles by requiring citizens to provide personal data, such as national identity numbers.

Unlike referenda, successful ECIs are not automatically translated into draft laws for the EU Parliament and EU ministers to adopt, but they require the European Commission to position itself on the issues of concern to the citizens.

Achieving success through this democratic tool is quite difficult. Since April 2012, when the instrument was established, 133 European Citizens’ Initiatives have been officially submitted. So far, only ten have succeeded in collecting the necessary signatures. Out of these ten initiatives, only two have been partially implemented and then only in regards to secondary objectives. Staggeringly, this means that twelve years after the tool came into force no ECI has been fully implemented.

The ‘End the Cage Age’ ECI, which called on the EU to end caged farming, is a very special flagship case of EU democratic participation. It is the only Initiative to have secured a clear commitment by the European Commission to implement all of its demands. At the time, it received praise as a great political achievement – not least by the European Commission itself – as no other citizens demand had ever been taken so seriously by EU policymakers before.

This has encouraged numerous other advocates to learn from and make use of this democracy tool and be more involved in EU policymaking. Last year, however, the European Commission made a U-turn on its promise to propose a new law to end caged farming by 2023. It reneged on its legally binding commitment arguing that more time was needed to asses the law, including the transition period to put the reform into place.

This explanation was refuted by a number of media reports, which exposed the Commission’s decision of purposefully delaying and fizzling out the revision of EU’s outdated animal welfare legislation,  giving in to massive pressure from the Big Agriculture industry lobbies. The lack of proper follow-up to the ‘End the Cage Age’ Initiative has thrown this democratic instrument into an unprecedented crisis.

Citizens against lobbying groups

We are now amidst a wave of farmers’ protests throughout Europe. Farmers’ livelihoods are threatened because of the current economic system, squeezing them between Big Agribusiness players, who are undercutting prices, big retail cartels buying their products at the lowest price possible, and imported products of lower standards.

European conservatives are even adding fuel to the fire, ahead of the EU elections in June. In an effort to distract citizens from the real problems, they now claim that the farmers’ discontent is all due to environmental laws and policies.

In fact, the planned legislative reforms announced by the current Commission in the beginning of its term were aimed to build resilience, protect farmers’ health and livelihoods, and ensure that their products meet societal demands. Instead, the solutions that would have made farming more sustainable in the future have now been shot down.

Citizens sincerely want unnecessary animal suffering to end. Caged hens and rabbits are locked in a space nearly equivalent to an A4 sheet of paper. Female pigs are so constrained that they cannot even turn around during most of their adult lives. Baby calves spend the first weeks of their lives alone, isolated in pens. Backed by scientists, businesses and NGOs, the ‘End the Cage Age’ Initiative called for an end to this cruelty.

Improving animal welfare standards is a priority for Europeans. The Commission’s U-turn is also at odds with the Conference on the Future of Europe. A citizen-led series of debates and discussions that took place throughout 2022 during the conference concluded that the EU needs to shift to more sustainable food systems, and higher animal welfare standards were seen as a key component of this transition.

In October 2023, the European Commission published an official public opinion poll, showing that nine out of ten Europeans (89%) want the EU to stop the individual caging of farmed animals. A stark majority of respondents (94%) believe that farmed animals need enough space to be able to move around, lie down and stand up. But by then the Commission had already decided to shelve the promised cages ban.

Bringing the EU closer to its citizens

No one disputes that the EU needs to be closer to its citizens and listen to their demands. Instead, the EU seems to cater to loud and powerful lobbies and their army of spin doctors, who have the power to shift the political debate to the detriment of the weakest – be it small farmers or ordinary citizens.

The birth and growth of the European Citizens’ Initiative has been a very long and laborious process. This instrument was one of the few wins of democracy groups, who have been advocating for reforms for decades. Originally it emerged from a struggle between supporters and opponents of EU participatory democracy during the 2002-2003 EU Constitutional Convention on the Future of Europe. It was the bare minimum of what pro-democracy advocates were asking for.

The Commission’s failure to implement the ‘End the Cage Age’ Initiative undermines the EU’s credibility and constitutes a breach of its political commitments and legal responsibilities. The risk is high that the EU’s flagship democratic tool may become an empty shell and citizens will be further disillusioned by the EU institutions. All this, just ahead of the election period, is grist to the mill of right-wing populists across Europe. Another reason why we cannot just stand by and let this happen.

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