Since the European Commission introduced the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) in April 2012, it has proven to be a controversial instrument for citizens to have their voices heard in EU law-making. Roughly 9 million people got involved in the ECI, forcing the European Commission to respond to three concrete ECI projects. While greater citizen participation is important for the EU’s legitimacy, Brussels at the same time needs to be careful not to allow its policies to be dictated by popular emotions, or even concurrent populism.

With the ECI, Brussels was reacting to criticism of having a “democratic deficit” brought about by distant and elitist institutions. Under the ECI, if 1 million citizens across a quarter of the EU member states propose or support a new law, the EU is legally obliged to consider it. Critics maintain that the ECI has been a failure, as no significant action has been taken in the past six years. Four initiatives have gathered enough votes and the EU has followed up on three of them, albeit in ways that have not satisfied the petitioners. As a result, the ECI is branded a “paper tiger” proving that European elites care nothing about the views of ordinary citizens.

The political reality, however, is very different. The truth is that the EU has had to  make a series of pragmatic decisions in the face of populist forces and politicisation that have come to infuse the ECI. Civil society actors involved in an ECI often pursue a more aggressive and confrontational approach at odds with the consensus-oriented processes at the EU level. The result is a hardened line of argument leaving little wiggle room for reaching a compromise.

One of the most recent examples of this clash of viewpoints came after an ECI calling to ban glyphosate, a widely applied herbicide, gathered significant support. A petition was signed by more than 1.3 million Europeans ahead of the final vote in November 2017 on a five-year renewal of the chemical’s EU licence. The key to the matter was the petitioners’ claim that glyphosate is a threat to human health, based on a study by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), which classified the product as “probably carcinogenic” to humans.

The Commission responded to the ECI that it lacked objective evidence linking glyphosate to cancer, and thus had no legal grounds for a ban. EU governments eventually voted to renew the licence – a move harshly criticized by the “Stop Glyphosate” ECI and Greenpeace, with Greenpeace’s EU food policy director complaining that this decision would only cause concerned citizens to trust the EU even less.

However, concerned citizens notwithstanding, the EU had sound reasons for discarding IARC’s and the ECI’s proposals. In 2017, a Reuters report that revealed several instances in IARC’s glyphosate report where “a negative conclusion about glyphosate leading to tumours was either deleted or replaced with a neutral or positive one.” Even before that, IARC’s glyphosate judgement had already been contradicted by every other agency that had evaluated the compound, including the European Chemicals Agency, and the European Food Safety Authority. In the U.S., an independent judge echoed the Environmental Protection Agency’s findings when he determined last month that the evidence linking glyphosate to non-Hodgkin lymphoma in humans at current exposure levels was “pretty sparse.”

With so much doubt about IARC and its assessment of glyphosate, the EU was right to let science, rather than emotion, inform its policy decision. This is reassuring at a time when passionately led but often ill-informed debates are becoming the norm across the EU. This new “emotional politics” is highly divisive and, at the worst of times, has even had adverse effects on the stability of the Union.

The case of the “Stop TTIP” ECI illustrates this point. The Commission caused enormous controversy by rejecting the ECI’s call “to recommend to the Council to repeal the negotiating mandate for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and not to conclude the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA).” According to the “Stop TTIP” organisers, the Commission’s move was not legally justified, but “politically motivated.” While it is true that TTIP and CETA have legitimate issues, the heated narrative surrounding the deals, perpetuated by the ECI, wholly misrepresented the real nature of the agreements.

It conflated legitimate concerns about TTIP with those of CETA, particularly regarding fears that CETA’s arbitration courts would be too susceptible to corporate pressure. As a result, the Belgian region of Wallonia in 2016 blocked the CETA deal, thereby throwing the EU into an internal crisis. All this despite the fact that CETA actually increased governmental oversight more than any previous EU trade deal. Although CETA was final approved, negotiations for TTIP were successfully stalled.

Owing to the complexity of European policy-making, each of these cases needs to be assessed on its own merits. It is laudable that the often-derided EU institutions continue to assess the evidence in a sober manner. Still, there is a need to revise the procedures of ECIs to make them more transparent and eliminate some of the criticism levied against them. That way, more viable ECIs would have a better chance of getting through rather than the ones hijacked by protest movements.

The ECI is a commendable and important democratic tool, but one that is in danger of exacerbating widespread perceptions of EU elitism if it’s not handled more adroitly. After all, the ECI was created to improve Brussels’ legitimacy – not undermine it.

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