A daily blog on the thrills, spills, and frequent absurdities of the world's one and only 'non-imperial empire' - as Barroso himself called it - the European Union.

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Saturday, 28 January 2012

The 'Citizen's Initiative' is an Exercise in Hot Air

The 'Citizen's Initiative' is an exercise in hot air. Picture by JLogan.

We have just weeks to go until the European Commission launches the biggest experiment in participatory democracy anywhere in the world. It is called the 'citizen's initiative,' and, fittingly coming into play on April Fool's Day, is widely hailed as a landmark in democratising the European Union, and making it more accountable to the people. Political commentators and analysts have been gushing over it since it was first announced, welcoming it as revolutionary, uber-democratic, and impressive: a new era in direct participation, apparently.

Well, it may be revolutionary - this is the first time EU citizens have been given the ability to direct Commission (that is, executive) policy. But uber-democratic and impressive it is not. In fact, aside from the vaunting and adulation, it's pretty much worthless. It is a petition-based procedure: if a petition gets gather at least one million signatures from at least quarter of the EU's member states, the Commission will then take it upon itself to consider legislating in that field. That's right, consider. There's nothing legally binding to do anything other than think about it. If the Commission doesn't want to do it, it won't happen - regardless of how many people put their names to paper.

Second, that is an awful lot of signatures for a petition to get, taking into account language barries. Especially across seven states. What happens if the same petition pops up several different times, each in different languages? Each of them only has a few hundred thousand signatures, but together they have well over a million. What then? Do they count? At the Commission's convenience, most likely. If they are true to past form when it comes to public consultation, a la Irish referenda, they'll adopt anything they do like and ignore anything that they don't. You can bet that 'greater fiscal control for the Commission' will get passed with 'popular approval,' and, say, 'let's see Barroso's million-euro expenses forms' won't because it doesn't meet the criteria.

Thirdly, all the vaunting and adulation is missing the point - this isn't 'democracy' at all. This is evidence of a lack of democracy. Why implement a petition-based system where citizens have a chance at directing policy and legislation - if the lawmakers agree - when you could just make the lawmakers elected in the first place? That's true democracy - choosing who you want in government and telling them what laws to make. Not jumping through hoops to please unelected officials who might then deign to ignore you regardless.


In other news, a stunning example of why proper democratic oversight is sorely needed has been brought back from the EU's Valhalla. Jacques Santer, who resigned - along with most of his Commission - amid allegations of mass-corruption in 1999 is now chief of the debt-selling 'SPIV' - the fundraiser for the European Union's 'new' (read: latest) bailout fund.

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