EUOBSERVER / BRUSSELS - Hailed as the EU's first real step towards direct democracy, a right contained in the new Lisbon Treaty allowing EU citizens to ask the European Commission to initiate a law is shaping up to be a political and legal minefield.
The wording of the 'citizens initiative' article requires one million signatures from EU citizens for the commission to consider a legislative proposal, but its implementation throws up practical problems.
Saying the article will "add a new dimension to European democracy," the commission in a discussion paper to be published later today (11 November) sets out the issues that the "new institutional instrument" will raise.
Chief among the problems is setting the minimum number of member states from which the one million signature need to come, the proportion of the population the signatures should represent in each country and how to collect the signatures.
The problems are compounded by the fact that member states range in size from a 410,000 strong population in Malta to 82 million Germans, have different voting ages and use different systems for verifying signatures.
The democratic innovation, which Brussels hopes to have up and running by the end of next year, should see the threshold of states set at one third (nine), says the commission, rejecting one quarter as "too low" and a majority (14) as too high. The treaty itself simply says the signatures should come from a "significant" number of the 27 member states.
The commission urges that a population percentage threshold should be set (such as 0.2%, representing 160,000 people in Germany or 20,000 in Belgium) as a "flat rate" would penalise citizens from small countries.
The paper also suggests a time period of one year be set for gathering the million signatures required, something that would mean that the "context" remains the same but allows for the "additional complexity" of getting a campaign noticed across the breadth of the Union with its long list of spoken languages.
The commission proposes giving itself wiggle room for repeated petitions on issues it does not want to follow up, noting that "disincentives or time limits" could prevent "successive presentations of the same request."
The citizens article also raises several other questions such as whether the instigators of an initiative may simply be individuals or organisations and the degree to which they have to provide information about their aims and funding.
A big problem is how to collect and verify signatures with some member states having simpler rules on gathering signatures than others - with the practical effect that it may be easier to get the required number of signatures in one country than another.
Brussels suggests a degree of harmonisation which could include data privacy protection, and setting minimum requirements for authenticating signatures. It also remains unclear whether a person's signature should be counted in the member state where they were born or where they are happen to be living and what the minimum age should be.
A major question mark hangs over online initiatives, with all the potential security problems they involve, and whether they should be allowed at all while there is also concern that an initiative could be so convoluted that it is unclear what the signatories actually want - something that could be fixed by using a standard formula.
EU communications commissioner Margot Wallstrom has in the past predicted the tool will be "used immediately" by citizens, noting that it will be "the better if it causes some problems for the commission" as it will bring the institution more into contact with ordinary people and what they are looking for from the EU.
The discussion paper takes the form of a series of questions which stakeholders and the public may reply to until the end of January 2010.