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EU opens the door to citizen petitions for new laws

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AFP PHOTO / Kostas Tsironis/Newscom

(Read caption) A Greek pensioner shouts slogans during a protest in Athens Dec. 15. Demonstrators clashed with riot police in protests against new austerity measures by the debt-hit Greek government. The austerity measures were demanded by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund in exchange for loans.

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Californians, they’re not. But the citizens of Europe will soon have the opportunity to catch the California spirit and offer up signature-driven initiatives that could eventually become European law.

This week the European Parliament approved the European Citizens’ Initiative, which allows members of the public for the first time to directly suggest Europe-wide laws.

Anything that makes the government of the 27-nation European Union more accessible to citizens is a good thing.

I lived as a reporter in Germany for five years and I still have trouble keeping all those EU institutions straight. But it isn't just me. “Brussels” – shorthand for the EU, because it’s based in the Belgian capital – also feels distant and impenetrable to many Europeans. In 2005, French and Dutch voters sunk an effort to create a new EU "constitution." They deemed it "elitist," among other things.

The initiative idea can help close that gap. Under the provisions approved this week, it will take a million citizens from at least a quarter of the EU member states to get a proposal going.

But it won’t be like the ballot proposition process that Americans are familiar with. A European initiative would have to first be submitted to the European Commission – the executive arm of the EU. It is the Commission that has the power to actually propose legislation. The Commission may choose to submit the citizen petition as legislation, or it may choose not to.

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