Thursday, 9 December 2010

OK, now it's the first Citizens Initiative - or not?

Back in October I wrote about how the first "European Citizens Initiative", a new right to petition the EU enabled by the Lisbon Treaty, was going to be about genetically modified crops - or so-called "Frankenfoods" as the European tabloid press likes to call them. Even though the institutions were still crafting exactly how the citizens initiative was going to work, it was thought at the time that citizens could still submit their petitions in the mean time. Plenty of legal wrangling ensued, and the Commission has come to the opinion that it does not yet have to officially accept petitions. The European Parliament, on the other hand, thinks that they do. The issue has still not been resolved, because the Commission and the Parliament can't agree on how the Citizen's Initiative should work.

Today Greenpeace got fed up with waiting and staged a demonstration outside the commission demanding that Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso come outside and officially accept their petition, which calls on the EU to stop approving GM crops. But instead of the commission president, the only one to emerge was Health Commissioner John Dalli. Meeting the activists on the giant 380 square meter carpet containing all 1 million signatures collected, Dalli said "I can assure you that there is a political will to listen to everybody and one million signatures is a voice that we should listen to." Photos were taken, handshakes were made, and Dalli walked back into the Berlaymont building. The commission then quickly put out a press statement saying that the commissioner had "received" the petition. But speculation soon spread both outside and inside the commission headquarters - what does "received" mean? Did the commission officially accept the petition?

The answer, we learned later at the midday press briefing, was no. Commissioner Dalli's spokesperson told reporters that the commission is of the view that it did not 'officially' accept the petition this morning because it is unable to do so until the citizens initiative legislation is put into place. Therefore, he said, the commission has no obligation to act on the petition. So was this morning's ceremony the first citizen's initiative presented to the commission? The answer is still, technically, no.

The Lisbon Treaty gives citizens the right to demand that the EU look into a specific issue if they can collect 1 million signatures. But even though the treaty went into effect a year ago, the citizens initiative provision had to be enacted as a directive and then transposed by member states. This has been delayed because the parliament and the commission could not agree on how cumbersome the petition-collecting should be (for instance, how many member states the signatures had to come from) and what the commission should have to do in response to the petition (anything from undertake a consultation to publish a proposal).

The rules have recently been tentatively agreed, but they still need to be voted by the full Parliament and by the full Council.This will likely happen by the end of the year, but even after then member states have 12 months to transpose the rules into their national laws. So it could not be until the end of 2011 that the first citizens initiatives will be officially accepted by the commission. And by then, the commission may have already worked out a deal with member states by which it can significantly ramp up its approvals of GM crops.

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