The European Union Must Say "No" to the California-ization of Europe

February 2, 2010 4:15 PM

How much European democracy is too much?

In a move to bring the European Union closer to its citizens, the Lisbon Treaty established the "European Citizens' Initiative" (ECI) two years ago. This innovation would let one million EU citizens—or about 0.25 percent of the European Union's adult population—petition the European Commission, asking it to propose new legislation within its jurisdiction, giving any tiny group of Europeans considerable force in the democratically elected European Parliament and Council.

The European Commission has until January 31 to consult interested parties, after which it must hammer out the procedures and conditions for how the initiative will work.

Anyone who thinks this is a good idea should look across the globe to California, which has nearly a century's experience with direct democracy and citizens' initiatives, and which is lurching from one fiscal crisis to another and is probably the most ungovernable state in America. As Europe embarks on its age of citizens' initiatives, its leaders ignore at their peril California's lessons on the trade-off between citizens' legal empowerment and governability.

The political scope of the ECI is less far reaching than California citizens' initiatives, in which a sufficient number of signatures leads to a binding referendum. By contrast, the ECI is described as an "agenda setting initiative" compelling the European Commission to act on the topic. Theoretically the Commission retains some freedom to interpret how to honor a successful petition from the public. But with the newly empowered European Parliament suffering from its own legitimacy deficit and overall citizen indifference, it would be naïve to underestimate the political spillover from successful ECIs. European parliament and state government members may find it impossible to resist ECI petitioners.

The referendum process has embroiled California in battles over taxation (everyone is against it) and gay marriage. Granted that Californians are famous for their craziness and short-sightedness, but is it safe to assume that Europe is immune from the California disease? Minarets were recently banned in Switzerland, while ongoing signature drives to block full Turkish membership of the European Union, the expansion of nuclear energy in Europe, or the sale of unlabelled genetically modified products illustrates the scope of issues that could soon be forced to the top of the broader European political agenda.

Particularly in the areas of external trade policy and the Internal Market, where the European Commission today has full jurisdiction, and which contains many complex and economically important regulatory issues with a large potential for public mobilization, the introduction of the ECI is likely to further complicate EU decision making. Rather than streamlining the decision-making process, the ECI could force the deferral of trade-related disputes and compound gridlock in the European Union on economic matters.

The threat posed by the ECI in potentially blocking important policy decisions is reinforced by the very low threshold for required signatures. The approximately 0.25 percent of the adult EU population required for a successful ECI is not only far lower than the approximately 1.5 percent of the adult population threshold in California, but also much lower than thresholds for ECI-like initiatives recognized by most national EU member state constitutions.

Moreover, the accelerating "social media" revolution from Facebook and the like means that it will be easy to raise the resources required by technologically sophisticated campaigns to collect signatures. The emergence of a California-style "Initiative Industry" from the ECI introduction seems assured, likely consisting of media, political, and polling consultants and for-profit signature gathering businesses. As California's experience shows, the ECI is therefore likely to empower, not the average citizen, but well-heeled "political fringe billionaires" with pet schemes and corporate interests.

The European Commission and member state governments must therefore at least restrict conditions for the implementation of ECI, perhaps including a national threshold of 100,000 signatures collected in each participating Member State. In addition, only a brief 6 month period for signature collection should be allowed, with no possibility for repeated campaigns. Finally, to deter ECI campaigns funded by rich individuals and corporate interests, ECI campaign financing rules must include a €1,000 threshold for financial contributions by any single firm, organization, or individual.

As the European Union continues to grow and experiment with supranational governance, the feeling among many Europeans that "Brussels is too far away" will remain and likely accelerate from the many complex policy compromises required to govern an ever more diverse Union. Introducing the ECI was no doubt intended to address those concerns. But instead of assuaging popular disenchantment with supranational EU institutions, the initiative could deepen the public's frustrations, giving new meaning to the phrase, "California, here I come!"