“We are a welcoming Europe, let us help” - the European Citizens' Initiative for the welcoming of migrants
11 August, 2020
The European Citizens’ Initiatives is an instrument of participatory democracy that European citizens can use to submit a proposal to the Commission. In particular, the initiative named “We are a welcoming Europe, let us help” has been submitted by European citizens with the goal of asking the European Commission for a common and more comprehensive European law on immigration. The aim of this request was to create a system that could face the new challenges represented by the recent arrivals of migrants in Europe and that could be based on support and solidarity. As a general overview, two main aspects can be considered. On the one hand, the importance of these types of venture is twofold: first, it gives prominence to topics of great and current importance, second it is proof of the great push by civil society towards a more welcoming society. On the other hand, the weak spots are numerous and have a strong influence in determining their success or their failure.
The European Citizens’ Initiative “We are a welcoming Europe, let us help”
The European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) is a unique tool that European citizens have to shape the European Union and its policies in numerous fields and to ask for legislative modifications. This type of venture is an instrument of participatory democracy at the disposal of European citizens, with which they can play a significant role in the life of the European Union. The goal of each initiative is to reach at least 1 million signatures, with a minimum threshold of at least 7 EU countries. The statements of support must be collected within 12 months after the publication of the initiative and must be submitted by European citizens with the minimum age for voting in European elections. When -and if- the number of signatures needed is reached and verified, the initiative will be presented to the European Commission. At this point, the European Commission will examine the content of the initiative and decide whether or not to take any action as a result of the proposal received.
The “we are a welcoming Europe, let us help” initiative was addressed to the European Commission in 2018 with aim of supporting and giving suggestions to European governments on how to tackle their difficulties in managing migratory flows directed towards Europe. The initiative states that “governments are struggling to handle migration. Most of us want to help people in need because we care. Millions have stood up to help. Now we want to be heard. Let’s reclaim a Welcoming Europe! We call upon the European Commission to act”. With this initiative, European citizens are asking for a common law on immigration based on three dimensions. First, they want to sponsor refugees to offer them a safe home and a new life. The Commission should therefore offer support to local organizations that help refugees who are granted national visas. In this regard, humanitarian corridors are strongly suggested as a positive way to welcome refugees in a safe and not expensive way. Second, the initiative proposed that those who offered humanitarian help or shelter to migrants entering the European territory should not be prosecuted or fined. This issue was included to stop the punishment of volunteers and volunteering organizations striving to support migrants in needs. In particular, the initiative calls for the recognition of the difference between trafficking and facilitating irregular immigration for humanitarian purposes. Finally, they asked the Commission to ensure that everyone has effective access to justice, particularly in relation to the victims of labour exploitation and crime across Europe and victims of human rights abuses at European borders. The initiative suggests the implementation of a system of guarantees and rules to protect irregular workers, who often do not report for fear of possible expulsion from the country. This initiative has not reached the necessary minimum number of signatures, but it has managed to bring the attention on this critical issue. Even though it has not led to debate with the Commission or to actual changes in the legislation of European countries, this initiative has drawn the attention of the civil society and helped to spread information on a crucial issue for the life of the Union.
Some crucial weaknesses
Even though the European citizens’ initiative seems to be a powerful tool for European citizens participation in the political life of the union, it shows some important flaws. Firstly, the minimum number of signatures is significantly hard to reach. Since the establishment of this instrument in 2012, only 4 initiatives out of 67 – Right2Water, One of Us, Stop Vivisection and Ban Glyphosate – have been successfully submitted to the Commission. However, the failure of all the other initiatives could be attributed to several reasons: insufficient support, refused request for registration or withdrawal. As Alberto Alemanno, Jean Monnet professor at HEC Paris has stated, “the ECI is not citizen-friendly as it should be”. The bureaucratic hurdles are indeed too high to gather the necessary number of signatures, as this instrument is overly complicated. For example, the complexity of the registration form can be mentioned: the conclusion of the registration requires, among the other things, very rigid conditions and numerous sources of funding and support. Further, an annex with more detailed information on the project, like a draft legal act addressing the issue of the initiative, has to be included. Since the creation of ECI, the Parliament has asked for significant modifications to simplify and streamline the procedures. The new ECI Regulation, which started to apply in 2020, was conceived with the aim of specifying the content of this instrument and to make it more effective. For example, the criteria for the eligibility to sign were softened, the collection of statements of support has been simplified, an online collaborative platform offering information, assistance, practical support and legal advice has been created, and the timeline has been extended. With the implementation of these changes in the structure and content of the initiative, a better participation of citizens could be allowed. By lowering the level of difficulties present in the process of registration and implementation of the initiative, the Commission helps citizens to use this instrument to raise their voices for a common cause aimed at improving European policies.
This article has focused on a very significant, but also quite unknown and unused, instrument for democratic participation in the European Union. In particular, concerning to the “We are a welcoming Europe, let us help” initiative, even if the minimum number of signatures has not been reached, its relevance in the European scenario still remains significant for two main reasons. Firstly, as already mentioned, this type of venture is crucial to turn the spotlight on issues of paramount importance for the European Union and its citizens. The contemporary migratory flows represent great challenges for the EU and in particular for the establishment of a common and shared policy on immigration. The implementation of bottom-up initiatives can give citizens the opportunity to express their ideas and turn them into actual improvements in European policies. Secondly, this initiative testifies the strong will of a significant part of the civil society to welcome migrants. Even though recent nationalist movements have striven to focus the attention of both civil society and political institutions on the negative aspects related to migratory flows, it should not be forgotten that there is also a large number of European citizens who are moving in the opposite direction. The more these welcoming movements of inclusion manage to make their voices heard in European politics, the more Europe can become that melting pot of peoples where diversity marks its progress and development. An increase in public participation will undoubtedly be possible thanks to the changes that have been made and will be made over time to the instrument, and thanks to the spread, throughout the EU, of this instrument, which is still little known and utilised by citizens.