The right of petition and sanctions in the European Parliament: Applying rules and avoiding politics
April 10, 2019
An innovation of the Lisbon Treaty, the European Citizens’ Initiative requires one million signatures to encourage the Commission to propose legislation. At first sight, its results seem disappointing. In practice, the situation is more nuanced. Admittedly, the “Ban Glyphosate” Initiative (1.3 million signatures) did not prevent the re-authorisation of the active substance for another five years, but it did lead to the creation of the PEST Committee in the European Parliament and the revision of the General Food Law – a considerable impact.
The right of petition: a gadget or a lever of influence?
The spotlight should be shined on another tool available to civil society: the right of petition, which originated in the 2000 EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This right comes under the ‘ignored’ (rather than ‘hidden’) powers of the European Parliament, exercised via the Committee on Petitions (PETI) which receives such requests, validates them, hears their authors and (potentially in co-operation with other EP Committees, e.g. ITRE, ENVI) suggests some extra-judicial solution.
Here too, an overly superficial analysis could lead us to label the petition right a mere ‘gadget’. Actually, it is a formidable weapon. Unlike the Citizens’ Initiative which requires a minimum number of signatures, a valid petition can be submitted with only one signature! In 2018, 698 petitions were determined admissible by the PETI Committee, i.e. more than two per day.
Petitions are submitted by citizens, most often with the support of an NGO that masters the procedures: the petitioner(s) can be invited to express their views before the PETI Committee, which discusses and adopts any decisions it deems appropriate. All of these stages are public, but if you do not follow it regularly, it is generally very surprising whenever a company or industry finds itself the target. Indeed, a petition can lead to a public hearing and – at the initiative of political groups – sanctions, e.g. requests to withdraw parliamentary accreditation. These threats of sanctions, to which several (notably American) companies have been confronted, are based on interpretation – exactly the kind of thing we should be avoiding.
The European Parliament’s rules on sanctioning companies must be applied with precision. Rule 116a(3) states that access badges can be withdrawn if a company “has refused, without offering a sufficient justification, to comply with a formal summons to attend a hearing”. However, the question of what is a “formal” summons or a “sufficient” justification is a matter of discretion, creating a risk that sanctions become another political tool for parties looking to score points in elections.
Unprepared economic stakeholders
The European Citizens’ Initiative and the right of petition are the means civil society has to influence EU debates. Seen as disadvantaged compared to industrial lobbies in defending their interests, NGOs have rapidly adopted these instruments as tools for political influence.
Such tools have until now escaped the attention of EU trade associations, whether because they have never believed in them, or have never been prepared for them. While “Ban Glyphosate” gathered 1.3 million signatures – often duplicated, to be fair – COPA-COGECA which represents millions of farming families is unable to collect 50,000!
These new procedures also require a reforming of monitoring systems and an enhanced capacity to anticipate action, since it is tempting to turn your back and hope that the file buries itself. However, this will be the case less and less.
Regulation of lobbying is more necessary than ever
The absence of regulation is damaging for lobbyists. It is crucial to specify what is permitted and what is not, without any possibility of interpretation. There should be no uncertainty about sanctions like revocation of badges, nor should the latter be used or abused as a political tool. The Transparency Register is a good thing, but it is insufficient at the level of controls and sanctions. Alas, the recent news on the proposed mandatory register is not very encouraging.