A worrying start for the European citizens’ initiative?

The 'One of Us' European citizens’ initiative adheres to the rules of the ECI, but is repugnant to the initiative’s spirit, argues Edite Estrela.

By Edite Estrela MEP

10 Apr 2014

The European parliament is set to debate on Thursday 10th April; the controversial European citizen’s initiative (ECI) entitled ‘One of Us’. The initiative, if successful, could mean the end for any EU development assistance funding for maternal and child health, family planning services and sexual and reproductive health.

This potential devastating result should raise concern with any politician and policymaker who is committed to improving the lives of women and girls living in the world’s poorest countries. It should also cause concern to those who desire effective remedies for the democratic deficit in the EU.

The One of Us initiative has serious implications for the goals and founding attitudes of the European Union. It seeks to ban all EU funds for any activities which involve the destruction of the human embryo, focusing on EU funding for stem cell and embryo research, and direct and indirect EU development assistance for abortion or abortion-related services.

The One of Us initiative would in effect outlaw funding for any civil society or international organisation that provide abortions or advice and support that might lead to abortions.

"These organisations are attempting to impose their personal religious beliefs on policies governing the general public (or in this case, women in developing countries) regardless of whether those affected by the policies share the same religious beliefs or not"

These are the same agencies that provide a much wider range of essential maternal and child health services and would have the consequence of ending EU support for maternal healthcare, pre-natal care and voluntary family planning services.

The effect therefore would be to jeopardise all EU development maternal health funding – estimated at approximately €120m. It is estimated that 800 women every day around the world die due to pregnancy-related complications. The initiative would seriously hinder the EU’s contribution to reducing these deaths.

Close scrutiny of the initiators and supporters of the One of Us campaign reveals them to be nearly exclusively religious, and predominantly catholic, organisations. These organisations are attempting to impose their personal religious beliefs on policies governing the general public (or in this case, women in developing countries) regardless of whether those affected by the policies share the same religious beliefs or not.

Having lost the battle against women’s rights in Europe – 25 out of the 28 EU member states have liberal abortion laws - to advance the anti-choice agenda, those behind One of Us have had to look for a different way and part of the world to promote their ideology. And they are attempting to harness this new ECI mechanism in order to do so.

The ECI is an instrument created in the wake of the Lisbon Treaty with the aim of trying to bridge the democratic deficit between the EU institutions and European citizens’. The One of Us initiative is the second ECI to receive approval for consideration by the European commission, and to have a public hearing on its objectives at the European parliament. Following the hearing the commission has until the end of May to decide on what course of action it will take.

The One of Us initiative seems to have satisfied all the official criteria to be granted consideration by the commission and thus entitled to a parliament hearing.

But the fact that it has reached this stage is a worrying sign for the nascent ECI. The simple reality is that this is not the type of proposal the ECI was intended to promote. It was not established to allow a small number of people to demand that the EU legislate on the basis of their personal religious convictions.
The spirit of the ECI is as a grassroots driven mechanism for ordinary citizens’. Yet, One of Us is driven by several deeply religious MEPs and has utilised the organisational infrastructure of churches to gather signatures.

The ECI was established to allow EU citizens to request changes that will enhance their daily lives. In stark contrast to this, the One of Us initiative attempts to impact, and seriously put at risk, the lives of vulnerable women in the most impoverished parts of the world.

The ECI is a laudable attempt to bring the concerns of European citizens’ to the attention of Brussels. It is an innovative way of addressing the democratic deficit criticism of the EU which has haunted the Union since its inception.

However, as expected with such a novel initiative, very considerable teething problems have emerged. If the ECI is to achieve the purpose it was intended for and avoid being hijacked in the way we have seen with One of Us, then significant changes need to be made.

At the hearing today, and as the European commission considers its response to the One of Us initiative, those of us in the European parliament who are committed to the fight for women’s rights and an end to the socio-economic disparities that blight our world today call on the commission to remain at the forefront of this fight.

Commissioner Piebalgs has supported this fight in the past. We expect him to continue to do so, at the European parliament today and when he comes to determine the fate of the One of Us initiative.