BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will launch a program next week allowing citizens to propose legislation as long as they can get a million signatures on a petition, a democratic drive that some opponents have labeled a "fig leaf".
Under the scheme, which starts on April 1 and is dubbed the European citizens' initiative, the EU will be obliged to consider legislative proposals that have sufficient signatures and support in at least seven of the union's 27 member states.
The plan was drawn up by the European Commission, the EU's executive and chief initiator of legislation, as a way of trying to make the bloc more democratically accountable. Surveys often show EU citizens think there is a democratic deficit.
"This new right will open a new chapter in the democratic life of the EU," said European Commissioner Maroš Šefcovic, the leader of the initiative, which was called for in the EU's Lisbon treaty when it came into force in December 2009.
"Not only will it provide a direct gateway for citizens to make their voices heard in Brussels, it will also encourage real cross-border debates about EU issues."
The EU has long been sensitive about its ability to connect with the 500 million citizens who are part of the bloc.
Most naturally feel a much closer connection with domestic politics. Turnout at elections to the 754-seat European Parliament has been falling steadily since 1979, with just 43 percent of citizens voting in the last elections in 2009.
While the citizens' initiative may go some way towards closing that gap, or at least draw more people into the policy debate, critics have concerns about the stringent conditions imposed by the Commission on the process, which they think will make too difficult for meaningful citizen-engagement.
Petitions will be rejected if they are deemed "outside Brussels' powers" or "abusive, frivolous or vexatious". They are also prohibited from being "contrary to EU values" and are not permitted to demand policies that would lead to a change to the EU's founding treaties.
That means recommendations on larger or more theoretical issues, such as the future of Europe or macroeconomic policies in the euro zone, will not be covered by the initiative.
"I am skeptical about the initiative, if not worried," said Marco Incerti, a research fellow at the Centre for European Policy Studies, a Brussels-based think tank.
"It risks raising expectations that cannot be met," he said, adding that it could end up deepening the democratic deficit if citizens end up feeling disenchanted by the process or cut out.
A spokesperson for the Single Seat campaign, which is calling for the European Parliament to be based in one city rather than both Brussels and Strasbourg in France, said the initiative was nothing more than a "fig leaf", seeking to cover up the wider reputational problems the EU faces.
At a time of growing discontent over the direction of the European Union, and especially about rules that euro-skeptics in countries such as Britain regard as endless Brussels-meddling, the Commission is at pains to keep integration alive.
In recent months there have been protests in several euro zone countries, including Greece, Portugal to Spain, against austerity measures seen as being imposed by Brussels, underlining the widening frustration with EU-related policy.
It is not clear how much the citizens' initiative is likely to cost. A spokesman for the Commission said individual member states would be responsible for determining how to budget for the scheme in their respective countries.
(Reporting and writing by Daniel Rolle; editing by Luke Baker)