It’s our new hobby horse. We are now besotted with democratic Europe. Formerly, for those of us who grew up steeped in the spirit of the founders, nothing was better than an enlightened elite to manage European construction. The Prime Minister of Italy, Mario Monti, pointed something out recently. If the people had been consulted on the sharing of coal and steel five years after the war, the founding fathers, Jean Monnet and Konrad Adenauer, would not have got very far. In bringing yesterday’s arms dealers under a single authority, they had to demonstrate a revolutionary daring, as long as they did it discreetly.

The peoples’ “No” in European referendums showed that this old method no longer worked. A new democracy had to be invented. We dug up the tools that the Lisbon Treaty had placed at the disposition of citizens. Since April 1st this year, the petition has been the new weapon of the people. To set the machine in motion, you have to be seven citizens in seven countries.

Thereafter, you have a year to collect a million signatures and exceed the threshold required for each individual member state: 74,250 for Germany, 55,000 for France and 4,500 for Malta etc. At the end of the process, the Commission meets with the petition organisers. At worst, you will get a polite hearing; at best, the Commission will draft a proposal for legislation taking into account your desiderata.

But be careful not to jump the gun. Greenpeace launched a petition to outlaw GMO crops in Europe which gathered 1.2 million signatures. The file, submitted at the end of 2010, was refused, but the affair encouraged the Commission to finally publish application regulations for its system: the starting signal was fixed for April 1st.

This petitionary road looks more promising

In a Europe based on law, freedom is defined by a framework: Brussels only accepts petitions on issues where the European Union has competence to legislate. Plenty of quite nice motions have been refused for this reason. Is it possible to ban bullfighting? The EU is not the competent authority: the safeguards for animal welfare are guaranteed within the framework of the common agricultural policy, but not for the cruel spectacle of bull-baiting. Can we have an unconditional basic income throughout Europe? Impossible: the EU has no mandate to adopt binding social legislation. Can environmentalists demand the closure of nuclear power stations?

Unfortunately, the Commission explains, nuclear energy is governed by a separate treaty, Euratom, which makes no provision for citizens’ initiatives. Undeterred, the promoter of the motion, Austrian Klaus Kastenhofer has submitted a second petition on another legal basis: consumer and environmental protection. He is waiting on Brussels’ response.

The risk is that the system will become a war of the lobbies, fighting it out with petitions. And that it will simply serve the interests of environmentalists wishing to oppose nuclear power, federalists campaigning for a European right to vote, and Catholics who want to outlaw embryo research, to cite just some of the initiatives that are underway. Big deal. Let’s not turn up our noses. Such a procedure could launch trans-European debates, bring up questions that the civil servants in Brussels, worn out by exhausting compromises, have now set aside. Europe works in increments — once a law has been adopted, no-one can undo it. So it went for the Birds Directive, adopted in 1979, that hunters would be glad to shoot down. Amongst such hard-hitting initiatives, one demands the suspension of the 2009 EU Climate and Energy Package which, it is claimed, puts the EU at a disadvantage in the absence of similar commitment from the China, India and the United States. And why not?

This petitionary road looks more promising than consultation with national parliaments, also introduced by the Lisbon Treaty. Europe has just seen a first – the Commission forced to withdraw a proposal on the right to strike of posted workers — Polish plumbers in everyday language. It has been shown the yellow card by parliaments in 12 countries. The bill was in any case stillborn: too social-minded for the liberals and too liberal for the social-minded. The episode above all confirmed that social Europe is blocked.