The way Martin Kastler sees it, there ought to be a law prohibiting shops all across Europe from opening on Sundays, much as there has been for generations in his native Bavaria.
He has already begun collecting signatures of support. And soon, courtesy of a little debated clause in the new Lisbon Treaty, the European Union may be obliged to consider drawing up such legislation.
“For me, Sunday is a family day,” said Mr. Kastler, a German member of the European Parliament who is being urged on by his wife, church groups and trade unions.
Long criticized as lacking democratic accountability, the European Union is about to give its 500 million citizens more say — if they can collect one million supporting signatures from a “significant” number of member countries.
But whether the voice of the people will triumph over the bureaucracy remains an open question.
No one knows for sure what the citizens of Europe might want to see introduced as legislation. Most are not even aware of their new rights. When the European Union asked for public comment on its proposed regulations, fewer than 180 people heeded the call.
But experts say the European Union could soon see petitions on subjects as varied as banning bullfighting, burqas and genetically modified food; curbing offshore drilling; introducing new taxes; ending the exchange of financial data with the United States; and keeping Turkey out of the union.
Proponents hope the initiatives will be something of a team building exercise, too. Forced to collect signatures across borders, Europeans will finally, they hope, get to know one another, engage in Europewide debates and develop the elusive “European identity.”
But others see trouble brewing. What if the voice of the people turns out to be racist, politically unwieldy (think California referendums) or just plain frivolous? One online campaign in Portugal to force members of the national soccer team to grow mustaches claimed the support of 60,000 people recently.
Trying to keep things in check, European officials issued 16 pages of proposed rules for the citizens’ initiative, translating the vague language of the Lisbon treaty into a thicket of regulations, which critics say could strangle the experiment at birth. The commission is proposing, for instance, that no part of a European Union treaty can be challenged and that the signatures must be collected from at least nine countries within a year.
This would knock out one favorite object of citizen outrage — the costly pilgrimage the European Parliament must make to work in Strasbourg, France, for one week every month. The price tag on that is estimated at more than $250 million a year, but it is written into the governing treaty, as a concession to the French. Advocates say all the requirements would prove too much for any ideas from the average citizen.
“What we fear,” said Carsten Berg, who coordinates a group campaigning for the citizens’ initiative, “is that only the big, well-funded organizations will be able to use it.”