Unprecedented popular support for a Citizens’ Initiative in Romania and at the EU level. Is it being ignored?

October 5, 2017

  Roxana Stanciu

Through a Citizens’ Initiative, over three million people in Romania have expressed their desire to have a referendum on marriage. This is the strongest support ever expressed for any such initiative in the modern history of the country — and is the first time that a Citizens’ Initiative has been used in Romania since the fall of Communism in 1989. Despite this, the organisation of the referendum has been repeatedly postponed without explanation, thus ignoring the will of three million citizens — and raising serious concerns about healthy democratic processes and democracy in general.


The Citizens’ Initiative, which was prompted by the Coalition for the Family in Romania, gathered more than 3 million signatures in 2016 — more than six times what was needed. Its objective was to call for a referendum on amending the country’s Constitution so that it recognizes marriage solely as the lifelong union between one man and one woman.

Specifically, it called for an amendment to Article 48 of the Constitution, which currently states: “The family is founded on the freely consented marriage of the spouses, their full equality, as well as the right and duty of the parents to ensure the upbringing, education and instruction of their children”. The Initiative would replace “spouses” with “a man and a woman”.

At the time, Mihai Gheorghiu, President of the Citizens’ Initiative Committee, stated that, “[t]his is a historic moment …. In an unprecedented show of solidarity, three million Romanians signed this proposed amendment.”


Romania surpassed the minimum required by European Citizens’ Initiatives

This is was the strongest popular support ever received for a Citizens’ Initiative in Romania. It was also an unprecedented demonstration of support for a Citizens’ Initiative at the EU level.

Normally a European Citizens’ Initiative requires a minimum of one million signatures, which represents approximately 0.2% of the population of the EU. With three million signatures, however, the Initiative in Romania far surpassed this, representing approximately 15% of the country’s overall population. No European Citizens’ Initiative to date has ever received such overwhelming support. The comparison does not include references to national citizens’ initiatives, but to the European Citizens’ Initiative, an official instrument at the EU level.


The Initiative is in full accord with Romanian and European jurisprudence

When first proposed, the Initiative was unanimously approved by the Constitutional Court of Romania in July 2016. At the time, the Court noted that it met all the constitutional demands and that it could proceed as planned.  Their decision even emphasized the fact that “the Court concludes that [the proposal] does not remove, eliminate or annul the institution of marriage” and emphasised that,

replacing the phrase ‘between spouses’ with ‘between a man and a woman’ merely clarifies the exercise of the fundamental right to marriage by expressly stating that this is to be contracted between partners of different biological sexes. This was actually the original meaning of the text. In 1991, when the current Constitution was adopted, marriage was seen in Romania in its traditional meaning as the union of one man and one woman.


The Initiative is based on Article 2 of the Romanian Constitution, which states that “national sovereignty appertains to the Romanian people, who express it through … referendum.” It is also in full accord with the settled jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights, the Court of Justice of the European Union, and the positions of the Venice Commission (which is an advisory board of the Council of Europe, composed of independent experts in the field of constitutional law).

The Initiative has also found broad support from all Christian groups in Romania, including Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical denominations. In addition, international legal groups such as ADF International, the Liberty Counsel, and the European Centre for Law and Justice also support the Initiative.


An unacceptable delay of a democratic process

Despite this broad support, powerful interests now seem to be trying to stop it, even if there are very clear procedures that must be followed. According to ADF International, “in the Romanian legal system, a referendum prompted by a Citizens’ Initiative needs to go through a number of strenuous steps: after the Initiative is approved by the Constitutional Court, it is examined by the Juridical Committees and Plenaries of both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies, which need to approve it by a two-thirds majority.”

Unfortunately, even after it was unanimously approved by the Constitutional Court of Romania in July 2016, both the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies initially declined competence to assess the Citizens’ Initiative. This happened despite the fact that the nation’s Constitution requires them to take action. This was an unprecedented situation which effectively delayed the process in an unacceptable manner.

In May 2017, nearly a year later, the Romanian Chamber of Deputies finally took action on the matter and overwhelmingly voted in favour of amending the nation’s Constitution to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Out of parliamentary total of 270, the final vote was 232 votes in favour and 22 against, with 13 abstentions. Shortly after that, the Human Rights and the Equality Committees in the Romanian Senate also chose to approve the amendment.

If the Romanian Senate now also votes in favour of the amendment, then the referendum will automatically be scheduled for the last Sunday of the following 30-day period. But we note with great concern not only the fact that the votes in the Senate have still not taken place but that there is no clear timeline for it.


Serious concerns about democracy and transparency

Since May 2017 there has been no further progress on the Citizens’ Initiative. Officially, the status of the Initiative is that it is now “at work in the standing commissions of the Senate.” Although the two largest political parties — the Social Democrats and the Liberals — have pledged their support for the Initiative in writing, they have so far failed to do so in practice.  According to ADF International, this is proven by several statements made my members of the upper echelons of the political establishment, which has consistently opposed, criticized, or misrepresented the Citizens’ Initiative from the start.

On top of such inaction, the Romanian Parliament at the beginning of September 2017 adopted an unexpected draft amendment to the already existing Romanian referendum law. This was clearly designed to thwart the efforts of those supporting the Citizens’ Initiative, since under current law the next step would normally have been the organisation of the referendum itself.

Such legislative manoeuvres are an example of the kind of illegitimate and unjustified delays that have been used to slow or even stop the marriage referendum. But with more than three million voices having given their written consent a year and a half ago to hold such a referendum, on a cause they believe in, the efforts of those opposed to the Initiative can only be seen as undemocratic. The use of such tactics to stifle free expression and thwart the political will of the citizens of a modern society should be of great concern for those who value democracy and transparency in Europe.