Christof Stache for The New York Times
Martin Kastler, a European Parliament member, and his family. He wants a law barring shops all across Europe from opening on Sundays.
BRUSSELS — 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.”
Maros Sefcovic, a vice president of the European Commission responsible for the initiative, said the union was looking for the right balance in its regulations. He does not want “to overdo it with too strict “ procedures. But he also believes it is important to stop abusive campaigns or ideas that are “frivolous or devoid of seriousness.”
Under the draft rules, organizers would have to begin the process by registering their petition. Then, they would have to collect some number of signatures before they even got a reading from the commission about whether the subject fell within the scope of what was allowed. Initially, the idea was that 300,000 names would be needed; the latest draft has cut this by two-thirds.
In some countries, those signing would have to give their passport or national identity card numbers to help prevent fraud — another requirement that has prompted many objections because few citizens would be willing to give that information to someone collecting signatures on a street corner, for instance.
The final step is to amass the one million signatures. At that point, the commission would be obligated to propose legislation or give a reason why not within four months. Alain Lamassoure, a French member of the European Parliament who fought to include the initiative in the Lisbon Treaty, said many of the proposed restrictions were reasonable, though some fine-tuning might be needed.
He believes that citizens can make important legislative contributions in areas that are sometimes overlooked, like the complications couples from different European countries face getting a divorce in the European Union, or difficulties transferring education credentials across borders.
But Mr. Lamassoure does not want to hear too much from the citizenry. “Once a month is about right,” he said. “The risk is too little or too much. Once every two years would be too little.”
Some advocates for the initiative are appalled at this vision.
“What we are seeing is not really a surprise,” said Michael Efler, the spokesman for Germany’s House of Democracy and Human Rights, a citizens’ rights group. “It is always the strategy of people in power to not give away that power.”
Tony Venables, the director of the European Citizens Action Service, a nonprofit group based in Brussels that promotes the rights of citizens, said the commission was operating on “an exaggerated fear of the frivolous or extremist type of initiative and a certain lack of trust.”
Mr. Venables wants a help desk that can advise citizens on how to find allies in different countries and how to draft a legally acceptable petition.
He also wants the time restriction increased to 18 months from 12 to make it easier to collect signatures. And he wants an appeal system if the European Commission decides not to act.
Mr. Kastler became a member of the European Parliament for a year in 2003, then returned in 2008. But that does not give him the ability to introduce legislation. Under current law, that is almost exclusively the purview of the European Commission, a group of officials appointed by member countries.
Now, with the citizens’ initiative, he may get closer to his goal. Since February, he has collected around 17,000 signatures. Once the rules are finally agreed on, probably late this year, he believes he will get the rest.
His slogan is “Mum and Dad belong to us on Sundays.” But he has yet to raise enough money for an office, fliers, stickers or publicity brochures.
“It’s very difficult for someone who just has an idea but not support,” Mr. Kastler said. “Without support from big organizations, it’s not so simple to create a discussion in Europe.”