What Function? Which Frame? Dilemmas for Civil Society in the EU System


Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for wpfdc.org

In the context of the EU, definitions of civil society usually include different kinds of interest groups: non-governmental organizations; social movements; advocacy and promotional groups; functional interest groups as social partners (such as trade unions and employers’ organizations); sectoral organizations (such as entrepreneurs’ and consumers’ associations), but also universities, research institutes and epistemic communities.

In the EU, civil society organizations (CSOs) are usually expected to play the collaborative role (as in opposition to being a force of opposition) within a procedural mode in the policy-making process. EU procedures tend to favors a functional out-put oriented conception of civil society involvement. For this reason, politically antagonist groups are usually marginalized, if not ostracized or even criminalized.

EU’s openings to civil society

The topic of civil society participation entered the EU agenda after the foundation of the European Union in 1993 with the Maastricht Treaty. Setting the goal of the political union, the treaty indirectly generated the debate on the democratic deficit and more generally on the increasing politicization of the EU integration process. That signaled the end of the “permissive consensus” on the elite-driven. From that moment on the previously de-politicized process of the EU integration became more contentious.

In this context, participation of civil society became more and more essential from the point of view of both CSOs and practitioners who saw CSOs as a solution, as legitimacy enhancer, to solve their problems. Together with civil society, the other legitimacy enhancing strategy was to strengthen the European Parliament and shifting on the overall from out-put to input dimension of legitimacy.

The European Commission has a long story of consultation with civil experts, but it changed and expanded its attitude over time. In the 1960s and 1970s the Commission focused on “consultation” within the European economic integration and dialogue with primarily economic experts within industrial and agrarian interest groups. Other CSOs were still outside of the interaction with the EEC, except the long standing Europe movements of the federalists.

Later on in the 1980s and 1990s the Commission focused on developing a “partnership” with nongovernmental actors within the social dialogue on specific policy areas such as security, social and educational policy. While the Commission demanded greater participation of civil society, European civil society itself expanded its reach to the regional level. A multitude of associations opened their branches in Brussels, such as the European Trade Union Confederation. Better IT technologies and improved European coordination facilitated the scale shift towards the EU level.

However, only in the 1990s and 2000s the attention moved to the idea itself of “participation”  and the concept of participatory democracy. The White Paper on Governance drew the framework for such cooperation and the Leaken Conference of 2001 established a qualitative milestone for the recognition of the participation of NGOs in European governance by including for the first time the representation of civil society in the Convention working on the Constitutional Treaty.

The most recent development in the integration of civil society is constituted by the Lisbon Treaty which further enhances the European Social Dialogue and institutionalizes citizens’ initiatives. Today, “Your Voice in Europe”, online consultation system offers the opportunity for all recorded groups to express a view during the Commission’s policy formulation phase. As a result, the process of policy formation widened beyond the classical intergovernmental method and included voluntary, informal, inclusive, and participatory forms of coordination, the so called new era of the EU multilevel governance.

These transformations in the EU attitude towards civil society created a structure of opportunities that CSOs repeatedly used to influence the decision-making process at the European level. The EU governance structure tends to be fairly open to the inputs of civil society, if compared with similar political regimes throughout the world.

Depending on the circumstances, CSOs may for instance adopt strategies of either domestication (putting pressure on the national constituencies) or externalization (targeting the EU institutions) to adapt better to the political opportunity structure that is presented to them, or indeed alternatively adopting a multiple strategy in which both the local and the European level is targeted. Especially in specific sectors such as the definition of the EU democracy and human rights external policies, civil society has played a significant role in setting the agenda. A recent case in point is represented by the mobilization of the LGBT groups that managed to include their political goals in the official agenda of the EIDHR.

Dilemma of Functions: subcontractor or challenger?

The debate on the specific role played by CSOs within the European governance system is very intense. Two are the principal alternatives in the reading of the functions assigned and played by CSOs within the EU system: functional collaborator or constitutive source for the creation of a European public space, as summarized in Table 1 below.

Table 1: Two main political interpretation of the role played by civil society [1]

Among the European institutions, the European Commission has by far the greater role vis-a-vis CSOs. The European Parliament only comes second on this. The Commission deploys an activation strategy for inclusion of CSOs on the predominantly supranational policy formulation. Over the years, the Commission has tried to institutionalize NGOs structures along policy areas (NGO families) by expanding the notion of civil society as providers of information and inputs in its policy-making. The highly developed system of comitology is characterized by the extensive use of informal practices beyond intergovernmentalism, a type of problem-solving interaction, and the spill-over effect of socialization on participants.

It is by now clear that the mode of interaction of the European Commission is highly biased towards conventional, pragmatic CSOs rather than less organized, and often ideological and disruptive, grass root movements. Institutionalized, professional type of CSOs are part and parcel of the functional mode of governance insofar as they act as governance partners in the implementation of sector-comprehensive strategies on different policy levels while at the same time providing alternative, deliberative path for the re-legitimization of the EU.

A difference remains between participatory governance (with stakeholders) and participatory democracy from below. In principle, participatory governance remains centered on an instrumental input legitimacy and an output legitimacy anchored on the private-public partnerships (PPPs), whereas participatory democracy is rather based on a mode of intrinsic input legitimacy in which discursive involvement in the policy formation is promoted by a growing transnational and European civil society. The Commission is currently implementing the first and only aspiring to realize the second.

Such fracture between instrument and intrinsic logic of legitimacy is also evident in the assessment of the (actual and potential) impact of CSOs towards the EU system. At times CSOs are conceived as a threat to input legitimacy as based on formally institutionalized representative democracy. Often, CSOs are seen as an asset to increase the quality of policies and services delivered by the EU (outputs), but also as a pragmatic answer to shortcomings in input legitimacy that cannot be fully overcome due to the multi-level system of governance. More rarely or rather in principle, CSOs are ideally perceived as a carrier of an emerging EU order with a genuine EU public sphere and input legitimacy in its own right.

The contrast between these differing readings also entails a serious political dilemma, possibly the most crucial disfunctionality in the relation between the EU institutions and civil society: The more the Commission seeks professionalized NGOs, the less it will have bottom up and contentious civil actors, which however limits the potential for fulfilling the legitimizing and communicative role of civil society. It is a sort of catch 22 situation in which CSO need to be highly professionalized in order to have a voice in Brussels, and yet at the same time, CSOs are also supposed to remain deeply rooted in order to provide genuine legitimacy from below.

Dilemma of Framing: Enthusiasm, Skepticism, or Critique?

The Europeanization of the public sphere is growing through the development of a number of ideational references that are increasingly shaping the mobilization of civil society actors at the European level beyond the specific functions played by them in the system of governance. Common framing, controversies, parallelism of themes, and cross referencing are contributing to the definition of a common and yet plural European social agenda. Three main frames can be distinguished in the current debate among European CSOs.

The predominant (at least before the eruption of the crises) frame for the political action of many CSOs is the Euro-enthusiastic attitude. Despite entailing different degrees of support for the European project, the euro-enthusiastic frame proposes a positive assessment of the European development so far, and more importantly detects in the insufficient implementation of the project the actual origin of the current problems of the EU institutions.

A second frame is constituted by the classic euro-skepticism. This frame suggests a reading of the regional integration process as a detrimental dynamics that threatens the communitarian bases necessary for the sustainability of the local and national political projects. The economic crisis would prove, from this angle, the unsustainability of the European project and would require a retreat to the national economic supervision.

Finally, a third growing frame is represented by the critical Europeanists. According to this, a social Europe should be strengthened in opposition to the Europe of markets. A more political Europe, it holds, is needed to counter the apolitical and elites-driven Europe that we have known so far. The process of Europeanization is seen from this angle as developing also by contestation: a contested public debate is the surest path toward supranational legitimacy. The economic crisis would be a direct consequence of such technocratic dirigisme insensitive to the actual social problems of the European citizens.

Where do we stand?

From this cursory survey of the dilemmas entailed by the participation of CSOs in the EU wider governance system, what emerges is a clear predominance of the stakeholder collaborative mode of interaction between EU institutions and civil society, coupled with a generally euro-enthusiastic frame dominating the public discussion so far. While it is undeniable that all the efforts put by the EU institutions to support the participation of civil society have opened up channels for interaction, it is also equally evident that such channels have been used mainly by a specific sector of civil society. It seems that all the attempts developed by the EU institutions to engage with civil society and to bridge the EU with the European citizens have resulted for the most part in the creation of a pro-Brussels CSO elites working in the interests of deeper integration and left behind all the other politically significant actors. This is a self-enforcing bias. And yet, it is a bias that needs to be reversed if a more pluralistic and in the ultimate term efficient EU polity is to be promoted.

[1] Source: personal elaboration from Eva G. Heidbreder, (2012) Civil Society Participation in EU Governance, Living Reviews in European Governance, 7, 2