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Civil society and the European Union institutions

By Marco Caselli


I Introduction

The paper presents some preliminary results and reflections arising from an ongoing research project on the role – actual and potential – of civil society in the construction and consolidation of the European Union, in the latter’s life and functioning, and in the dynamics of building a European identity. The project – conducted by a group of researchers in the Department of Sociology of the Catholic University of Milan under the supervision of Professor Vincenzo Cesareo – involves analysis of official documents issued by the European institutions, of internet sites and online forums, and the conduct of semi-structured interviews with leading representatives of the European institutions and of civil society organisations.

II Why study Europe ?

One of the most significant consequences of the extraordinarily far-reaching and intense social changes characteristic of recent decades, and frequently denoted by the term ‘globalization’, has been a questioning of the role of the state (Beck 1997). This is not to claim that the state has lost importance in the contemporary age. Yet one cannot fail to recognize that this institution – still crucial and indispensable – is increasingly inadequate with respect to many of the challenges facing contemporary society. As Daniel Bell (1987) aptly put it in his now celebrated sentence : “the nation-state is becoming too small for the big problems of life, and too big for the small problems of life”. In other words, the state is often too distant from the ordinary citizen for it to be able to understand and intervene in the minute problems of everyday life, and at the same time inadequate for the governing and control of dynamics (principally economic) that now operate at supranational or even planetary level, and yet have major consequences for the state’s citizens as well. This twofold pressure – upwards and downwards – to which the state is subject helps explain the apparent paradox that simultaneously present in a country like Italy, for example, are both infra- and supranational federalist claims often advanced by the same actors. Concentrating here on the consequences of these numerous and significant processes ongoing at the supranational level, it is evident that traditional democratic systems are largely unable to cope with them (Magatti 2005), for increasingly numerous decisions and dynamics escape the control and decision-making power of the subjects who suffer their consequences (Hammond 2001 : 71 ; Streeck 1998 : 38 ; Habermas 1999 : 111).

For example, the operations of the large transnational corporations, which may profoundly affect the life of an entire country, very often evade any form of democratic control (Caselli 2002 : 184). The European Union thus appears to be one of the possible – and today most significant – responses to the need to govern dynamics and to address problems of international scale. However, it is necessary to inspect both sides of the coin, so to speak. Whilst the building and strengthening of the Union – as an institution at a level superior to the state – enable the control and governance of at least some supranational dynamics, they also risk increasing the distance between citizens and the institutions that govern them, leaving unchanged, or even exacerbating, the democratic deficit that seemingly characterizes contemporary society ; a deficit which, as we shall see, some commentators believe can be at least partly remedied by civil society. The actual and potential importance of the European Union amid current processes of social change, besides the concrete consequences of decisions taken within the Union for the everyday lives of millions of citizens, seem more than sufficient to justify the analysis of topics connected with European reality. This importance also justifies our research project, although it seems that it has not yet been fully grasped by the community of sociologists at large, at least in Italy (Cesareo 2005).

It should also be borne in mind that addressing the theme of Europe may enable sociology to emerge from the “methodological nationalism” which still characterizes the discipline but is increasingly inadequate for thorough understanding of contemporary reality. I refer to the fact that, despite the proliferation of transnational or even global processes, sociologists continue to use the state as their unit of analysis – a concept which they almost always have overlapped with that of ‘society’ (Beck 2004 ; Sassen 2000 ; Scholte 2000).

III Why study civil society in Europe ?

Although Europe is an institution of increasing importance in the lives of the millions of people who inhabit it, one cannot fail to notice the enormous distance that, at the level of perception, today separates Europe from citizens. This concerns the just-mentioned problem of the representativeness of the European institutions, but not this alone. The European institutions (as their protagonists themselves recognize) are often perceived by ordinary people as a distant reality, of which they often know very little, and in regard to which it is almost impossible for them to act or even to communicate.

As said, some commentators maintain that this distance between citizens and the European institutions, as well as the democratic deficit that seemingly characterizes the latter, can be remedied through the presence and action of civil society. Moreover, there are those who more generally argue for the “instituting” character of civil society, with its capacity to generate new institutions and to renovate old ones (Castoriadis 1975 ; Magatti 2005 : 86) ; a capacity which may also emerge at European level. Although these views are certainly interesting, and I believe that they amply justify research on such matters, they raise an extremely important problem for both scientific analysis and political practice. One must ask what civil society actually is, and of what actors it is composed. Answering these questions is not easy, and there are no unequivocal positions on them.

Used for the first time by Ferguson (1971) in an essay of 1767, the expression ‘civil society’ has been very successful, and recent years have seen a proliferation of publications and opinions on the phenomenon. However, this success has certainly not contributed to conceptual clarity, and today there are numerous and only partly overlapping interpretations of the term, which is varyingly used as a political slogan, an analytical concept, or a normative ideal (Seligman 1995). The confusion and the consequent vagueness is such that, as empirical research has shown, subjects whom the researcher recognizes as belonging to civil society are very often not aware that they do so (Cesareo – Magatti 2003 : 346).

For my purposes here, I define civil society as the set of multiple and different voluntary associations, with diverse degrees of formalization and self-regulation, with public importance and related to the institutionalized sphere of a particular society (Cesareo 2003 : 13-14). In what follows we shall see the extent to which the use made of the term ‘civil society’ by the European institutions corresponds to this definition.

IV The place of civil society in the European Union

With regard to the above-mentioned research project, this paper focuses on the space allocated by the European institutions to civil society. The European Union today believes it essential, at least in its declarations of intent, to establish and implement close links between the European institutions and civil society. However, it should be stressed that the expression ‘civil society’ officially entered Community legislation only with the Treaty of Nice of 2000, for which occasion the article describing the role of the European Economic and Social Committee was rewritten. This significant shift had been anticipated by a number of documents drafted by the Economic and Social Committee itself, some of whose members had striven to introduce this change into the treaty. Also to be mentioned is that the rumour circulated that the Committee would be disbanded in view of the Treaty of Nice, which testifies to the difficulties initially encountered in asserting the importance of this actor – namely civil society – for the European institutions.

Today, as said, the strategic role of civil society is widely recognized at least formally, as evidenced by the numerous EU documents on the topic. Two European bodies in particular have been most active in attempting to build and reinforce links between civil society and European institutions : the European Economic and Social Committee, and the European Commission. Less important – or perhaps only less evident – though not negligible, have been the efforts in this direction by the European Parliament.

In what follows I shall rapidly analyse the role of these three institutions (European Economic and Social Committee, European Commission, European Parliament) in stimulating dialogue and collaboration between civil society and the European institutions. I shall then briefly consider the role assigned to civil society by the European Constitutional Treaty. I shall therefore seek to describe the idea of civil society underlying the work of the above-mentioned bodies, and conclude by citing a number of unresolved issues concerning the topic addressed.

V The European Economic and Social Committee

The principal body concerned with relationships between the European institutions and civil society is, as said, the European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, whose slogan is significantly “a bridge between Europe and organised civil society”. The Economic and Social Committee is one of the European Union’s two consultative bodies (the other is the Committee of the Regions), and it was instituted by the 1957 Treaty of Rome. Its 317 members are representatives “of the various economic and social components of organised civil society, and in particular representatives of producers, farmers, carriers, workers, dealers, craftsmen, professional occupations, consumers and the general interest”. The members of the Committee are appointed for four years by the Council of the European Union on proposal of the member-states’ governments.

The Committee comprises the following three groups : Employers’ Group (Group I), which consists of members from private and public sectors of industry, small businesses, chambers of commerce, wholesale and retail trade, banking and insurance, transport and agriculture.

Employees’ Group (Group II), which consists of members of national trade union organisations, both confederations and sectoral federations. Various Interests Group (Group III), which consists of representatives of very different categories : farmers’ organisations, small businesses, the crafts sector, the professions, cooperatives and non-profit associations, consumer organisations, environmental organisations, associations representing the family, persons with disabilities, the scientific and academic community and non-governmental organisations (EESC 2004 : 13-16).

As said, the Committee is a consultative body which performs three main tasks :

(a) advising the three major institutions (European Parliament, Council and Commission) ;

(b) enabling civil society organisations in the Union to make a greater commitment to, and have a greater involvement in, the European venture, at both national and European levels, and to help bring Europe closer to its citizens ;

(c) strengthening the role of civil society organisations in non-EU countries or blocs (or groups of countries) where it has established and developed ongoing relations, backed up by a structured dialogue, with civil society organisations, especially the social partners, and to promote the creation of consultative structures along similar lines to the EESC (EESC 2004 : 9).

As evinced by points (b) and (c), the Committee does not only formulate opinions and recommendations for the European institutions ; it is also tasked with establishing direct contact with civil society organisations, both within member-states and externally to EU borders. Opinions may be of three types :

(a) opinions in response to a referral from the Commission, the Council or the European Parliament ;

(b) own-initiative opinions, which enable it to express its views on any matter it thinks fit ;

(c) exploratory opinions in which, at the request of the European Commission, the European Parliament or even Union presidencies, it is instructed to reflect and make suggestions on a given subject, which may later lead to a proposal from the Commission (EESC 2004 : 9).

The Committee has also produced numerous written documents, many of which deal with the relationship between civil society and the European institutions. Here I cite one of these documents in particular, dated 22 September 1999 and entitled “The role and contribution of civil society organisations in the building of Europe”. I shall make frequent reference to this document below.

In February 2004, with the aim of strengthening its ties with the organisations and networks of European civil society, the Committee created the Liaison Group with European Civil Society Organisations and Networks. The mandate of the Liaison Group covers the following five points (relative to relations between the Committee and organised civil society) : (a) exchange of information and views on the respective work programmes and important events ; (b) identifying themes on which cooperation would be appropriate and possible ; (c) examining the feasibility of and practical arrangements for an increased involvement of the networks in the European Economic and Social Committee’s consultative work ; (d) consultation or cooperation on preparations for certain hearings, seminars, conferences, etc. ; (e) studying any other matters of common interest, e.g. in the context of dialogue with the EU institutions (Liaison Group 2004).

The Liaison Group consists of ten members of the Economic and Social Committee and fourteen representatives of organised civil society, one for each of the sectors of civil society identified as important : development, youth, gender equality, education and training, family life, organisations and associations promoting the European idea, consumers’ policy, service providers, cooperative movement, health insurance and social protection, arts and culture, European citizenship, protection and integration of handicapped persons, rural development. The Liaison Group, too, has produced documents, though there are very few of them in view of its recent origin.

VI The European Commission

At least since publication of the White Paper on European Governance (Commission of the European Communities 2001), the European Commission has explicitly recognized, and indeed greatly emphasised, the role that civil society can and must play in the building and strengthening of Europe, as well as in the life of the European institutions, and particularly in implementation of their policies. The White Paper states, for example, that “the Commission cannot make these changes [in European governance] on its own nor should this White Paper be seen as a magic cure for everything. Introducing change requires effort from all the other Institutions, central government, regions, cities, and civil society in the current and future Member States” (Ibid. : 3). In this regard, shortly afterwards the text emphasises the need for “a stronger interaction with regional and local governments and civil society” (Ibid. : 4). Again, the White Paper recognizes that “civil society plays an important role in giving voice to the concerns of citizens and delivering services that meet people’s needs. Churches and religious communities have a particular contribution to make. The organisations which make up civil society mobilise people and support, for instance, those suffering from exclusion or discrimination. The Union has encouraged the development of civil society in the applicant countries, as part of their preparation for membership. Non governmental organisations play an important role at global level in development policy. They often act as an early warning system for the direction of political debate” (Ibid. : 14).

The European Commission is therefore committed to undertaking, for the purpose of decision-making, the largest possible number of consultations with the parties affected by the decisions to be taken. Such consultations are performed in accordance with the guidelines and principles set out in a document of December 2002, which also explicitly recognizes that, in regard to the Commission’s decisions, “civil society organisations play an important role as facilitators of a broad policy dialogue” (Commission of the European Communities 2002 : 5). This consultation activity is also made possible by the existence of a very large number of working groups established to examine the various areas of European social life that may be affected by the Commission’s decisions. These groups are discussed below. It should also be pointed out that the criteria established by the above-mentioned document for selection of the civil society organisations to be consulted are rather generic : consultation must be made of all the parties directly or indirectly affected by a particular decision ; priority must be given to effectively representative organisations ; and the various interests concerned must be given equal consideration (Ibid. : 3 and 18).

The Commission’s concern with civil society organisations and the central importance of consultation with them has led to the creation of a database, consultable online without payment, called CONECCS (Consultation, the European Commission and Civil Society), and with which the Commission intends to provide citizens with more and better information about its consultation activities. CONECCS has two sections. The first is a directory of all the Commission’s consultative bodies in which civil society organisations participate. The list currently consists of 132 bodies active in the most diverse of areas ranging from the Advisory Group on Beekeeping to the Expert Group on Toy Safety, from the EU Health Forum to the Social Dialogue Committee. The second section of CONECCS is an archive of non-profit civil society organisations at European level. The archive is compiled on a voluntary basis, and inclusion of an organisation does not constitute its formal recognition by the Commission. This section of the CONECCS database currently comprises 732 organisations, and these too are of the most diverse kinds : for example, the Aerospace and Defence Industries Association of Europe, the Association of Cities and Regions for Recycling, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, the European Disability Forum, the European Federation of Geologists and the Scientific Association of the European Talc Industry.

Finally to be mentioned is that in response to the negative outcomes of the referendums to ratify the European Constitutional Treaty in France and Holland, in October 2005 the Commission launched a “Plan-D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate”, the aim of which was to bring citizens closer to the European institutions in a process whose protagonists are civil society organisations.

In short, the aim of Plan-D is not to rescue the European Constitution but “to stimulate a wider debate between the European Union’s democratic institutions and citizens”. Consequently, the Plan “has to be seen as complementary to the already existing or proposed initiatives and programmes such as those in the field of education, youth, culture and promoting active European citizenship” (Commission of the European Communities 2005 : 2).

In parallel to and complementarily with the aim of stimulating debate, Plan-D also seeks – and this the Commission regards as being of vital importance – to restore public confidence in the European Union (Ibid. : 3).

The document introducing Plan-D sets out an impressive strategy of communication : listening to the voice of citizens on issues central to the life of the Union, while at the same time informing citizens about the role and work of the European institutions, beginning with the Commission itself, in an attempt to narrow the distance between them. The Commission intends in particular to support debates, conferences and initiatives at national level. Responsibility for organising these events should, however, rest with the member-states. As to the content of these initiatives, the Commission does not lay down a detailed agenda, in order to respect the specificities of different local contexts. However, it suggests a number of general themes that it considers should be addressed : Europe’s social and economic development, feelings towards Europe and the Union’s tasks, Europe’s borders and its role in the world (Ibid. : 6).

Overall, the Commission intends to undertake a large-scale communication campaign which involves the organisation of meetings and conferences at both national and European level, visits by commissioners to the Union’s various countries, the greater ‘openness’ and visibility of the local offices of the European institutions, collaboration with civil society actors to establish a “European Round Table for Democracy”, and the organisation of national events involving celebrities from the world of culture, entertainment, sport or business (Ibid. : 8). If asked for my opinion on the document launching Plan-D, I would stress what I can only describe as its naivety. The text is a blithe collection of good intentions and initiatives valid for all occasions, whose actual implementation – in the view of a reasonably well-informed citizen like myself – is rather improbable.

VII The European Parliament

At first sight, the European Parliament seems to be the body least concerned to cultivate relations with civil society. Nevertheless, a certain interest is apparent on the part of the Strasbourg assembly. In particular, on 26 November 2004 the Parliamentary Committee on Constitutional Affairs organised a hearing with representatives of civil society in order to gather their opinions on the text of the European Constitutional Treaty. On 24 and 25 April 2006 the same Parliamentary Committee organised the “European Forum for the Civil Society on the Future of the European Union”. Moreover, the European Committee requests and receives the opinions of the Economic and Social Committee.

VIII Civil society in the European Constitutional Treaty

Despite the substantial failure, or at any rate the (temporary ?) interruption, of this ambitious project, it is of interest that civil society is considered in the text of the European Constitutional Treaty. There follow brief descriptions of the four articles in which it is mentioned.

Part I, article 32. This article is dedicated to the European Union’s consultative bodies, these being the Committee of the Regions and the Economic and Social Committee. In regard to the latter, clause 3 states that “The Economic and Social Committee shall consist of representatives of organisations of employers, of the employed, and of other parties representative of civil society, notably in socioeconomic, civic, professional and cultural areas”.

Part I, article 47. This article establishes the principle of participatory democracy. Clause 2 states that “The institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society”.

Part I, article 50. This article deals with the transparency of the operations of the Union’s institutions, bodies and agencies. Clause 1 affirms that “In order to promote good governance and ensure the participation of civil society, the Union institutions, bodies, offices and agencies shall conduct their work as openly as possible”, and seems somewhat redundant with respect to the content of article 47.

Part III, article 390. This article – together with the one previous to it and the two that follow – establishes the composition, role and functioning of the Economic and Social Committee. In particular, the second and third paragraphs state that “The Council shall adopt the European decision establishing the list of members [of the European Economic and Social Committee] drawn up in accordance with the proposals made by each Member State. The Council shall act after consulting the Commission. It may obtain the opinion of European bodies which are representative of the various economic and social sectors and of civil society to which the Union’s activities are of concern”.

Although it is certainly significant that civil society is mentioned on several occasions, it is evident that the references to it are vague or only beg the question : no clear definition is provided of what is meant by the expression ‘civil society’, and even less well-defined is the role envisaged by the Treaty for civil society in the Union’s social, political and economic life.

IX What conception of civil society ?

Even the official documents produced by the European Union’s various bodies use the expression ‘civil society’ vaguely, or at any rate unclearly. One suspects that the expression is often employed merely because it is thought to be ‘fashionable’, without those using it being aware of its precise meaning. The already-mentioned document of 1999 produced by the Economic and Social Committee proposes a definition of ‘civil society’, but it does not seem to dispel the ambiguity because it is phrased in extremely loose terms. Civil society is defined as :

a collective term for all types of social action, by individuals or groups, that do not emanate from the state and are not run by it. What is particular to the concept of civil society is its dynamic nature, the fact that it denotes both situation and action. The participatory model of civil society also provides an opportunity to strengthen confidence in the democratic system so that a more favourable climate for reform and innovation can develop (EESC 1999 : 5).

This definition is accompanied by specification that the essential elements of civil society are pluralism, autonomy, solidarity, visibility, participation, education, responsibility, and subsidiarity (Ibid. : 7). I repeat : the above definition does not seem sufficient to dissipate the ambiguity of the concept, and this is precisely because of its excessive looseness, which makes it well-nigh useless from the heuristic point of view. What, therefore, is the conception held by the European institutions of civil society, at least as transpires from official documents ? And what function is civil society supposed to perform in the building of Europe and in its social, economic and political life ?

To be pointed out firstly is that, whilst the above definition refers to action by both groups and individuals, all the European Union’s official acts, statements and documents place the emphasis on “organised civil society”, by which is meant all organisational structures whose members serve the general interest through a democratic method based on dialogue and consensus, thus mediating between the public authorities and citizens. The implication is therefore that only those civil society organisations that are sufficiently structured and effectively representative of significant components of European society can contribute to the building of Europe. In this regard, cited as actors of organised civil society are the following :

(a) the so-called labour-market players, i.e. the social partners ;

(b) organisations representing social and economic players, which are not social partners in the strict sense of the term ;

(c) non-governmental organisations ;

(d) community-based organisations, i.e. organisations set up within society at grassroots level which pursue member-oriented objectives, e.g. youth organisations, family associations and all organisations through which citizens participate in local and municipal life ;

(e) religious communities (Ibid. : 8).

As to the actual or envisaged function of civil society, as said, this consists essentially in mediation between citizens and the European institutions, and between citizens and the public authorities. Civil society is also seen as a locus of dialogue between these actors. Implicit in this interpretation is recognition of the great distance that today separates the European Union and its institutions from ordinary people (Ibid. : 2). For the latter, in fact, Europe is a remote entity which they find difficult to perceive as anything but an oppressive bureaucracy (Ibid. : 11). In particular, the European institutions seem unable (on their own, or perhaps not at all) to create real integration among the citizens of member-states, and even less a European identity or culture. In this regard a decisive role can be played by civil society, which appears to be the only actor which, by intermediating between citizens and the European institutions, can close the gap between them. It is also emphasised that European civil society, by acting as a meeting point for the highly diverse dynamics that have traversed Europe (and elsewhere), may enable a balance to be struck between the opposing risks of unbridled individualism (which threatens the West) and authoritarian collectivism (the experience of Eastern Europe) (Ibid. : 5). Also worth noting is that various documents produced by the European institutions, and some of the quotations given earlier, emphasise the role of civil society in enabling applicant states to fulfil some of the conditions – social, political, cultural and economic – for joining the European Union.

Apart from all the question begging, when reading the documents produced by the European institutions one is struck by the marked – I would say excessive – rhetorical emphasis that accompanies descriptions of the nature and role of civil society, which is often evoked and invoked as a panacea for all the difficulties that beset the building of Europe. In particular, the European institutions view civil society as a stop-gap remedy for the inability (or almost) of the European institutions to produce real continental integration, in particular from the social point of view and in regard to democratic participation. Indeed, given the uncertainty that surrounds the real meaning of the concept of civil society, on reading the documents one comes to suspect that civil society is implicitly defined on the basis of its hoped-for function : the European institutions do not know if civil society actually exists as defined, but they nevertheless believe that it should remedy certain shortcomings in the Europe-building process. Put otherwise, they do not know what civil society is, but they know what they would like it to be, and they discuss it in terms of this ideal model.

X Some open questions

I conclude this paper with a brief reflection and some questions. In recent years, civil society has been almost invariably described in enthusiastically positive terms. It is sometimes depicted as a “sort of uncontaminated kingdom in which wonders may happen” (Magatti 2005 : viii), being described in particular as the crucial actor in affirming democratic life and principles. The documents and the official positions of the European institutions seem to adopt this perspective. However, it seems reasonable to enquire whether the rhetorical emphasis on this aspect by the European institutions corresponds to a real conviction and to a real commitment to involvement of civil society in their decision-making processes, or whether it is not instead a symptom of the European Union’s alarm at the evident estrangement of citizens from its institutions. As said, an external observer gains the impression that the European institutions have realized that their action is inadequate and have contrived an image of civil society as able to remedy that inadequacy. But does this image of civil society correspond to the reality ? Would it not be wiser to start from what civil society actually is in order to determine how it can contribute to the life of the European Union ? In this regard I would point out that the idealized view of civil society has recently been matched by a much more disillusioned one which considers civil society to be nothing but a medley of lobbies and pressure groups vying with each other to protect or even impose sectoral interests (Galli Della Loggia 2006).

I personally believe that we must reject both the idyllic and demonic visions of civil society, seeking instead to identify both the positive aspects and potentialities and the negative aspects and the possible degenerations of an actor which, in one sense or another, is ever present and active in Europe’s social and political life. In this regard, I agree with those who maintain that “with their obstinacy in raising problems and offering solutions, the actors of civil society may be able to limit the self-referentiality of the institutions” (Magatti 2005 : 200). I believe that this also applies if we consider civil society to be no more than a set of lobbies and pressure groups driven solely by partisan interests. In other words, an active and robust civil society ensures greater pluralism, but it is not enough to guarantee the democratic nature of decision-making processes. Moreover, as Hurrell (1999 : 289-90) points out, there is nothing to guarantee ethical behaviour by civil society actors. The consequent risk is that, if civil society effectively assumes the leading role, only the interests of those able to organize themselves will be protected, to the detriment of an ill-defined general interest. Therefore, the question of the effective representativeness and democraticness of institutions in general and European ones in particular cannot be resolved merely by invoking civil society. Indeed, the (major) problem that arises is that of the representativeness of civil society organizations themselves. In whose name do they effectively speak ? How can the organizations to be consulted or even co-opted into decision-making be identified ? What interests deserve to be represented on the European agenda ? These are questions obviously difficult to answer, but they cannot be evaded in the endeavour to strengthen and give greater efficiency and democracy to the European institutions.

Marco Caselli – Dipartimento di Sociologia – Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore – Largo Gemelli, 1 – 20123 – Milano (I) – tel. +39 02 7234 3972- Email


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