Are the eu institutions a master of fate or captive in their relation with organized civil society?

Are the eu institutions a master of fate or captive in their relation with organized civil society?



Growing competencies and changing nature of the EC/EU, more and more ‘ambitious' enlargements and aspiration to become a global player on the international scene makes the EU a subject of the continuous evaluation. The nation states are always used as the frame of reference. Surprisingly or not, the EU goes quite badly in this comparison. It is perceived as l'objet politique non-identifié which is unceasingly looking for its identity and common recognition. One of the possible source of the latter is the civil society. It is supposed to serve the EU as a passage to a larger public.

The EU institutions are, to a large degree, captive in their relation with OCS. They need them to underpin their legitimacy, remedy all the deficiencies of its ‘hybrid' structures and ‘bring the EU closer to the citizens' by granting them an access to the policy-making process. The efficiency oriented output legitimacy turned out not to be sufficient. The ‘governance by the people' through input legitimacy became crucial for the EU and its accountability. One may wonder who is more powerful in this configuration - EU institutions or civil society? Who is more essential to drive this ‘tandem'? Are the EU institutions a master of fate or rather captive in their relation with organized civil society (OCS)?

I will argue that there are strong correlative relations between the EU institutions and organized civil society. Their interests make the two actors mutually dependent. In the case of this sort of relations, none of them can be a ‘master of fate'. One can only try to ensure the greatest possible autonomy and influence in the given circumstances. The EU institutions cannot function properly without the support of organized civil society. In this sense they are captive. However, they managed to established a range of control mechanisms and instruments which help them reduce the impact of this captivity.

In this paper, I analyze the relations between the EU institutions and organized civil society based on their mutual dependence. The following chapters seek to answer the questions: what is organized civil society, why does the EU need the organized civil society and finally why does the organized civil society need the EU? In the first part, I will present the concept of the civil society and its organization at the EU level. Second part will concern the reasons why the EU institutions need the civil society and how the civil society can influence their functioning (inside) and perception (outside). Third part will focus on mechanisms that the EU institutions use in order to control the civil society. In the last one, I will conclude that the unique nature of the EU has created the environment in which the institutions and the civil society are forced to co-exist. The mutual independence and the interest they have make them, to a greater or lesser degree, ‘captive' one from the other.


The notion of civil society itself raises the problems not to mention the role it plays or influence it has on the functioning of the EU institution. There are two main concerns as regards the definition. First one is connected with the distinction between civil society and civil society organizations (CSOs) - two notions which ‘are often not neatly differentiated from one another, nor explicitly defined'and ‘sometimes they are even used in a mutually exclusive way'.The second one is related to the scope of the civil society. These definitional problems are due to ‘nebulous and elastic conception'of the term. To remedy this definitional consistency, the EC/EU institutions have published a variety of documents in which they tried to give the framework to the civil society, appropriating the term and integrating it with the institutional architecture of the EU.

The European Economic and Social Committee, which plays the role of civil society representative, defines CSOs as ‘the sum of all organizational structures whose members have objectives and responsibilities that are of general interest and who also act as mediators between the public authorities and citizens'.One can agree on a common general definition but there is no consensus on the exact components of the CSOs. The principal moot point concerns the economic organizations' status. The EU institutions adopt broad definition covering i.a. all representative social and economic organizations (see: ‘White Paper on European Governance', 2001, footnote 9, p. 14).However some NGOs, as for instance the Permanent Forum of Civil Society, exclude the economic organizations as well charities, socio-cultural and assort organizations from the scope of CSOs term.

In spite of the unclear definition of civil society, its continuous presence in the EU documents and in the ‘Euro-jargon' cannot be denied. One may wonder whether the frequency of the use of the ‘civil society' notion can be translated into its influence on the EU governance.


Growing importance of the EU institutions and extending policy areas covered by EU competencies resulted in a remarkable debate on the EU's legitimacy and democratic deficit. Output legitimacy, ‘acquiring popularity through beneficial policy outcomes', turned out not to be a sufficient guarantee of public support and recognition. Input legitimacy, based on involvement of the intermediary organizations in the policy making process, became an essential element of EU democratic system. The attention has been drawn to civil society as a mean to compensate the structural deficiencies of the EU and bring it closer to the people. As argued by Justin Greenwood, ‘[The] structural role for participatory democracy, together with the needs for political and policy support by EU institutions, makes the EU's system dependence upon organized civil society interests unusually high relative to that of other political systems'.

One can mention several reasons that the governments in general have to seek civil society support. First of all, because ‘public policy outcomes are more legitimate if there was balanced input into the process'. Secondly, ‘a vibrant civil society is important in its own right, as it can help build a common identify for a polity, solve problems and produce new ideas'. Third reason refers to the civil society acting as the unofficial opposition. The last one stresses the importance of the civil society as the source of expertise for the institutions.

‘In the context of the European Union the concept of civil society seems [even more] appealing'than it is a case of the national systems. This is because of sui generis (unique) nature of the EU and the ‘absence of the full apparatus and usual features of representative democracy' such as the absence of the three EU - wide elements: public space to serve as a discussion platform, media to curry on the debates and political parties to be ‘conveyer belts to bring politics to the people', the lack of the ‘elections which could change government'and the existence of the consensus oriented, non-majoritarian system, ‘limited extent of budgetary and legislative reach over which the EP has scrutiny and only indirect structures of accountability for the Council and European Council'.

Taking into account all these factors, it can be argued that the EU institutions have to look for additional instruments which will help them compensate these structural deficiencies. They need the outside legitimacy. The EU becoming ‘bigger' and more powerful can no longer self-legitimize. The economic and social differences between the members states create a range of expectations that the EU has to come up to if it does want to be recognized. More competencies it takes away from the national governments, more space for the public disputes it will have to leave in exchange. Civil society plays a role of the unofficial opposition, more or less controlled by the EU bodies.

The civil society is a very rich source of expertise which the EU institutions are provided with. It is particularly important for the Commission - the sole initiator of the legislative process - that suffers from the limited personnel. The groups representing civil society help the Commission to draft a proposal and then assess it via the consultation process. Hence, ‘it is in the Commission's interest to create such a dialogue in order to feed as much expertise as possible into the policy process and thereby to enhance efficiency. (…) It is the Commission's intention to make conflict happen (…). This in turn helps to generate a genuine European public debate'that the EU can moderate.

The Commission however, is not the only institution looking for a support of civil society. The European Economic and Social Committee also uses OCS as a ‘tool to redefine its proper role and combat the risk of marginalization within the European institutional set-up'. The same applies to the MEPs, who - although elected democratically by the ‘people' - do not ‘represent the whole of [their] electorate's personalities and every aspect of their interest (…)' It justifies a need for a civil society organization as a complementary element. However it has to be born in mind, that civil society does not always represent an entire spectrum of participants. One can wonder to what extent the civil society groups at the EU level reflect the interests of their members and to what extent they are dependent on those who finance them. Are they independent players or rather the instruments at EU institutions' disposal?


One can argue that the EU institutions exert the control over the civil society through highly institutionalized relations based on the following factors: a significant contribution of the EU institutions in CSOs' formation and maintenance, funding of non-economic groups (covering sometimes even 90% of their income), the integration of interest groups in ‘formal and informal political structures of EU political institutions'as well as ‘the use of procedures to empower and enhance the role of groups'.For the reasons already mentioned (see Section II, pp. 3-5), the EU institutions - especially the Commission - encourage civil society to participate in policy-making process giving them access, funding their activities, but also providing with the rules to respect and criteria to fulfill.

The most relevant example of the rules is the voluntary register of interest representations launched in 2008 in framework of the European Transparency Initiative as well as the Code of Conduct which the interest groups are obliged to respect if they want to register. One of the criteria the CSOs have to fulfill in order to enter ‘the elite world of Brussels EU politicsis ‘representativeness'. However, one has to bear in mind, that ‘representativeness' may raise a problem of access for ‘citizen NGOs, whose legitimacy is not based upon criteria of representativeness but rather upon articulating a cause in civil society to EU political institutions'.It may result in privileged access of the Brussels players to the EU institutions, thus greater influence in comparison to the ‘outsiders'.

One can also mention the possible loss of autonomy of the CSOs as a result of EU funding. ‘The more the European institutions count on civil society organizations to provide links to citizenry and therefore, help to bolster the legitimacy of EU rule, the more they will demand that they are representative of interest which are, in turn, defined by the institutions'.It raises the question whether funding CSOs does not result in ‘complete goal displacement'undermining the loyalty towards those who they represent.

According Christine Mahoney, ‘despite the mutuality of interest, the government retains the upper hand in this inherently uneven relationship. As funder, the government preserves its primacy as the resource it holds is more critical to the survival of the NGO than the NGO's information is to the governments'. Can this assumption be applied to the European Union ? To some extent yes. However, within a system of highly diversified policy areas and different interests of the member states - as it is case of the EU - level of influence depends on the particular dossier. Financial support is indeed one of the major instruments at the Commission disposal that help to preserve a certain level of control vis à vis its ‘unofficial opposition'. The CSOs have proved however that they cannot be treated as the obedient servants of their major ‘sponsor'.


Empowerment of the EU institutions in the aftermath of the following treaties was accompanied by more and more vivid debate on legitimacy of the EU. The low turnout of the election to the European Parliament proved the relevance of the discussion. The EU need civil society which would remedy the structural deficiencies of representative democracy of the EU, ‘play[ing] the role of bridge to civil society constituencies'.The EU institutions, functioning in the sui-generis EU environment need an external approval more than any domestic systems. The EU aspiring to be a democratic cannot function without civil society participation and its support. In this sense, one can say that the EU bodies are indeed captive in their relations with the CSOs.

Mutuality of interests of the CSOs and the EU institutions let the latter establish the instruments preserving their autonomy. By delivering the structures for the CSOs they determine their formation and maintenance. Significant funding the societal groups by the EU makes the relations between these two ‘actors' based to a large extent on pure trade off - money for expertise and legitimate support. The structural weaknesses present on both sides - lack of public space (the EU institutions), lack of financial resources (CSOs) result in their mutual dependence. No one can called itself master of fate if it is not able to function on its own.

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