Civil Society in the European Union
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0022
- LAST MODIFIED: 29 August 2012
- DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0022
The European Union (EU) is the most important if not the only example of a postnational polity, and therefore it is an unequaled observation point for the destiny of civil society beyond the nation-state. The relevance of the nature and role of civil society in the EU goes well beyond the field of European studies, as the EU represents a testing ground for trends that are typical of many advanced democracies and of a globalizing political space. Civil society was recognized at an early stage as an important element in the process of European integration, as demonstrated by the establishment of the European Economic and Social Committee under the terms of the Treaty of Rome of 1957. Until the mid-1980s, however, organs of the European Economic Community (EEC) conceptualized civil society mostly in terms of all those groups representing organized interests. The role of civil society therefore was mostly seen as that of providing consultancy and feedback to EEC policy making in the context of a “social dialogue.” The process leading to enactment of the Maastricht Treaty and the quest for a specific political identity for the newborn EU brought a new understanding of the role of civil society. Civil society appeared as the source of a European public opinion in the making and as a privileged actor in fostering the union’s democratic legitimacy. In fact, groups that mobilize to promote issues of common concern (public interest groups) at the European level have grown in number and influence. Therefore scholarly literature has considered civil society, on the one hand, as an important actor in EU governance and, on the other, as a major element in strengthening the performance-based, “output” legitimacy of the EU. From this perspective, organized interests and actors coming from the sphere of economic life are usually considered in the scholarship as making up part of civil society, unlike mainstream literature on global civil society. On the other hand, the authors of many works debate civil society in terms of the space in which a full-fledged European public sphere is developing. Thus civil society is considered in connection with other themes, such as European identity, the EU democratic deficit, the constitutional process, and European citizenship. However, most scholars agree that while civil society meant as representation of interests thrives and operates within the EU governance networks, public interest groups are still weaker in their agency. The Treaty of Lisbon has opened new space for participation by citizens, whose impact on European public interest groups is still to be evaluated. This bibliogrpahy takes into consideration civil society at the European level. It will not consider works dealing with individual European countries—with a few exceptions for some comparative works.
Official European Union Documents
Various EU bodies, most notably the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), produce documents on the nature and role of civil society. These documents express a “mainstream” view on civil society: this is the case for European Economic and Social Committee 1999 and European Economic and Social Committee 2011. In general, they show growing expectations about the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in terms of their capacity to voice concerns and to channel citizens’ participation, thus helping to solve the democratic legitimacy deficit of the EU and to contribute to creating a European identity. This represents a major change from an earlier view of civil society as organized interests cooperating in EU policy making. This new attitude is perfectly expressed in European Commission 2000 and European Commission 2001, which consider the role of civil society in the broader framework of the quest for a specific political identity in the EU. European Commission 2002 aims to provide implementation guidelines, while European Commission 2005 and European Commission 2006b reflect on the need for democratic debate within the EU. European Commission 2006a addresses civil society from the specific point of view of organized interests.
European Commission. The Commission and Non-governmental Organisations: Building a Stronger Partnership. Commission Discussion Papers. Brussels: Commission of the European Communities, 2000.
The European Commission recognizes the role of nongovernmental organizations both in policy making and in fostering participatory democracy.
European Commission. Governance in the EU: A White Paper. 2001.
A key reference, the paper produced by the Prodi Commission expresses the need for more “participatory democracy” in the EU; describes civil society alternatively as composed of “stakeholders” or as an expression of the “general public,” thus opening a new perspective for civil society in EU life.
European Commission. Communication: Towards a Reinforced Culture of Consultation and Dialogue; General Principles and Minimum Standards for Consultation of Interested Parties by the Commission. COM (2002) 704 final, Brussels, 11 December 2002.
Establishes the requirements that CSOs need to meet in terms of internal democracy, accountability, and reliability to be considered as consultants to the European Commission.
European Commission. The Commission’s Contribution to the Period of Reflection and Beyond: Plan-D for Democracy, Dialogue, and Debate. COM (2005) 494 final, Brussels, 13 October 2005.
After the failure of the French and Dutch referenda, the European Commission points to the need to revitalize democratic debate and dialogue within the EU. CSOs are to play a major role.
European Commission. Green Paper on European Transparency Initiative. COM (2006) 194 final, Brussels, 3 May 2006a.
This green paper deals with the need to regulate the activities of lobbyists in EU policy making in view of achieving more transparency.
European Commission. White Paper on European Communication Policy. COM (2006) 35 final, Brussels, 1 February 2006b.
Does not discuss civil society explicitly; however, it provides interesting reading, as it reflects on how to foster the birth of a European public opinion.
European Economic and Social Committee. The Civil Society Organised at European Level: Proceedings of the First Convention, Brussels, 15 and 16 October, 1999. Brussels: European Economic and Social Committee, 1999.
Civil society is conceptualized as a source for public opinion; thus it is linked to the need to democratize the EU and not uniquely as a mechanism for organized interests.
European Economic and Social Committee. The EESC: A Bridge between Europe and Organised Civil Society. Brussels: European Economic and Social Committee, 2011.
Presentation of the EESC and its role.
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