International Relations Civil Society in the European Union
Debora Spini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 August 2012
  • 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.

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