Stakeholder consultation: A voice for civil society in Europe?

EU institutions have always sought input by national administrations, businesses and civil society groups – or lobbyists – to assist them shaping or implementing policies. The practice became compulsory in 1997 with the Amsterdam Treaty requiring the Commission to consult widely and publish documents before putting forward major new pieces of legislation. This led to the adoption of basic principles for public consultation to ensure all relevant interested parties are properly heard. Three years on, the Commission wants to take the process to the next level by making public consultations a full aspect of EU lawmaking. In doing this, the Commission hopes to bolster the EU’s transparency and legitimacy and regain public trust in the European project.

Businesses, civil society groups and national administrations are consulted at different stages of EU policy-making. This is done through a variety of consultation tools, from the early stages of EU policy definition (conferences, hearings, Green Papers) to more definitive policy statements (White Papers). Other consultation tools include expert advisory committees, implementing committees composed of national civil servants (so-called 'comitology' committees) and ad-hoc consultations on specific issues (e.g.: so-called "high-level" advisory groups).

In addition, the Commission is assisted by two full-time advisory bodies - the European Economic and Social Committee, which represents various social and economic interests at national level and the Committee of the Regions, which is made up of representatives of local and regional authorities.

In 1997, member states enshrined public consultations in the Amsterdam Treaty as a mandatory part of EU policy definition. Five years later, the Commission followed up by establishing minimum standards for public consultations. The standards, which started to apply in 2003, concern all major policy proposals before a decision is taken. They require the Commission to:

  • spell out the nature and objective of the consultation; 
  • ensure all relevant parties are given an opportunity to express their opinions;
  • publish consultations widely in order to meet all target audiences via the webportal "Your Voice in Europe";
  • ensure participants are given sufficient time to respond (8 weeks for open public consultations);
  • provide feedback to respondents

Three years after it started applying minimum standards on public consultation to all its major legislative proposals (2003), the Commission is seeking feedback to assess the effectiveness of the new policy. 

In a Green Paper on EU transparency, published in May 2006, Anti-fraud and Administrative Affairs Commissioner Siim Kallas invited interested parties to comment on the new rules and see whether they can be improved. The main challenges, as spelt out by the Commission when it adopted the standards four years ago, are:

  • to involve all relevant interests in society by providing them with an opportunity to express their views. These concern "civil society organisations" defined broadly as encompassing trade unions, employers federations, NGOs, human rights organisations, community-based organisations, grassroots organisations (e.g.: youth, family and religious) as well as businesses
  • to ensure adequate and equitable treatment of participants in consultation processes to reduce the risk of policy-makers just listening to one side of the argument or of particular groups getting privileged access to policy-makers

However, Kallas believes that formalising consultations with interested parties also implies transparency on behalf of those being consulted. "Groups or persons […] that offer advice, represent clients, provide data or defend public causes should also be accountable. People are allowed to know who they are, what they do and what they stand for," Commissioner Kallas said in a speech announcing the European Transparency Initiative on 3 March 2005.

At the moment, only basic information is offered on the organisations consulted regularly by the Commission. The information is accessible on an internet directory called CONECCS (Consultation, the European Commission and Civil Society) which lists the bodies that are consulted in a more or less formal manner. They include:

On CONECCS, basic data can be found on the nature of the organisations (denomination, legal status), the interest they represent (objectives, policy areas) and the Commission consultative bodies in which they participate.

However, registration is done on a voluntary basis only, which means some pressure groups or individual lobbyists can choose not to appear on CONECCS. The register is not intended as a means of accreditation to EU institutions nor does it provide detailed information as to how the organisations are financed, which is one of the crucial points where Kallas would like to see progress made. Moreover, CONNECS concerns organisations consulted by the Commission, but not the ones active in the Parliament which runs its own accreditation scheme and gives only rough information on accredited lobbyists on its website.

In his Green Paper on a European Transparency Initiative, Commissioner Kallas proposes streamlining all those schemes under a single one, managed by the Commission. He proposes a self-regulation system based on voluntary registration, where lobbyists would declare their objectives, their funding sources, the interests they stand for and their contributions to EU institutions' activities. There would be "clear incentives for lobbyists to register", including automatic alerts of consultations on issues of known interest to the lobbyists.

In a 2001 resolution, the European Parliament insisted that consultation of interested parties should not take precedence over the voice of democratically elected representatives. "Consultation of interested parties [….] can only ever supplement and never replace the procedures and decisions of legislative bodies which possess democratic legitimacy," it stated. 

The Commission took note of these comments, saying that its guiding principle is "to give interested parties a voice, but not a vote". 

The European employers' association UNICE, said a clear distinction should be made between wide consultations targeted at the general public (Green papers) and contributions made by recognised social partners. "UNICE plays a special role in the context of EU social policy and the EU social dialogue has to remain strictly separate from civil dialogue," UNICE stated in a reaction to the Green paper on transparency.

The European Citizen's action service (ECAS), a platform that seeks to empower civil society NGOs in European governance, says the Commission's consultations "should go wider than the Brussels 'inner circle'". It believes it would be "wrong" to introduce a system of accreditation and that the Commission should keep an 'open door' policy to any NGO that wishes to put forward its views.

Critics of the system say the Commission has developed a tradition of awarding privileged access to corporate interests in its consultation process. ALTER-EU, a coalition of NGOs and academics, has launched a campaign to end what they consider "corporate privileges and secrecy around lobbying in the European Union". Among the privileged access decried by ALTER-EU are:

  • high-level advisory groups where corporate interests are represented but not NGOs (such as CARS 21)
  • the "privileged status granted to business lobby groups like the European Services Forum and the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue".
  • 31 August 2006: Closing date of the Commission consultation on a European Transparency Initiative (ETI)

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