EU’s civil society giants push for treaty change

Herman Van Rompuy, European Council president, with Conny Reuter of SOLIDAR [April 2012; Social Platform/Flickr]

Herman Van Rompuy, European Council president, with Conny Reuter of SOLIDAR [April 2012; Social Platform/Flickr]

NGOs and civil society organisations demanded “a new wave of inclusiveness” and more citizens’ participation in EU decision-making on Tuesday (8 July), pushing to put treaty change back on the political table.

The platform Europe+ gathers several prominent EU level NGOs around the table. They include the social NGO network Solidar, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR), the European Movement International (EMI) and several of its national sections.

“In this new legislature, there are necessary steps to be taken to promote direct democracy and transparency,” said Jo Leinen, German socialist MEP and president of EMI, at the launch of the platform on Tuesday (8 July).

“We will have a big debate on the future of the EU. No doubt the British question, but also other issues will define the future of the Union. We care about how this will be done; in an open process or behind closed doors,” Leinen added.

Treaty change for ‘new wave of inclusiveness’

“Europe+ is a means of strengthening the cooperation between trade unions and civil society. MEPs can use their mandate to plea for a new convention which would see civil society more involved in EU legislative work,” Romain Wolff, secretary general of the European Confederation of Independent Trade Unions (CESI), told reporters.

The suggestion to enforce civic dialogue and citizen participation, often described as “direct democracy,” is shared by a number of groups within Europe+. “There is a cradle for progress in the current treaties […] but there is also a greater need for change,” said Alexandrina Najmowicz, director of the European Civic Forum.

They pushed for a convention on the workings of the EU institutions, as the one launched in 2001 on the Future of Europe,  which led to the drafting of the European Constitution, later rejected in the Dutch and French referendum. The EU changed its Treaties in 2009, with the entry into force of the Lisbon Treaty.  

Europe+ wants a  “follow up” on the Lisbon Treaty, one representative explained.

But EU pundits are hesitant to open up the Treaties once more. “The T-word scares people in Brussels and in the member states,” German minister of state Michael Link commented earlier. This sentiment hasn’t changed much since the European elections.

Citizen participation initiatives brought by the Lisbon Treaty, like the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI), have struggled with a number of organisational and technical glitches. “The EU Commission argues that dialogue takes place. The problem is that the dialogue is not structured and not transparent. The treaty change is an opportunity to come up with a legal base,” said Najmowicz.

“The ECI is a beginning, but not an end,” argued Leinen. “Some have also pondered on a European referendum. The question is: will there be a new wave of inclusiveness.”

Citizen participation

The European elections this year showed a surge in the number of anti-EU votes. The percentage of European citizens that turned up to vote also remained low, at 43.09%. The campaigns were an attempt to boost the attention of national media for EU politics and drive citizens to the voting booth, but it failed to deliver on the latter.

NGOs, too, admit that their connection to the network of activists and engaged citizens in member states needs improvement. “It is key that we also mobilise our members,” said Conny Reuter of the social organisation SOLIDAR. “We need some more mobilisation, from our side, to go into the member states and gather people [around a cause].”

“Compared to the business interests within BUSINESSEUROPE, or the trade unions within their federation, civil society is too weak, too little visible. And we need to work on that,” Reuter added.

A look at the EU’s public affairs database, the Transparency Register, confirms that the number of registered NGOs and civil society (graph: yellow) is considerably lower than the joint group of “in-house lobbyists and trade/professional associations” (graph: blue), which includes trade unions.

Number of registered organisations in the Transparency Register, per type: NGOs & trade unions; Business, consultancies & companies; Others. Figures: 10 July 2014, 16:12.

A treaty is a binding agreement between EU member countries. It sets out EU objectives, rules for EU institutions, how decisions are made and the relationship between the EU and its member countries. The last treaty was the Treaty of Lisbon, which entered into force in December 2009.

EU leaders like the British prime minister David Cameron have called for EU reform over the past years, and all types of organisations have criticised the ongoing 'democratic deficit' of the European Union. But treaty change requires the consent of EU heads of state, many of which are not keen to start the process. 

Some, like the federalist movement in Brussels and across Europe, have hinted at the organisation of a Convention on the future of Europe. Such a convention was held in 2001-2003 and ended in the adoption of a Constitution by heads of state (in 2004), which was rejected in two national referenda before ratification. 

Civil Society

European Union


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