NGOs assess relationship with EU institutions

NGO representatives from across the EU
have assessed the efforts made by the EU institutions to hear
their views when making policy.

A number of issues emerged in the context of NGO
involvement in policy-making, such as:

  • The Commission’s limited capacity to process huge
    volumes of feedback; 
  • The financial sustainability of NGOs and the
    Commission’s contribution to their
    sustainability; 
  • NGO interest in and technical knowledge of
    issues; 
  • The need for the Commission to provide clear and
    concise communication relating to
    consultations; 
  • A better and more inclusive definition of target
    groups; 
  • Allowing sufficient time for NGOs (with limited
    resources) to provide input; 
  • Feedback after consultations to account for the way
    the input was handled. 

Many participants quoted DG Trade’s civil society
dialogue as a good example. The dialogue draws together 600
organisations for four meetings a year on targeted
topics. 

"The only way forward is a flexible approach," said
Jens Nymand-Christensen, Director in the Commission's
Secretariat General with responsibility for relations
with civil society. Mr Nymand-Christensen emphasised that
he did not believe in setting in stone one type of
approach to maintain dialogue with civil society. "It
[the approach] has to be open to adapt to the changes in
civil society." If the Secretariat General forced through
a particular approach it would "very quickly become an
outdated dialogue structure," Mr Nymand-Christensen
said. 

Justin Greenwood, professor at Robert Gordon
University, said that the EU needs to find unique
solutions to its unique problems. As it is still "a young
but maturing democracy", "time and patience is needed".
Greenwood listed the major achievements, such as the
relevant provisions of the Constitutional Treaty.
However, there are outstanding problems, such as the lack
of mechanisms (an EU-wide party system or an EU-wide
media) to bring politics to the people. 

The Executive Director of the Open Society Foundation
in Estonia, Mall Hellam, pointed out that in her country,
communication about the EU has all but disappeared since
EU enlargement. Hellam was concerned about the appearance
of "two Europes" dividing the countries' ability to
participate in policy debates depending on whether
information is available. She described the origins of
the "Estonian Civil Society Development Concept", which
was approved by the Estonian legislature in December
2002, and she said that the Estonian NGO community is in
the process of creating a platform which will comment on
initiatives coming from 'Brussels'. 

A contributor from the floor said that it was not
necessary for the Commission to do all the work itself.
Instead, it could rely on civil society organisations,
such as ECAS, to pre-digest the feedback
received. 

"A culture of consultations is a rather new phenomenon
for the new Member States," said David Stulik, project
manager for the Czech Civil Society Development
Foundation. Stulik said that Czech NGOs were trying to
relate their work to the work of NGOs in Brussels, but
complained that "technical and expert knowledge is
something Czech NGOS do not have". 

"The Commission has become more and more open to
consultation. I think it is right to give the Commission
credit for that," said Andrew Crook, ECAS Board Member.
He commented that it was less important where
organisations giving comments come from or whom they
represent and that the most important thing was how good
their ideas were. Crook underlined the importance of
feedback following consultations. 

Magda Stoczkiewicz, Policy Coordinator for CEE
Bankwatch, listed examples using first-hand experience
from the NGO community. Stoczkiewicz complained about the
fact that the Commission leaves little time for
consultation following the publication of initial
discussion documents, the fact that at times industry
lobby groups also get their expenses reimbursed, and that
sometimes, conferences take place instead of
consultations. She said that the European Investment Bank
is one of the least transparent of the international
financial institutions. 

A seminar organised by the European Citizen Action
Service (ECAS), assisted by the Charities Aid Foundation
(CAF), focused on how the EU institutions, and in
particular, the Commission, relate to civil
society. 

Article 46 of the Constitutional Treaty (Part I) on
"the principle of participatory democracy", provided a
framework for the discussions, which points to the future
direction the EU wishes to take. The article calls on all
institutions to "maintain an open, transparent and
regular dialogue with representative associations and
civil society". It requires the Commission in particular
to "carry out broad consultation with parties concerned"
when formulating new policy. In addition, it states that
one million citizens "from a significant number of Member
States may take the initiative of inviting the Commission
within the framework of its powers, to submit any
appropriate proposal on matters where citizens consider
that a legal act of the Union is required for the purpose
of implementing the Constitution". Article 47 deals with
the social partners and social dialogue. 

The new Barroso Commission intends to place emphasis
on communication with EU citizens. It has created a new
post for a Commissioner responsible for communications.
The post will be filled by Margot Wallström, subject
to Parliament's approval. 

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