A week after the European Parliament's liberal ALDE group suggested scrapping advisory bodies to save taxpayers' money, the president of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), Staffan Nilsson, has come out to defend the role of civil society in EU policymaking.
Speaking to journalists yesterday (18 January), Nilsson said he was surprised to learn that the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) group in the European Parliament had published a position paper calling on the EU to consider the possibility of shutting down the EESC in order to save money.
"It's very strange that Liberals, who also ask for transparency and for the development of society, would try to discuss the idea of cancelling the only body that is for people who are not politicians," said Nilsson.
Despite being a feature of Europe's institutional landscape for more than fifty years, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) does not enjoy the same level of media attention or public awareness as the major organs of the decision-making process, namely the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament.
This is largely because the Committee does not go out of its way to attract attention. Rather it prefers to concentrate on getting on with its job, which is to provide a steady stream of opinions and recommendations on various EU policies and proposals.
In an average year, the EESC produces some 200 opinions which it submits to the main policymaking institutions. The point of all this activity is to ensure that the views of businesses and employers, trade unions and other interest groups are taken into account when decisions are being made at EU level.
Every four months the European Commission produces a report indicating the way in which it has taken into account the opinions it has received from the EESC. The Committee also does studies to determine where it is having an impact beyond the legislative process.
Rewriting the Treaty?
According to ALDE's position paper on the EU budget after 2013, written by Carl Haglund – a Liberal MEP from Finland – the EU should "maintain the option of abolishing" the EESC on the grounds that it does not "contribute significantly to the democratic decision-making process and the transparent, smooth and efficient running of the Union".
When the ALDE position paper was presented to journalists last week (11 January), no mention was made of the fact that the role of the EESC is laid down in the EU Treaties, and that this role was strengthened by the Lisbon Treaty, which entered into force at the end of 2009.
"For me it's a little strange," said Nilsson. "Because if you want to take out the Committee, then you will need to re-open the Treaty, and nobody wants to re-open the Treaty."
The EESC president was keen to downplay the significance of the ALDE position paper. "It's a paper before their discussion about the budget," he said. "When we called some of the MEPs in the same group, they were not aware of this paper."
Only a small minority of MEPs would support the idea of shutting down the EESC, Nilsson argued, recalling that a written declaration along the same lines was presented a few years ago, but it only attracted "30 or 40 signatures out of more than 700".
Nilsson said that he was not afraid of explaining the work of the EESC or defending the body against its critics. "This gives us an excellent opportunity to better explain what we are doing and to strengthen our contacts [with the European Parliament]."
In the coming weeks, Nilsson is planning to hold separate meetings with Jerzy Buzek, president of the European Parliament, and Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the ALDE group, in order to discuss cooperation between the Parliament and the EESC.
'A very tight budget'
Recognising the need to reduce waste in the expenditure of the EU institutions, Nilsson said each institution should first look at how it can save money in its own budget.
"If it is a savings problem, I think everybody could do the best themselves to pinpoint where they could save money," said Nilsson. He pointed out that unlike MEPs, members of the EESC are not paid a salary and they don't employ any assistants.
"We have a very tight budget, we have very few posts, we have very few high ranking civil servants," said the EESC president.
The total budget of the EESC for 2011 is €129 million, while the annual budget of the Committee of the Regions (CoR) is around €80 million. Together, the two advisory bodies account for just over 2.5% of the total administrative budget of the EU institutions.
The secretary-general of the EESC, Martin Westlake, told EURACTIV that the two bodies are collaborating closely together with a view to ensuring the most efficient use of their combined resources, for example by sharing translators, logistics, IT services and buildings.
The EESC employs a total of around 750 people, including the translators and other staff who work for the joint services that are shared with the CoR.
However, Westlake does concede that there is a legitimate point to be made that public bodies and institutions – including the EESC – "should review their practices and their working methods to render them more efficient".
One of the EESC's vice-presidents – Jacek Krawczyk (Poland) – has been given the task of leading a comprehensive review of all the Committee's budgetary provisions. Westlake said the aim of this process would be "to make sure that we're really as tight and as taut and as lean and as mean as we possibly can be in budgetary terms".
More citizens' involvement, not less
Westlake also pointed out that under Article 11 of the Lisbon Treaty, the EU institutions are obliged to "maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society". In this context, the EESC sees itself as playing a crucial role by providing the EU institutions with a convenient and permanent framework for developing such a dialogue.
For example, the Parliament is working very closely with the EESC on the organisation of an AGORA event that will take place next week (27-28 January 2011) in Brussels, with the participation of citizens and representatives of civil society organisations.
"Our members don't spend most of their time here [in Brussels]," said Westlake, pointing to the added-value of such an organisation. "They spend most of their time there, out in the real world. And that's the added value that they bring to the European policy-making process."
Nilsson himself combines his part-time work in Brussels with his ongoing occupation as a farmer in Sweden.