Mr Timmermans, don’t underestimate civil society’s potential in shaping Europe’s future

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Frans Timmermans speaking at "A New Pact for Europe" Conference []

As poverty and inequalities worsen in the European Union, Frans Timmermans needs to nurture the debate between European decision-makers and civil society, not criticise the intentions and effectiveness of the latter, writes Jana Hainsworth.

Jana Hainsworth is President of the Social Platform, a grouping of European Social NGOs.

Those of us working in the civil society sector on social justice drew little comfort from First Vice-President Frans Timmermans’s frank exchange of views at yesterday’s ‘A New Pact for Europe’ conference. His political analysis was not wrong: there is an overall disillusionment with Europe, citizens are justifiably fearful of the future, and educating and instilling confidence in our young is the way forward. But there ends our agreement.

In thinly veiled criticism of European civil society, Mr Timmermans seems to perceive NGOs as protecting the status quo and as part of the old guard. He responded to a question about Europe 2020 – the integrated strategy on inclusive, sustainable and smart growth – by singing the praises of the circular economy – hardly the same thing.

European civil society is not afraid of change and we are not promoting Europe 2020 because we simply want to preserve our place around the EU governance table. We genuinely believe that for the citizens we aim to represent – including the elderly, children, those with disabilities, those experiencing poverty and the homeless – Europe 2020 offered a glimmer of hope in relation to influencing how our economic policies (which dictate how our societies function) are formulated.

So far, the Commission has failed to offer any concrete alternative which demonstrates a real commitment to inclusiveness in our societies. Mr Timmermans was right to say “to stay still, things have to change”. But it feels as though the European Commission is dismissing everything of the past without any objective assessment of their merits.

That is why civil society has been so indignant about the streamlined Country-Specific Recommendations and the Commission’s failure to stand up against member states’ pursuit of austerity in a way that undermines fundamental rights and drives parts of our communities further into the margins.

Mr Timmermans is right to be concerned about the growing disconnect between the EU and member state realities. With the European Semester process – which civil society understood as being integrally linked with Europe 2020 – more and more EU networks have actively been involving their national members in analysis and proposals. It has been time consuming and pain staking. But in some countries it has really reaped benefits, both in bridging the democratic deficit and improving the political analysis. Should we interpret from Mr Timmermans’s views that this endeavor is pointless? How is he expecting to bridge the gap with member states? Travelling roadshows of the Commissioners and more presence in national media is simply not enough.

What I regret most from the Commission’s first eight months in office is its failure to recognise and harness the real potential of European civil society in bringing the EU closer to its citizens. The emphasis on public consultations and impact assessments in the Better Regulation agenda is a step in the right direction, but I am skeptical whether it is going to excite European citizens to better understand and engage in the EU project. The closer dialogue takes place to the people, the more engaged they will feel. I fully recognise and respect the Commission’s sensitivity to the needs of business, and particularly SMEs. Nonetheless, I worry that Mr Timmermans does not see the absolute necessity of counter-balancing that with better ways of bringing in the voices of those representing broader societal interests.

We have appreciated Mr Timmernans’s willingness to participate in round table dialogues with civil society and look forward to their continuation. But there is a concern that these occasions are not driven by a genuine desire to understand where civil society comes from and what we have to say.

Mr Timmermans ended his intervention yesterday by referring to the end of an era when we only speak to people with whom we agree. In this vein, I hope he will be convinced that European civil society has something to say, that we are not interested in preserving the status quo for the sake of it,and we have a genuine commitment and passion to support him in building a Europe fit for the future.

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