What is the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC)?
The EESC is the only consultative body at European Union level that gives the Commission, the Council and the Parliament the points of view of the people "on the ground" - those most directly affected by EU legislation. Its membership is made up of representatives of Europe's employers' organizations, trade unions, farmers, consumer groups, professional associations, and so on. What is particularly distinctive about the EESC is that it is a non-political organization, and exists to give advice on a wide range of practical matters.
Why do we need the EESC?
Quite simply, the EESC is the only way for Europe's interest groups - trade unionists, employers, farmers, etc. - to have a formal and institutionalized say on draft EU legislation. The EESC exists to channel the views of these vital interest groups to the larger EU institutions. The involvement of European society in its very broadest sense is thus at the heart of the European decision-making process. It is interesting to contrast this role with that of the European Parliament, which represents individual citizens rather than interest groups. The ESC is therefore highly complementary. It does a job done nowhere else at EU level.
So the EESC is a kind of lobby, then?
No, not at all. The Committee is in many ways the opposite of a lobby, in that it exists to find compromises between the groups represented in it. These compromises concern draft legislation on a wide range of controversial issues. Lobbies are obviously there to tell just one side of the story. Their points of view are necessarily highly polarized. The Commission does endeavour to find out what various lobbies have to say when it is framing legislation, at the beginning of its work. The Committee's search for compromise-based solutions to problematic issues makes it unique. Its members - who outside the ESC building may belong to lobbies that the Commission has consulted earlier - know that their responsibility within the Committee is to look for such a "middle way". Topics referred to the EESC range from trans-European transport networks to public health policy, to name just two. This clearly means that all sides must be ready to engage in dialogue and give ground to some degree.
How many members does the EESC have?
350, divided between the twenty eight Member States according to a given quota. All are appointed by the Council of Ministers following proposals made by the government of the respective Member State. They receive allowances to cover their travel expenses and accommodation when attending meetings, but are not otherwise paid.
How does the EESC work in practice?
Proposals for legislation are drawn up by the European Commission. As laid down in the Treaties, in a large number of policy areas these proposals have to be referred to the EESC. The Committee issues its collective view in the form of an opinion, which is then published in the EU's Official Journal. This is often of great use to the Council of Ministers because it knows that if the EESC can find broad agreement in its position, then this is likely to be a common-sense response that will work on the ground.
Can the EESC be pro-active?
Yes. It can issue opinions on its own initiative if it feels that a given problem or issue needs looking into by the larger institutions. An instance of this is the Committee's work in highlighting obstacles to the smooth running of the single market.
How much impact does the EESC actually have?
The Committee has had a key effect on many areas of EU activity since it was set up over forty years ago by the Treaty of Rome. This is particularly the case regarding proposals in the fields of workplace and agricultural policy, as might be expected. One example is the European Social Charter, which was based very closely on a document drawn up by the Committee. Proof of the practical value of compromise within the Committee is the fact that the Charter was immediately acceptable to all but one of the Member State governments