Despite being recognised as a constitutional principle of the EU, participatory democracy in Europe is still largely unstructured, with no formal institutional agreements that would allow citizens and civil society organisations to directly contribute to the development of EU policies
On 7 June, the European Commission and the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a seminar on empowering civil society organisations (CSOs) and human rights defenders, shining a spotlight on ways to improve their participation in policy-making processes at the EU and national level.
The seminar revealed that civil society involvement in EU policy-making remains insufficient, informal, and fraught with obstacles, as reported by 53% of respondents to a consultation conducted for the 2022 Report on the Application of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.
Held under the title , this was the second of three follow-up seminars to the 2022 Charter Report organised by the Commission on how to strengthen an open and enabling civic space in the EU. This time round, the Commission partnered with the EESC.
The seminar was opened by the EESC president, Oliver Röpke, who stressed that CSOs were key actors when it came to safeguarding democracy, fundamental rights and the rule of law.
Civil society organisations are the watchdogs for those in power. But they face increasing restrictions, threats, attacks and limited resources, which undermine their impact and limit potential. This sabotages the very essence of our democratic system. We must reverse this trend and rally together to better protect, support and empower civil society. This will be a core mission for the EESC during my mandate, Mr Röpke said, adding that support for CSOs should be extended beyond the EU's borders and the EESC consultative mandate further expanded.
Sergei Lagodinsky MEP said the European Parliament was open to increasing the number of instruments for engaging with CSOs. He emphasised the informal nature of the current cooperation between the Parliament and civil society organisations, and stressed the difference between civic participation and lobbying. He also observed that proposals from CSOs do not receive sufficient consideration in the legislative process:
Structural ways of getting onboard the ideas put forward by CSOs are still minimal.
He pointed to the Conference on the Future of Europe, citizens' panels, and the European Citizens Initiative as positive steps towards higher involvement of citizens in the EU decision-making, and emphasised the need to strengthen these initiatives.
Ingrid Bellander Todino, Head of Unit for Fundament Rights Policy at the European Commission, stressed that effective involvement of CSOs in the legislative process improves representative democracy and is an indicator of the level of the rule of law in a given country. She said that the EC', forthcoming initiative
Defence of democracy package, which is currently under preparation, would contain measures to encourage Member States to develop a structured approach to the participation of CSOs in policy-making.
The Commission acknowledged the difficulties experienced by civil society organisations in taking part in consultations and stakeholder dialogues, and said the package would help address the problem.
Alexandrina Najmowicz, secretary-general of the European Civic Forum, noted that CSOs have been waiting for the application of Article 11 of the Treaty of the European Union since 2009. Article 11 recognises participatory democracy as a constitutional principle of the EU. However, a structured framework for citizen and civil society participation in EU policy-making is still missing.
It's about time we have an institutional agreement on dialogue with civil society at the EU level, she said, emphasising the importance of building trust through structured dialogue, rather than relying solely on consultation.
GOVERNMENTS SHOULD TAKE STEPS TO SECURE CIVIC ENGAGEMENT
Deniz Devrim, policy analyst at the OECD's Observatory of Civic Space, presented the findings of the OECD Global Report on the Protection of Civic Space, compiled on the basis of data from 52 governments, of which 20 were from EU Member States.
With regard to the engagement with CSOs in policy making, the study found that, in two-thirds of cases, public authorities accept more than a half of the recommendations made by stakeholders in consultation processes. Governments also increasingly encourage the participation of underrepresented groups in decision-making. Strategies targeting youth participation were most prevalent and were found in 70% of the countries, followed by strategies for women, minorities, and people with special needs. Other groups received less support.
The seminar heard about the situation in Croatia and Latvia, presented by Tatjana Vlašić, deputy ombudswoman of Croatia and Kristīne Zonberga, director of Latvia's Civic Alliance, respectively.
TAKING PART IN CRAFTING EU POLICES
Opportunities for CSOs to contribute to EU policy-making do exist.
Ima Gómez López, policy officer in the Secretariat-General of the European Commission, presented the Better Regulation method, which promotes evidence-based policy-making through the participation of CSOs and citizens. The method uses evaluations, impact assessments, and stakeholder consultations to inform decision-making.
Have Your Say web portal allows citizens to engage in policy-making, with new calls for evidence and other documents being published every 12 hours. The web portal received 4.6 million visits and 45 800 contributions in 2022. 82 public consultations were held, with 87% of questionnaires having been translated into all EU languages. Contributions came from EU citizens, trade unions, companies, and CSOs, with Germany and France providing the most.
Ozlem Yildirim, vice-president of the EESC's Fundamental Rights and the Rule of Law (FRRL) Group, said that the EESC was striving to improve the participation of civil society in EU decision-making by creating spaces for structured dialogues, such as through country visits by its FRRL Group and other thematic groups. The creation of citizens' panels ahead of the EU elections is also in the pipeline.
Eszter Hartay, programme director at the European Centre for Not-for-Profit Law, said that gaps, such as insufficient participation of CSOs in decision-making stages, can be addressed through innovative participation methods and tools, which can be adopted from the national level. These include games and quizzes for large-scale civic engagement at the EU level.
The EU can invest more in concrete co-creation. We encourage the Commission to use innovative tools to increase deliberative participation, she said.
The seminar was concluded by Paul Soete, president of the EESC's FRRL Group, who said there had been progress at the EU level but acknowledged that much more needed to be done.