Global Policy Forum

European Civil Society Coming of Age


By Giampiero Alhadeff and Simon Wilson

The Platform of European Social NGOs
May 2002

The street protests of Seattle, Washington, Prague and Genoa have highlighted the presence and work of "civil society". NGOs and social movements have suddenly found themselves in the limelight, becoming front-page news and the subject of contested political debate. Opinions vary, and those of us who see ourselves as representatives of civil society organisations, are often perplexed by some of the more outlandish ideas assigned to us.

Reality is of course, often more interesting than fiction. Little noticed by the world media, public interest NGOs working at the European level have been organising themselves for over a decade, taking forward the concept of civil society dialogue with the EU political institutions onto new ground.

Towards a Definition of Civil Society

The diversity of civil society organisations makes it essential that we begin by a description of the phenomenon. The media conception of an amorphous unorganised mass of individuals and organisations, connected by the internet and by a willingness to protest, is only a small, though very visible, part of the picture. The other reality, is the millions of organisations working at local and national level, organisations, composed of individuals often giving freely of their time and working to make life better for their fellow human beings. They may be concerned about the poor in their community or about oppressed women and men, or discriminated populations on the other side of the world; they may be passionate about stopping environmental damage or saving a wild habitat, or the welfare of animals; they may be driven by political or religious ideals, or just from a desire to make a direct personal contribution. For some, their involvement becomes a central part of their lives, for others it remains a watching brief, something to be followed from a distance. Some make significant voluntary donations running to tens of thousand of Euros, others leave their wealth to a favourite charity or cause. What is clear is that a large number of our fellow citizens make an important contribution through their involvement in civil society organisations or actions.

These descriptions point to a diverse and multi-faceted phenomenon. The Cotonou Agreement between African Caribbean and Pacific countries and the European Union Agreement is one of the first international treaties, which refers to civil society. The document divides non-state actors into three categories: the private sector, the economic and social partners, including trade unions, and civil society organisations in all its forms . A definition which regroups a wide range of organisations with different constituencies and interests. It includes non-governmental organisations (NGOs) engaged in humanitarian and development assistance, social service provision, to voluntary organisations of citizens, bringing together, for example, indigenous communities, women, workers, or farmers. The EU's Economic and Social Committee attempted to draw a distinction between those associations who provide services and those who are involved in lobbying and advocacy work, but this did not receive much favour as most organisations consider lobbying and advocacy and the provision of practical resources to be two sides of the same coin.

More recently a distinction has been made within civil society between social movements (based upon informal alliances), and (more formally established) NGOs. This is a difficult distinction to sustain because social movements also include NGOs and trade unions, and because the definition of NGO is in any case very fluid. The term ‘social movement' is useful, though, as short-hand for a political commitment to a broad coalition for change.

It is perhaps more useful to identify that part of civil society, which has begun to structure itself and to work in alliances, federations or networks. This "organised civil society'" is a new departure and is fast becoming an important aspect of the national, regional and global scene. Often making alliances with political groups, officials, trade unions and other actors, organised civil society has become an effective and influential component of the political landscape.

Widening the Concept of Democracy to include the Civil Dialogue.

An unexpected potential source of conflict comes from a natural ally. NGOs are often working in the same arena as elected politicians and often to very good effect. However the NGOs' ability to make headlines, to influence political change, and to win the trust of the public, they have found that some politicians have questioned their legitimacy and representativity and have seen some of their interventions as a threat to the democratic electoral process.

It is however, more productive to see the participation of organised civil society as complementary to the political dialogue. After all, the concept of democracy is not static, but constantly evolving. What passed for democracy at the turn of the 19th century has long been surpassed. Be it votes for women or for those without property, there has been a constant and progressive evolution. At the European Union level our Treaties recognise that beside the political dialogue there is also the "social dialogue" involving employers, trade unions and local authority employers. Whilst asserting the primacy of the political dialogue and the specific importance of the social dialogue with trade unions and employers, the "civil dialogue" is now placing itself as the junior partner in the democratic process.

Transparency and Accountability

Not all NGOs represent a clear-cut constituency – while some can claim to represent the views of their membership, others promote wider issues (for instance some environmental organisations), or the rights of those whose voices are not heard (such as children, asylum seekers, or the poor). However, if civil society actors are to become accepted players in the political process, they will have to ensure that it is clear on whose behalf they are speaking. They also must make sure that they are transparent and accountable. Their finances, sources of funding, their decision making processes and membership base will need to be public so that an assessment can be made of the import of their statements. Organised civil society organisations need to set out the criteria of representativity, transparency and accountability, so that the un-initiated outsider, be it citizen, politician or journalist can make an informed judgement. If NGOs fail to do this, they will leave the door open to confusion.

There are few entry requirements to set up an NGO or to create a new initiative. This is in the nature of the beast and from George Soros, founder of the Open Society Institute to Martin Ennals, the first General Secretary of Amnesty International, this is often the way new associations are set up. Criteria of representativity, transparency and accountability are essential to the public to enable it to differentiate between organisations.

The Civil Dialogue at the European Union Level

How to co-ordinate the engagement with civil society and how to fund their activities has become the focus of an ongoing, if somewhat slow, debate within the Institutions of the European Union. There are three broad categories of associations operating a the European level: firstly there are those that were set up with help from the European Commission, secondly networks which were either created or moved to Brussels because they realised the increased importance of the EU and needed to find ways to influence EU affairs; and a third group including large national or even international NGO organisations which made a decision to open a Brussels office. Although there has been some activity since the 1980s, most developments have occurred since the 1990s.

In the first category of associations we come across one of the pioneers of EU level civil society. The Liaison Committee of Development NGOs to the EU known by its French acronym CLONG, was set up almost thirty years ago. At the start almost entirely funded by the Commission, it played a significant role in creating a European perspective amongst its 900 member organisations across the 15 member states. The CLONG discovered that member state NGOs, even those involved in aid and development of the third world were often bound by their national realities and priorities. The challenge of the CLONG was to help create a European consciousness amongst its members and to then establish European priorities and action.

Other associations in this category include the European Women's Lobby, the European Environment Bureau or the European Anti-Poverty Network, set up in the early 90s and relative newcomers in the field such as the European Disability Forum, the International Lesbian and Gay Association- Europe (ILGA-Europe) or the European Network Against Racism.

In a second category are those networks which were either created or re-launched so as to influence the EU. Among those working on development cooperation are EUROSTEP, the network of development NGOs not linked to any religious confession whose members include OXFAM, Action Aid and Novib; APRODEV, the networks that regroups the protestant NGOs (such as Christian Aid); CIDSE which regroups the catholic NGOs (CAFOD, CIIR); and SOLIDAR, the network of NGOs linked to the trade union movement (One World Action, War on Want, Solidaridad Internacional or MPDL (Movimiento por la Paz y la Democracia). These networks are in the main less well resourced than organisations in the first category, but usually have larger members who feel a high degree of commitment to their joint project.

The third category includes those NGOs such as Amnesty International, Oxfam International, ATD Quart Monde, the World Wide Fund for Nature, Greenpeace, Save the Children and Friends of the Earth, the Open Society Institute who have opened Brussels offices to strengthen their international lobbying efforts. Some organisations, such as Oxfam and Action Aid have their own offices as well as being involved in a network.

This fluid situation, which almost defies definition, persisted until in 1998, when the College of Commissioners took the unexpected decision to block some 800 million Euro of expenditure, almost all of it destined to support NGO activities. Their argument was that the budgetary authority, the European Parliament, had created new expenditure lines without ensuring it had the required authority to do so and put the Commission in the unenviable position of having to find personnel resources and expertise to fund activities for which they had no legal authority. The row managed to win the European Union a spate of negative front pages as the media concentrated on how vital aid and human rights work would be blocked. The NGOs involved in social issues, human rights, development and the environment went into action and created a strong alliance between themselves and the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). They also discovered that they could mobilise their members in the capitals to create a strong lobby. Meetings were arranged with Ministers at very short notice, and pressure exerted both in Brussels and in national Parliaments. The NGOs and the trade unions mounted a series of high profile actions which ranged from a demonstration in front of a meeting of the EU Council which forced Ministers to enter from a side door, to a rather more flamboyant moment when the then President of the Commission, Jacques Santer, was shown the Red Card, by some 1000 NGO activists he was about to address.

In the end the whole affair was resolved with an agreement between the EU Institutions. The budgetary powers of the European Parliament were curtailed, but not before the NGOs had learnt the importance of alliance building between each other and of co-ordinating lobbying actions in Brussels with those in the capitals.

NGOs organise themselves

With the crisis over, representatives of the four NGO groupings (development, social, human rights and environment) continued to meet on a monthly basis. NGO organisation had developed to adapt to the dissimilar conditions in existence in the various European Commission Directorates, and to reflect different the traditions and cultures within each sector. The development NGOs, represented by the CLONG, were organised around 15 national platforms and were struggling to find ways of involving the various EU-wide networks which had come into existence. The environmental NGOs had a loose alliance of eight important organisations, ranging from WWF, to Greenpeace, Birdlife and Friends of the Earth, and were known collectively as the Green 8. The human rights NGOs including Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and FIDH had an even looser network calling themselves the Human Rights Contact Group. The social NGOs were the relative newcomers amongst this group. More recently formed, and more precariously funded, they had come together as the Platform of European Social NGOs in 1996. At first 17, then to become 37 networks or federations working at the EU level, they perceived the need to create alliances between themselves and then to reach out to the trade unions and to the other NGOs groupings. This strong desire for alliance building was tempered by a fiercely independent instinct. The Social Platform agreed internal rules in 1999 which prescribed that decisions ought to be reached by consensus, and discussions about the areas of competence of the Platform strangely resembled the disputes over subsidiarity between the member states. This balancing act between acting together and maintaining one's specificity has been a constant feature of the process of increasing the co-ordination between NGOs. Although this did at times slow down progress, it created stronger sets of alliances.

The practice of civil dialogue.

The four groupings of NGOs also had different traditions of civil dialogue with the EU Institutions. Although there is as yet no legal basis obliging the EU to engage in dialogue with the NGOs, the practice has been thriving with rich experiments. The EU Institutions maintained an ambivalent position to civil society, publicly welcoming their involvement whilst more or less privately ensuring that NGOs did not encroach on what they perceived as their territory. In spite of this resistance the Parliament and the Commission were prepared to be innovative in their approach to civil society.

The environment NGOs, were probably the most advanced in terms of civil dialogue. Recognised in a Council regulation and enjoying since many years a solid basis of core funding, they held regular consultations with the Environment Directorate General and Commissioner, and were also regularly consulted in over fifty Commission Committees of Experts.

The development NGOs have also had long established lines of communication with the Commission, though the extent of their influence was not always obvious. By the mid 1990s the development NGOs had become the most structured coordination of NGOs, and had developed a variety of consultation methods with the European Commission and with the Parliament. On occasion, when they did mobilize their 900 strong membership, such as on the future of the Lomé agreement, they were most effective. However although their dialogue with the Institutions was extensive, it was also less structured and generally confined to specific areas of work. Also unstructured, but effective was the communication between the human rights NGOs and the various institutions. Counting some big hitters amongst them, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, they were able to back their dialogue with well targeted lobbying and media work.

It was, however, the Social Platform which tried to create a structure for the civil dialogue. Following two successful consultative conferences organised by the Commission, the Social Policy Forum in 1996 and 1998, an agreement was reached between the members of the Platform and the Commission's Directorate General for Employment and Social Affairs to hold twice yearly consultative meetings around mutually agreed agendas. These meetings were to be the underpinning for discussions on more specific topics of mutual interest. These Bi-annual meetings, prepared weeks in advance, would bring together all of the Platform members with either the Commissioner or high officials of the Commission. One of the strengths of the meeting was the Employment Directorate's ability to involve key officials from other services to attend. However, it became evident that the formality of this system, needs to be complemented by an informal communication mechanism to ensure a good flow of information between the two sides.

A novel approach to the civil dialogue was introduced by Commission's Trade Directorate. Following a series of successful demonstrations at the time of the Geneva WTO Ministerial Summit, the then Commissioner Leon Brittan invited civil society, trade unions and business interests to a one day "consultation" on the preparations for the Seattle WTO Ministerial (1999). The meeting pleased very few, but indicated that there was a need for a dialogue. By September the same year the entire Santer Commission had resigned and Pascal Lamy, had replaced Leon Brittan. The Trade Directorate was the first to appoint a civil society liaison officer, and Pascal Lamy the first to appoint a member of his cabinet to take responsibility for this area of work. Even before the Seattle meeting, only two months away, a Civil Society Contact Group was set up and included representatives of the four groupings of NGOs, the consumers' organisations, the unions and employers organisations and the EU's Economic and Social Committee. Lamy broke new ground by persuading the Council of Ministers that the Contact Group should be included in the EU's delegation to Seattle. Since then the dialogue has continued and the structure created in 1999 has now evolved into a pattern which allows for both formal and informal contacts between civil society and the Commission.

It has been more difficult to introduce a structured dialogue with the Parliament and the Council. There had been an initiative of the Stephen Hughes, the then President of the Social Affairs Committee of the European Parliament in 1998, but this was abandoned by Michel Rocard, his successor, only to be re-introduced by the following President. Social Platform members, like all active NGOs have found the Parliament and its members the most accessible of the EU Institutions. The situation changed somewhat when new security measures were introduced in the follow up to the terrorist attacks to the World Trade Center in New York. However contact with parliamentarians continues to be frequent and collaborations can be extensive and fruitful, but it is now more difficult to hold NGO meetings in the European Parliament and access to visitors is significantly restricted. Although these difficulties are undermining the connection between European Parliament and NGOs, many parliamentarians are aware of this and are making the case for striking the correct balance between the need for security and ensuring good access.

The least open of all the EU Institutions, the Council of the European Union, is also the most powerful. NGOs are kept beyond the crowd control barriers which protect Ministerial meetings despite of the efforts which have been made by a number of the more enlightened Presidencies. The Portuguese invited the Social Platform to send a delegation to an informal Social Affairs and Employment Council Meeting (2000) and gave them speaking rights alongside Ministers and representatives of the trade unions; the French, the Swedish and the Belgians repeated the invitation with some variations, but it was consultation by grace and favour. No such offer was made by the 2002 Spanish Presidency, which earned itself few plaudits in this respect too, but the Danish Presidency re-introduced the practice. There is no framework for relations between civil society and the Council. In fact such simple issues such as NGOs having access to an EU Summit press conferences are still wrapped up in red tape, forcing NGOs to seek accreditation as journalists.

Nothing doing from the Commission

This fertile ground of experimentation and innovation should have been capitalised by the European Commission. Attempts were made by the Employment and Development Directorates to put civil society relations on a stronger footing but these faltered in tangles of bureaucracy.

After the resolution of the 1998 Budget Crisis the four NGO groupings felt that relations with the Commission had worsened. The Commission had announced the introduction of new rules for the funding of NGO activities. They had done so with no consultation and as a consequence the new rules were ambiguous and over bureaucratic. At a stormy General Assembly Meeting of the CLONG, the Commission came under sustained attack from representatives of the four groupings. It responded by the creation of an internal Committee charged with the preparation of a "Communication" which would aim to improve relations with NGOs.

The NGOs made a common stand. They wanted more effective procedures and a legal basis for the consultation of NGOs. The Social Platform led the way in demanding a Treaty Article which would provide a legal underpinning to the civil dialogue and would guarantee that it would no longer be a question of grace and favour. The other three groupings of NGOs were at first unsure about the need for such a legal basis, but were in time won over to this position. The Social Platform also received important backing from the ETUC (the European Trade Union Confederation). The position was however not supported by the EU's Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC), who saw such a recognition as weakening their own demand to be recognised as the "house of organised civil society".

Hopes of positive change coming from the Commission were short-lived. In January 2000 the promised ‘Communication' ran into the sand of conflicting views within the Commission services themselves and was reduced to the status of a discussion document. Two months later it was given an un-ceremonial burial. Two working parties were to be set up to look into different aspects of the funding of NGOs. Little more has been heard of either of these initiatives.

By then of course a new Commission was in place and its new President Romano Prodi had announced that Governance and Democracy were to be new buzzwords to re-energise the flagging European process. Civil society was to be a key component of this new Europe. Staff were put in place, offices requisitioned and a great deal of excitement was generated. The European Parliament went into opposition mode, thinking that its powers might be usurped by all kinds of ‘new thinking" such as internet voting by NGO activists. The Council of Ministers paid the Commission's initiative little or no attention, but for a while NGOs engaged time, energy and resources in the process. The four groupings of NGOs made recommendations to the various Commission working groups taking forward the debate, but within months it was clear that this too was going nowhere fast. It had been taken over by another political reality.

The unseemly debacle of the Nice Summit and the need to revisit most of its decisions if the Enlargement of the Union was to be successful, effectively confined the governance and democracy debate to the margins of history. However, NGOs rose to the main challenge of the Nice Summit, which was to prepare for a debate on how to reconnect the European Union to its citizens. The Belgian Presidency was to present concrete proposals for the approval of the Laeken Summit and NGOs formed a loose collaboration, Citizens Assembly 2004, to influence the Laeken Declaration. A broad manifesto "Europe is our Future" was launched in September 2001, and the Citizens' Assembly was held at the same time as the Summit.

By Christmas 2002 the Belgian Presidency had launched the Convention on the Future of Europe. Civil society was referred to in the Laeken Declaration and was to be included in a Forum which would be consulted by the Convention. Representatives of the four NGO groupings were invited at the conclusion of the Summit to meet with President Prodi and with Belgian Prime Minister Verhofstadt, the current President of Council.

Hidden from view was the NGO's latest failure to convince the Belgian Presidency to make a bold statement about the need to strengthen European civil society. The Social Platform had asked them to consider a proposal of the European Parliament's Socialist Group to ask the Commission to draw up an agreement between the three main Institutions which would give a legal base to the civil dialogue. For a time it seemed that the Belgians might support such a position, but they received no support for this from other member states or from the Commission.

Part of the problem has been that for some politicians the issue had been settled in the Nice Treaty, which contained an article confirming the EU's Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC) as having a special role in relation to civil society. This Article introduced in the Treaty, with no consultation with civil society, was received with surprise by NGOs who responded by asking the ECOSOC to reform itself, to ensure that it did have sufficient civil society representation before it could pretend to have some credence to its aspirations. For civil society, the aspirations of the ECOSOC, could be no substitute for a legal base for the civil dialogue.

The Convention on the Future of Europe

By early 2002 the leader of the Convention on the Future of Europe, the former French President Giscard D'Estaing, had given the task to liaise with civil society to Jean-Luc Dehaene, himself a former Prime Minister of Belgium. The four NGO groupings formally constituted a Civil Society Contact Group together with the ETUC and began to organise each sector of NGOs. Not surprisingly the ECOSOC jumped into the fray, wanting to assert its own role in relation to civil society and Prime Minister Dehaene, demonstrated the collective weakness of the NGO position, by giving the impression that he might ignore calls for a structured dialogue with civil society. By June 2002 there were signs that the NGOs were winning their battle and that a more structured dialogue would take place. However, the need for an Inter-Institutional Agreement on the Civil Dialogue had become apparent and some influential politicians were being won to the cause. The Spanish Presidency's dismal failure to consult civil society and the confusion apparent a the start of the Convention, had convinced a greater number of politicians and Commission officials that this would be a good first step, towards including an Treaty Article on the civil dialogue.


The development of European level civil society over the past ten years has been impressive. NGOs – from local to the global level – have increasingly realised the importance of organising themselves into coherent alliances in order to gain influence within the European Union. Whilst seeking to safeguard their independence, many NGOs have acknowledged that positive changes within the EU can only be achieved through common campaigning, and consistent dialogue. At times this has been a difficult process for NGOs, as they have learnt to work together effectively, patiently building trust amongst the NGO community, and building credibility within the EU institutions.

If the EU is to meet one of the key objectives laid out at Laeken in December 2001 – to engage citizens with the EU project – then European civil society must play a key role. Whilst politicians may sometimes have their doubts, NGOs enjoy high levels of trust amongst the public – and trust is an important currency in times of cynicism. Of course NGOs cannot (nor do they seek to) replace the established political dialogue – but traditional forms of democracy can only be strengthened by more participatory forms of democracy, which can engage citizens and their associations in a consistent and productive dialogue on the issues which affect millions across the EU.

One of the main points of discussion amongst NGOs is about whether they are effective in changing policy. This in part misunderstands the difference between the political process and the consultation with civil society. Our experience is that civil society can and does influence the political process, but that it can only do so when the political parties are themselves convinced by the arguments put forward. That is to say that civil society or the NGOs themselves have no direct part in the political process, but rather act as catalyst of public opinion. Civil society, by seeking a framework for its consultation with the public authorities, is therefore looking for ways to increasing its ability to act as a relay of information and opinion between the citizens and the authorities.

European civil society is working to build such a dialogue on a daily basis, but they can only succeed with the support of the EU Institutions, for whom change is sometimes difficult to accommodate. A structured civil dialogue – established with a legal base in the Treaties – would clearly guarantee a role for civil society within a system of participatory democracy, and would help to reinvigorate the EU's political system. If the EU's political institutions can support such a step, then a new chapter in the history of European civil society can be begun. Civil society has come of age, and is ready to meet the challenge of building a people's Union for the twenty-first century. We can only hope that the EU's institutions prove similarly ready to build a new Europe.

More Information on NGOs
More Information on NGOs and International Institutions

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.