Power asymmetries between corporate and non-corporate interests represent a crucial factor for any model of participatory democracy that aims to enhance the legitimacy of the EU polity through the inclusion of civil society into the policy-making process (Kohler-Koch and Finke 2007; Kohler-Koch 2007, 2013; Saurugger 2008).1 Whatever the particular model, Dahl’s admonishment on the serious risks to democratic legitimacy in a regime that privileges certain societal interests against others (Dahl 1989, pp. 83-96, 322-326) remains a starting point for the normative foundation of associative democracy (Hirst 1994, Cohen and Rogers 1995). As a supranational institution holding the highest legal authority in policy initiation and executive powers, the European Commission has been historically both a major target and the proactive builder of a European system of interest intermediation (Mazey and Richardson 2001; Christiansen 2006; Bouwen 2009), in order to facilitate EU democratization. Yet the Commission’s participatory system largely took shape around its first true Europeanized societal constituency and lobbying agency—that is the large national and transnational firms, together with their representative associations and forums (Greenwood 2011, pp. 65-93; Coen 1998, 2009, 2011; Cowles 1998). From their different theoretical positions, both neo-functionalist, inter-governmental and critical approaches recognize a primary role to the large business interests in building up of the European integration, in as much as capitalist agents endowed with structural economic power and overwhelming lobbying resources in respect to non-corporate organized interests (van Apeldoorn 2002: 36-41). The latter faced the crisis of established national intermediation regimes and the opening up of a ‘transnational pluralist space’ (Streeck and Schmitter 1991) at the European level, which amplified the basic hindrances in collective-action for labour and Civil society organized interests (Olson 1965; Offe and Wiesenthal 1980) in front of far inferior lobbying capabilities. However, alongside the deepening of the integration process and in response to the perceived lack of legitimacy, the EU governing institutions—and the Commission in particular—gradually opened up the channels for a broader and more inclusive participation of the different civil society groups. From publication of the White Paper on Governance to the European Transparency Initiative, the Commission and the EU institutions increasingly enhanced consultative and participatory instruments to foster a wider civil society inclusion in the European policy-making (Quittkat and Kohler-Koch 2013). The Commission thus strove to develop a dialogue with as wide a sector of European civil society as possible, on the basis of a pluralist framework of stakeholders consultations and external expertise in the policy-definition stages, together with more proactive instruments to empower relevant interest groups with a European scope, such as funding programmes for NGOs and other public interest organizations.
A broadly adopted and fruitful way to explain such a relationship has been to focus on the access conditions, determining the extent to which different organized interests are included and heard in specific venues designated to gather and deliver external non-governmental inputs to the Commission. As a preliminary and necessary—but indeed not sufficient—factor in assessing the influence of societal actors on Commission policy-makers, interest groups’ access has been mainly conceptualized in the literature according to a resource-interdependence model. Focusing exclusively on business interests, the most rigorous formalizations of such an approach identified a crucial factor to explain the different lobbying capabilities (with a focus on the business interests) has been identified by leading scholars in the provision of both expertise and legitimacy inputs demanded by the Commission in exchange for access channels (Bouwen 2002, 2004; Eising 2007; Mahoney 2007; Beyers 2002; Broscheid and Coen 2003). Yet these approaches underestimate the implications resulting from the inner links between expertise and interests: the selection of external expert entails a choice of which societal interests to include. The non-neutral expertise from specific socio-economic interests is actually needed to the Commission both for reasons of technocratic efficiency and to build up consensus on its policy proposals from the designated relevant constituencies. Therefore, such a model tells us nothing about the formation and changes of the Commission’s demands for legitimacy and expertise inputs from different economic and societal actors.