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Foreign Policy by Proxy: Democracy and Human Rights Promotion through an Engagement with Civil Society

Raffaele Marchetti

EU Engagement with Civil Society

The European Union (EU) is particularly engaged in developing its external action through and in partnership with civil society actors. But this is becoming more and more controversial. This chapter provides a critical and comparative reflection on the new dynamic of foreign policy centred on the synergy between EU and civil society actors.

In the context of the EU, civil society is usually understood in a functionally broad way, though it may be limited in political terms (Kaya and Marchetti 2014). It is functionally broad in that definitions of civil society usually include different kinds of interest groups: non-governmental organizations (NGOs); social movements; advocacy and promotional groups; functional interest groups as social partners (such as trade unions and employers’ organizations); sectoral organizations (such as entrepreneurs’ and consumers’ associations), but also universities, research institutes and epistemic communities. In the EU, civil society organizations (CSOs) are usually expected to play a collaborative role (rather than being a force of

R. Marchetti (H)

LUISS, Roma, Italy

© The Editor(s) (if applicable) and The Author(s) 2017 275

R. Marchetti (ed.), Partnerships in International Policy-Making, International Series on Public Policy,

DOI 10.1057/978-1-349-94938-0_14

opposition), adopting a procedural manner in the policy-making process. As we will see, EU procedures tend to favour a functional, output oriented conception of civil society involvement. For this reason, politically antagonist groups are usually marginalized, if not ostracized and even criminalized.

From a civil society perspective, the process of Europeanization has to be understood as a complex European integration process that transforms actors and makes them supranationally part of a single demos, a single public space in which CSOs interact transnationally. More formally, Radaelli interprets Europeanization as a ‘construction; diffusion; and the institutionalization of formal and informal procedures, rules and ways of doing things, shared beliefs and norms, which are first defined and consolidated in the EU policy process and then incorporated into the logic of domestic discourses, identities, political structures and public policies’ (Radaelli 2003, p. 30). In sum, it is a process (of diffusion, learning, adjusting, and the reorientation of politics), and effect (of engagement with Europe), a cause (of further integration), and relation (between the EU and other actors) (Boronska-Hryniewiecka 2011).

The topic of civil society participation entered the EU agenda after the foundation of the European Union in 1993 with the Maastricht Treaty. Setting the goal of political union, the treaty indirectly generated debate on the democratic deficit and more generally on the increasing politicization of the EU integration process. That signaled the end of the ‘permissive consensus’ on the elite-driven process of EU integration, from that moment on the previously de-politicized process of EU integration became more contentious (Hooghe and Marks 2009). In this context, the participation of civil society became more and more essential from the point of view of both CSOs and practitioners who saw CSOs as a solution, and as a legitimacy enhancer, to help solve their problems. Together with civil society, the other legitimacy-enhancing strategy was to strengthen the European Parliament and to make a shift from output to input dimensions of legitimacy.

The European Commission has a long history of consultation with civil experts, but it has changed and expanded its attitude over time (Quittkat and Finke 2008). In the 1960s and 1970s the Commission focused on ‘consultation’ within European economic integration and dialogue with primarily economic experts within industrial and agrarian interest groups.1 Other CSOs were still outside interaction with the EEC, except the longstanding Europe movements of the federalists.

Later on in the 1980s and 1990s, the Commission focused on developing a ‘partnership’ with nongovernmental actors within the social dialogue on specific policy areas such as security, social, and educational policy. While the Commission demanded greater participation of civil society, European civil society itself expanded its reach to the regional level. A multitude of associations opened their branches in Brussels, such as the European Trade Union Confederation. Better IT technologies and improved European coordination facilitated the scale shift towards the EU level.

However, only in the 1990s and 2000s did attention move to the idea of ‘participation’ itself and the concept of participatory democracy (Economic and Social Committee 1999). The White Paper on Governance outlined the framework for such cooperation (European Commission 2001) and the Leaken Conference of 2001 established a qualitative milestone for the recognition of participation of NGOs in European governance by including for the first time representation of civil society in the Convention working on the Constitutional Treaty. The most recent development in the integration of civil society is constituted by the Lisbon Treaty, which further enhances European Social Dialogue and institutionalizes citizens’ initiatives. Today, the ‘Your Voice in Europe’ online consultation system offers the opportunity for all accredited groups to express a view during the Commission’s policy formulation phase. As a result, the process of policy formation has widened beyond the classical intergovernmental method and included voluntary, informal, inclusive, and participatory forms of coordination, the so-called new era of EU multilevel governance.

These transformations in EU attitude towards civil society created a structure of opportunities that CSOs repeatedly used to influence and integrate into decision-making processes at the European level. In fact, we can expect that ‘the more political decisions are dispersed, the more open (and less repressive) a system is considered. The prevalent assumption is that the greater the number of actors who share political power (the more the checks and balances), the greater the chance that social movements will emerge and develop’ (Della Porta and Caiani 2009, p. 7). EU governance structure tends to be fairly open to the input of civil society, if compared with similar political regimes throughout the world. While it is relatively clear by now that the system is more open to conventional, pragmatic lobbying than to ideological and disruptive action, it still leaves windows of opportunity for various kinds of mobilization on different levels. Depending on the circumstances, CSOs may, for instance, adopt strategies of either domestication

(putting pressure on national constituencies) or externalization (targeting EU institutions) to adapt better to the political opportunity structure that is presented to them, or indeed alternatively adopting a multiple strategy in which both the local and the European level is targeted. Especially in specific sectors such as the definition of EU democracy and human rights external policies, civil society has played a significant role in setting the agenda. A recent case in point is represented by the successful mobilization of LGBT groups that managed to include their political goals in the official agenda of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) (Council of the European Union 2012).

The debate on the specific role played by CSOs within the European governance system is intense. There are two the principal interpretations in the reading of the functions assigned to and played by CSOs within the EU system: functional collaborator or constitutive source for the creation of a European public space, as summarized in Table 14.1.

Table 14.1 Two main political interpretations of the role played by civil society

Collaborator in public bodies

Constitutive source for trans-European public space

Modes of interaction



Deliberative Europeanization



White Paper on Governance, 2001

Convention methods applied in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights 2000, European Convention 2001-2003, the Treaty on a Constitution for Europe 2003, and later on the Treaty of Lisbon 2009

Types of CSOs

Organized interests, interest intermediation and lobbying

Civil society as a whole, but also as a site of contestation


Partners, not expected to control accountability

Public sphere as both open participation and challenge to public authority


Service provision in a demand-offer scheme

Training for social and political virtues, producing social ties and social capital, and providing opportunities for mobilization and collective action


NGOs, experts, educated

Social movements, laymen

Among European institutions, the European Commission has by far the greater role vis-a-vis CSOs. The European Parliament comes only second in this respect. The Commission deploys an activation strategy for inclusion of CSOs in the predominantly supranational policy formulation. Over the years, the Commission has tried to institutionalize NGO structures along policy areas (NGO families) by expanding the notion of civil society as provider of information and inputs in its policy-making. The highly developed system of comitology is characterized by extensive use of informal practices beyond intergovernmentalism, a type of problemsolving interaction, and the spill-over effect of socialization on participants (Curtin 2003; Joerges and Neyer 2006).

It is by now clear that the mode of interaction of the European Commission is highly biased towards CSOs rather than less well-organized grassroots movements. Institutionalized, professional types of CSOs are part and parcel of the functional mode of governance insofar as they act as governance partners in the implementation of sector-comprehensive strategies on different policy levels while at the same time providing alternative, deliberative paths for the re-legitimization of the EU. It is clear, however, that a difference remains between participatory governance (with stakeholders) and participatory democracy from below. In principle, participatory governance remains centred on an instrumental input legitimacy and an output legitimacy anchored on private-public partnerships (PPPs), whereas participatory democracy is based rather on a mode of intrinsic input legitimacy in which discursive involvement in policy formation is promoted by a growing transnational and European civil society. The Commission is currently implementing the first of these and is still only aspiring to realize the second.

Such disjunction between instrumental and intrinsic logic of legitimacy is also evident in the assessment of the (actual and potential) impact of CSOs on the EU system. At times CSOs are perceived as being a threat to input legitimacy based on formally institutionalized representative democracy. Often, CSOs are seen as an asset to increase the quality of policies and services delivered by the EU (outputs), but also as a pragmatic answer to shortcomings in input legitimacy that cannot be fully overcome due to the multi-level system of governance. More rarely, or rather in principle, CSOs are ideally perceived as carriers of an emerging EU order with a genuine EU public sphere and input legitimacy in its own right. The contrast between these differing readings also entails a serious political dilemma, possibly the most crucial disfunctionality in the relation between EU institutions and civil society: ‘the conditions civil society has to meet to participate limit the very virtues for which the Commission pursues its normative and material activation strategy’ (Heidbreder 2012, p. 19). The more the Commission seeks professionalized NGOs, the less it will have bottom-up and contentious civil actors, which limits the potential for fulfilling the legitimizing and communicative role of civil society. It is a sort of catch-22 situation in which CSOs need to be highly professionalized in order to have a voice in Brussels, and yet at the same time are supposed to remain deeply rooted in societies in order to provide genuine legitimacy from below. It seems that all the attempts developed by EU institutions to engage with civil society and to bridge the EU with European citizens have simply created a pro-Brussels CSO elite working in the interests of deeper integration, and this has left behind all the other politically significant actors.

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