Although the European Economic and Social Committee exists since 1957, there is only scarce literature on this institution. While in the 80s and 90s a few articles and books were published, there has been hardly any literature since 2000. This mere fact may already provide an indication of the Committee’s role in today’s institutional structure of the European Union: Civil society has found other ways of representation. On the one hand, formal ways of participating in the decision making process increased, for instance through the various consultative bodies around the European Commission. On the other hand, informal participation through lobbying has grown and is often regarded as being more profitable and more efficient than the involvement of an assembly with 344 members which has to agree with a majority on its opinions.
Not only on this account is the work of the EESC facing critics. Under the heading “Four good reasons to abolish the Economic and Social Committee”, Helle Thorning-Schmidt (2003), member of the European Convention and European Parliament, challenges the Committee’s right to exist. Her accusations are profound: Unfocused, too expensive, inefficient and not sufficiently European was the EESC’s work.
Other authors are not so pessimistic. Vierlich-Jürcke (1998) refers to the Committee’s ability to “democratize” the decision making system in the European Union by fostering the dialogue between government and the public. Smismans (2000) agrees on these positive effects, but is in favour of some changes to the composition of the Committee. He wants to strengthen links between civil society, broaden the deliberative basis and bring more expertise. He states that an increased input-legitimacy contributes to output-legitimacy.
On a more abstract basis, the critics are not only about efficiency and legitimacy. The question whether the Committee has (still) a right to exist touches the concept of democracy we want to establish in the European Union. The EU has been a “participatory democracy” from the beginning, and the Constitution’s article 46 again strengthens possibilities to participate.
The main question is therefore, whether the Economic and Social Committee is a sufficient body for participation. To approve this question, two conditions have to be fulfilled: Firstly, it has to stick to the concept of “participatory democracy”, which has to do with the input-side of the institution. And secondly, the Committee has to “add value” to the decision making process. This concerns the output-side. Both conditions will be discussed in this essay.
The input-side: The EESC and (participatory) democracy
In the last 50 years, the European Union has developed a concept of participatory democracy sui generis. In 1957, the establishment of the Economic and Social Committee was justified by the aim of uniting interest groups in the process of establishing the Common Market and creating an institution where their voices are heard. Until today, participation increased in quality and quantity.
The driving factor behind the extension of participation was the discussion on the democratic deficit in the European Union. In 1999, EC President Prodi decided to address this problem, and only a year later the reform of European governance was identified by the Commission as one of four strategic objectives. Two factors let to this decision: Firstly, the Irish “no” to the Nice-Treaty shocked politicians in the Union. And secondly, people were loosing confidence in the system and perceived it as remote and intrusive (COM 428final: 3). In its White Paper on “European Governance”, the Commission published its way to solve the dilemma:
“The White Paper proposes opening up the policy-making process to get more people and organisations involved in shaping and delivering EU policy. It promotes greater openness, accountability and responsibility for all those involved. This should help people to see how Member States, by acting together within the Union, are able to tackle their concerns more effectively.” (COM428final: 3)
In their document “The Commission and Non-Governmental Organisations: Building a Stronger Partnership” Prodi and vice-president Kinnock explain the rationale for the cooperation with NGOs:
- fostering participatory democracy
- representing the views of specific groups of citizens to the European Institutions
- to contribute to policy making, project management and European integration.
In the same document they state that “the Commission has been following with great interest recent developments in the Economic and Social Committee aimed at strengthening its links with civil society, including NGOs, in order to provide an improved forum for the dialogue with the European citizens.” (com(2000)11 final)
At the Laeken summit in 2001, the Council mandated a convention to make a proposal for a “constitution of the peoples of Europe”. One of three concerns was to bring citizens closer to the European project and the Union’s institutions. The convention responded with the inclusion of the principle of “participatory democracy” in article 46: “The institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action.” The following paragraphs refer to “an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society”, as well as to the possibility for citizens to take the initiative to invite the Commission to submit a proposal on matters where they think that a legal act of the Union is required. Although it had been practised since 1957, it is the first time that the term “participatory democracy” is mentioned in a treaty text.
The new kind of participatory democracy is not substituting representative democracy, but they run parallel, with representative democracy being mentioned in article 45. The parallel existence is not without problems and has been heavily criticized. The relationship between both is not clear and breaking with democratic tradition. Peeters concludes that this juxtaposition means a de facto separation between citizens’ participation within the representative democracy and the participation of representative associations outside the representative democracy. It is also not clear, what influence participatory democracy has on decision making and how participation will interfere with the representative process. This is caused by missing definitions on the one hand and the vagueness of the treaty text on the other hand (Peeters, 2003: 5). Since the constitution is not ratified yet, those problems are not important for an analysis of the present state of democracy in the European Union. Nevertheless, they will have to be answered before the constitution enters into force.