How Eurocrats created their own fan club

In this extract from his new report, Euro Puppets, Christopher Snowdon exposes the EU leaders paying NGOs to support them.

Christopher Snowdon

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The European Commission (EC) has spent 20 years seeking a dialogue with civil society. Between the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (1951) and the signing of the Maastricht Treaty (1992), the ‘European project’ was characterised by unabashed political elitism, dubbed the ‘Monnet method’ after the European federalist Jean Monnet. The foundations of the European Union (EU) were laid by technocrats who made no claim to be acting in a participatory democracy. It was not until widespread opposition to further political integration broke out in 1991-92, including Denmark’s rejection of Maastricht in a referendum, that EC president Jacques Delors declared that Europe could no longer be ‘an elitist project’ and that ‘the phase of benign despotism’ was over.

With public confidence in the European project waning, the idea of initiating a ‘civil dialogue’ with the public emerged in the mid-1990s as a way of bolstering the EU’s democratic legitimacy. Subsequent referendum defeats and rising Euroscepticism made the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) increasingly eager to engage with civil-society groups to ‘provide a bridge between the expression of the will of the people on specific issues and those that represent them’.

Noting the low turnout at the June 1999 European Parliament elections, the EESC said it was ‘alarmed by “democratic disenchantment” of the EU public who are increasingly sceptical about the workings of political parties and politicians’. The following year, a European Commission Discussion Paper, authored by EC president Romano Prodi and vice-president Neil Kinnock, explicitly stated that non-governmental organisations (NGOs) could help politicians achieve their goal of ‘ever closer union’ by acting as a proxy for public opinion and by promoting European integration at the grassroots.

Prodi and Kinnock wrote: ‘By encouraging national NGOs to work together to achieve common goals, the European NGO networks are making an important contribution to the formation of a “European public opinion”, usually seen as a pre-requisite to the establishment of a true European political entity. At the same time this also contributes to promoting European integration in a practical way and often as grassroots level… European NGOs and their networks and national members can serve as additional channels for the Commission to ensure that information on the European Union and EU policies reaches a wide audience.’

This was followed in 2001 by a White Paper which encouraged greater co-operation between the Commission and NGOs, partly as a response to Ireland’s recent rejection of the Treaty of Nice. ‘Civil society increasingly sees Europe as offering a good platform to change policy orientations and society’, it stated. ‘This offers a real potential to broaden the debate on Europe’s role. It is a chance to get citizens more actively involved in achieving the Union’s objectives’. This was an interesting choice of words; other democratic governments might have said it was a chance to get the Union more actively involved in achieving the citizens’ objectives.

After the French and Dutch rejected the Constitutional Treaty by referenda in 2005, the Commission responded with a further plea for engagement with the masses – ‘Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate’ (October 2005) – which reaffirmed its intention to communicate better with EU citizens. Although the Commission acknowledged that dialogue was a two-way street, it was unwilling to accept that its longstanding policy of ‘ever closer Union’ might be at odds with the will of the citizens it wished to ‘empower’. Instead, it implicitly accused the stubbornly Eurosceptical public of ignorance, declaring that ‘EU policies and activities, as well as their impact on everyday lives, have to be communicated and advocated in a manner that people can. The Commission made it a priority to describe ‘the tangible benefits of EU policies through short, simple introductions to key Commission proposals, in a layman’s summary’. Once again, the Commission emphasised the need to actively involve ‘civil society’ in this process.

Undermining independence

Civil society defines itself by what it is not. It is neither government nor corporate, a distinction made explicit when civil-society groups describe themselves as ‘non-governmental organisations’, ‘non-state actors’ or ‘non-profit organisations’. It is sometimes described as the ‘third sector’ between the public and the private; between the state and commerce. The European Commission specifically includes ‘labour-market players’ (notably trade unions), ‘social and economic players’ (eg, consumer organisations), non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and community-based organisations (CBOs). Perhaps most crucially, the concept of civil society is rooted in voluntary co-operation and independence from political institutions.

As the Commission says: ‘Non-state actors encompass non-governmental organisations, grassroots organisations, cooperatives, trade unions, professional associations, universities, media and independent foundations. Their common feature lies in their independence from the state and the voluntary basis upon which they have come together to act and promote common interests.’

This independence has, however, been undermined as a result of the EC’s policy of funding civil society in the past 20 years. Professor Justin Greenwood has estimated that the EU gives €1 billion to special interest groups each year and the Commission acknowledges that approximately ‘20 per cent of the EU budget is paid directly to organisations and businesses’.

The Commission is open, even proud, of its financial support of civil-society organisations, including think tanks and activist groups, in the EU and beyond, saying: ‘Civil society organisations represent a unique link between citizens and government, helping make the voices of citizens heard and encouraging people’s active participation in the political process. In addition, think tanks and policy research organisations are invaluable in providing visions for the future, as well as generating ideas and recommendations on how to approach complex issues, such as EU policies, active European citizenship, identity and values.’

The Europe for Citizens programme

Among the EU’s civil-society projects is the ‘Europe for Citizens’ programme, which ‘gives citizens the chance to participate in making Europe more united, to develop a European identity, to foster a sense of ownership of the EU, and to enhance tolerance and mutual understanding’. The programme had a €215million budget for 2007-13 and has a €229million budget for 2014-20. It has four components:

• The ‘Active Citizens for Europe’ scheme encompasses the EU’s long-running town-twinning initiative and a range of projects designed to bring in civil society groups ‘to collaborate on or debate common European issues at local and EU level’.

• The ‘Active Civil Society for Europe’ scheme funds think tanks, charities, trade unions and other civil-society organisations to help them engage with European legislators and to communicate the benefits of EU citizenship at local and national levels.

• The ‘Active European Remembrance’ scheme commemorates the victims of ‘Nazism and Stalinism’.

• The ‘Together for Europe’ programme focuses on ‘active European citizenship’ and promotes a distinct pan-European identity for EU citizens through ‘high visibility events’.

The rhetoric used by the Commission to describe the last of these projects makes some characteristic assumptions about the public’s attitude towards European integration. In 2001, it declared: ‘European citizens generally recognise the benefits of the EU and its contribution to Europe’s success and its standing in the world. However, European citizens feel somewhat alienated from the Union’s institutions and do not understand well how they function… Although most Europeans consider EU issues to be quite complex and distant, they believe in the Union’s democratic credentials. They would also like to see the Union becoming a more integral part of their national political landscapes.’

This single passage contains at least five examples of the Commission begging the question. It is assumed that (a) the public recognises the benefits of EU membership, (b) EU institutions work well, (c) the EU has democratic credentials, (d) the public recognises these democratic credentials, and (e) members of the public would like to see the EU exercise more power in their own countries.

This sort of argument by assertion is common in EU literature. Another White Paper from the same year insisted: ‘Young people in Europe subscribe to the same fundamental values as does the European Union. They expect the EU to be in a position to meet their aspirations.’ All of these bald statements are questionable, and all must be proven before further political integration can be democratically justified, and yet none is seriously challenged in the EU’s ‘civil dialogue’.

The Commission’s growing infatuation with civil society, at least in the abstract, stems from a desire to receive democratic legitimacy by involving citizens in the making of its legislation. Citizens are not consulted directly, however, but are instead ventriloquised through NGOs, think tanks and charities that have been hand-picked and financed by the Commission. In return, these civil-society groups frequently campaign for the EU to extend its reach into areas of policy in which it has no legal competence and lobby for their own budgets, and for the overall EU budget, to be increased. Moreover, the EU as an institution is promoted in the media and at the grassroots by seemingly independent organisations. Although the intention behind the ‘civil dialogue’ may have been noble, the EU remains fundamentally elitist and technocratic.

Christopher Snowdon is an independent writer and researcher. He is the author of The Art of Suppression (2011), The Spirit Level Delusion (2010) and Velvet Glove, Iron Fist (2009). His work focuses on pleasure, prohibition and dodgy statistics. His blog is Velvet Glove, Iron Fist. He became a Research Fellow at the Institute of Economic Affairs in January 2012.

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