September 13th 2004. ECAS (European Citizen Action Service), the Brussels based NGO, are organising a seminar on participative democracy in the European Parliament. Speakers include academics, European Commission civil servants and NGO and European civil society representatives. On the agenda: “the three Cs: Consultation, Contract, Constitution.”
A European Association: the impossible fusion of national community cultures?
Jens Nymand-Christensen, the director in charge of civil society relations at the European Commission Secretariat, starts the ball rolling. Nymand-Christensen admits that while the Commission tries its best to consult the civil society, it has hardly been able to do so recently, having been occupied with the return to office. Someone raises their hand: an NGO representative brings up the tricky question of the budget assigned to the European civil society and of the administrative complexity of the financing process for the new, under funded, but absolutely representative structures. In comparison with the member states, and taking into account its means, the Commission is already doing a lot, insists Mr Nymand-Christensen. He continues: “I don’t see it to be of interest to the Commission to create a European Association statute” and argues, “the diversity of traditions and national cultural frameworks (as regards associations) makes it difficult to implement one single model.” Also amongst his fears is the risk that such an action might lead to more exclusivity, rather than less, or might even result in associations being forced under Brussels’ control.
The negative risks of standardisation are not however feared in the same way by the attending NGO members who, for practical reasons rather than the goal of cultural standardisation, state the need for a clear and collective approach. Nymand-Christensen assures us that the Commission’s priority is to listen to the civil society throughout the EU, including at a local level. But does it really allocate the necessary funds to do so?
No European public arena without European partnership
Listening to the civil society is a must for European democracy, as building an artificial one negates the whole idea. The Commission has therefore no other choice than to pay it proper attention, especially because the European Social and Economic Committee is trying to steal the spotlight by declaring itself the European home of the civil society.
Two of the ‘C’s are dealt with: Consultation and Contracts. Next comes the Constitution and article 47, the citizen initiative, which allows a million European citizens from a number of member states to bring one question to the attention of the Commission, which can then take up the issue. The jurists appreciate the subtlety of the article while the civil servants of the commission highlight the audacity of the article in a Europe of 350 million individuals. Another civil servant, however, asserts that one of the risks is the creation of fractures in the European Civil Society – between groups of member states for example. The question of a European public arena returns relentlessly at the end of such debates.
The path towards a European public arena will certainly involve, in addition to national statutes, a statute of European Association – something for which Café Babel has been fighting for years. The Commission’s civil servants don’t seem ready for it yet. Their president Barroso, however, would beg to differ. We must therefore await the facts.