In favour of a European status of association

Article published on Nov. 17, 2003
community published
Article published on Nov. 17, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Giscard’s Constitution has neglected citizens and their right – now more important than ever – to associate across borders.

The Convention has carried out a huge and much needed rationalisation of the European political system. Its debates have covered everyone and everything under the sun: from the regions to the trade unions, from the colourless bureaucracy in Brussels to national parliaments, from Solana-Patten to Europe’s Judaeo-Christian roots. There’s just one thing that has been left out of the European Convention’s debates – the individual, the person, the citizen. Everyone knows that in a democracy every individual, as a person, possesses rights which are essential for the democratic process to work smoothly and for the decision-making process to be coherent. And, of all these rights, the most essential for the smooth functioning of a democratic system (and this has been well known since the 18th century) is freedom of association, freedom to organise and pursue all kinds of non-profit making aims.

Pioneers guided by Fontaine

But how could the Convention – the one that forgot the individual, that ignored the importance of a truly free area of European information, that buried the direct participation of citizens in European political life behind the most abstruse of constitutional alchemies – how could it deal with the recognition of freedom of association in Europe and the status of European association?

The only people who really dealt with this issue were a tiny group of MEPs from various groups led by Nicole Fontaine in the 80s and a few Commission civil servants. The group was momentarily distracted from the vital competition and single market issues by one of the rare binding votes of the European Parliament in the early 90s. We’ve been waiting for ten years now for a Council decision, hindered by the usual intersecting vetoes and the general lack of interest in a provision which deals with an unknown person, the European citizen, and his or her rights.

And yet today the need for a European status of association is obvious and it doesn’t make sense how a provision like this (which is widely regarded as being desirable) can be blocked. It is desirable above all for the individuals, the European citizens as they ‘exercise their personalities’, for their leisure and political activities, in their desire to be “Europeans” beyond their national borders, beyond the obsolete existing structures of association. The State based on the rule of law, democracy and individual freedoms was born in national legal systems and developed in the last few centuries of human history, but the little national boxes turn, day after day, into shells with nothing inside, unable to allow for the exercise of freedom of association, of the individual right to associate or not to associate.

From an institutional point of view, achieving a European statute of association would allow a more satisfactory and fuller exercise of the other rights of “association”, such as creating real European political parties and real European trade unions. In a Europe of collective concepts and of magnificent and progressive destinies, is it not surprising that the European Parliament (or rather, this European Parliament) has managed to deal with the specific matter of the status of European political parties whilst forgetting the general matter of associations and the right to freedom of association for every individual?

Open secrets

It is also desirable for the NGOs and the various kinds of non-profit making bodies which are essential in a free society. All these varied persona have the right, as set out in the Nice Charter, to act on the European level, and therefore to be recognized beyond the boundaries of the Nation State. There is not today one single act of association that doesn’t have a transnational aspect and there isn’t a single association (with the notable exception of the International Red Cross) that enjoys a status recognised internationally. It’s an open secret that associations recognised only in their own country of origin suffer from obstacles placed in their way to prevent them from participating in broader transnational social and economic issues.

Desirable too for the EU institutions, which could only benefit from the status of European association. The Commission and other community institutions spend a significant part of their budget financing projects managed by non-profit making organisations (in particular in development co-operation, humanitarian aid, education). From this point of view too, the status of European association would guarantee greater transparency in the management of taxpayers’ money, beyond the guarantee of a truly “European” scope of action. When push comes to shove, a European system of association which is integrated and organised in a legally transparent way can only increase the legality of the phenomenon of association, thereby allowing a more feasible governance than that of the “single market of ideas, culture and future of Europe”.

No-one can deny the huge political importance of the status of European association, which could give a new lease of life to the word Europe. Someone out there is trying to organise the distribution of European power without involving the individual. But there are also people who want to start from the person and the individual on the basis that the European citizen is not a monad, but someone who organises and meets up with other people. Is it asking so very much for that to be recognized?