How many European associations are there? 150 perhaps? A thousand? Think for a moment, all of the academic conference groups, student networks, NGO pressure groups out there. The number would have to be enormous.
But in reality, the actual answer is – zero. In European Union of the 21st century, when people from around the continent want to get together to pursue some end, they can’t legally be recognized as doing so. Of course, they can still register in one or several EU countries and work on that basis. But that can create a whole pile of difficulties: from moving funds and offices within the EU to getting tax breaks on foreign donations.
Take Youth for Exchange and Understanding, a European youth network who’ve been building links between young Europeans, Arabs and Turks since 1986. Nuno da Silva is their Secretary General, and he outlined the nightmare they faced when trying to move their base of operations from one place to another within the EU. ‘We have already changed our head office from Germany to Portugal once and the legal process was very hard and bureaucratic’, he explained. ‘Even simple things like transference of the organization’s patrimony was very complicated. This difficulty is a barrier to more flexible administrative organization since we cannot easily move the head office…’
Is there a solution? Patrick De Bucquois is Secretary-General of CEDAG, the European Council for Voluntary Organisations, and is a keen supporter of the Statute for a European Association (SEA). The Statute would give organizations like Nuno’s the chance to register at a European level, with full, multinational legal personality, and could be a crucial step in building a European civic society.
Patrick hopes the SEA will finally make its way into EU law this year, almost twenty years after the idea was first floated in 1984. Nonetheless, he remains cautious. ‘As the draft statute is now undergoing the scrutiny of national representatives, it is difficult to know exactly which changes are likely to occur’. More worryingly, he points out that the SEA ‘still lacks the support of some governments, perhaps not so anxious to see associations receiving such recognition, or to see European citizenship become a reality.’
Assuming that the statute does become law, there are still controversies. For starters, even if it helps projects that unite various countries with the EU, it may still leave problems for those societies whose operations stretch out much further. Europe, after all, is more than just the European Union. United for Intercultural Action are a network who have been fighting racism in Europe since 1992, with members from Russia to Reykjavik. Naturally, they are keen to ensure that any Statute of European Association also helps them to work with nearby partners. As director Geert Ates put it: ‘what does “Europe” mean here? European Union? That would not be enough.’
However, with the entry of ten Eastern countries into the EU next year, that problem will certainly be attenuated. Moreover, the prospect of being able to acquire a legal status that would instantly extend to these countries when they officially enter the Union in May 2004 has clear advantages. Maria Jose Romano is Project Co-ordinator for European Youth Forest Action, a group promoting sustainable ways of living, fighting environmental degradation and greater social justice. As she explained to me, ‘we would very much appreciate this change to improve the involvement of Eastern European countries, especially the so-called “Third Countries” presently outside of the EU. Organisations and social movements located in the Eastern countries face considerable disadvantages, and it is not easy for them to participate in international gatherings or seminars due to economic and bureaucratic problems.’
14 years after the fall of the Berlin wall, creating the means for East and West Europeans to unite and engage in common activities is something long overdue. Moreover, it is incredible that Western Europe still has no legal form for European associations, given that, as intellectuals like Habermas or Balibar never tire of pointing out, Europe seriously lacks a ‘public space’ - an area in which its citizens can discuss, share opinions, and engage in common activities. Perhaps the Statute for a European Association will not create a vibrant European Civil Society tomorrow - but it will at least remove one barrier.