In Europe, civil society organisations are supposed to enjoy a space for expressing themselves and exercising their rights in relation to public decision-makers. Yet, to what extent does this space exist and under which forms? And if it exists is this shrinking or enlarging itself?Consultation mechanisms have been established at both European and national level with the objective of ensuring civil society having their say in the policy-making processes and defending their community’s interests against possibly harmful policies. As a matter of fact, civil society can play an essential role as a watchdog and counterweight of public powers, preventing them to adopt illiberal decisions.However, are these consultation mechanisms really able to guarantee a political dialogue? Or is just a way to make civil society participation visible but not effective? At European level, though the Treaty of Lisbon officially recognises a dialogue with associations and civil society, there is no precise framework on how to implement it.Nevertheless, civil society has found its way to get access to EU institutions mainly through informal and personal contacts in the European Commission and in the European Parliament.
On the other hand, EU institutions have formally made efforts to give some space to civil society.An online system has been established for the European Commission to consult stakeholders and the European Economic and Social Committee set up a Liaison Group to better structure the dialogue with organisations and networks. At national level, an analysis that has been conducted on five EU Member States (UK, Sweden, Belgium, Italy and Hungary), taking into account Development NGOs’ point of views, reveals a similar picture. However, at this level, civil society’s requests are more likely to be considered as governments are more dependent on their support to win political elections.Though being more considered, consultations at national level sometimes risk not to be very transparent and to be organised on ad hoc basis as it also happens with EU institutions, thus privileging well know organisations at the expenses of smaller ones.Inputs from civil society are not really taken into account, or at least, a mechanism that verifies whether their feedback has been counted on the final policy decision still lacks at both EU and national level.
Moreover, organisations with critical views are often put aside, thus limiting the political dimension of the consultation.Civil society’s access to information, though being guaranteed, can be hampered by procedures that are not transparent, such as the “Trilogues” at EU level. Civil society often gets informed informally via unofficial channels or through personal contacts on the ongoing initiatives and consultations might be organised at the very last moment, not allowing civil society to get prepared in advance.Therefore, how can we safeguard and possibly enlarge the space for civil society organisations in Europe? How can we improve political consultations and ensure a dialogue?viiiFirstly, to prevent the space of civil society from shrinking, a system of observatories could be created in order to monitor the space of civil society organisations at EU and national level.Secondly, the monitoring observatories could organise some training activities for political decision-makers in order to make them aware of the main problems affecting civil society freedoms and to suggest them how they can improve the situation. Thirdly, consultations mechanisms should have more transparent criteria, ensuring that every organisation has the possibility to participate. Such transparency may be achieved, for example, by putting in place a system of call of proposals. Fourthly, to ensure more accountability, civil society organisations should be given the possibility to ask for a written report after every consultation. In this way, they will have a feedback from the government or EU institution and they will understand if their inputs will be kept or not.However, sometimes reports are not very clear and institutions might reject other actors’ inputs without giving a proper justification.
For this reason, it would be useful to create a new figure, the Civil Society Defender that organisations can call to intervene if their inputs have been put aside without a reasonable explanation, especially when public interests are at stake. Thanks to this Defender, the national or EU institution will be asked to produce a more detailed report and to reconsider civil society inputs.Civil society organisations at both national and European level should also have the possibility to denounce to the ‘’Civil Society Defender’’ an action, act, policy or a statement from government or from EU institutions that they consider to be harmful for their activity.Finally, the last proposal would be to simplify lengthy and costly procedures that are sometimes burdensome to CSOs and to create a space where organisations with more expertise can share their practices with other organisations.From a broader point of view, consultations with EU institutions and national policy-makers should be more structured and transparent than they are now, ensuring a greater level of accountability and inclusiveness. However, consultations alone do not ensure a real political dialogue, which instead requires more openness and flexibility from both sides, among other things.As a matter of fact, if consultations are not as they should be and a constructive dialogue is sometimes difficult to build, it is also up to civil society organisations to play their role and change the situation in their favour.For example, civil society organisations should take part in national and European platforms that can empower their voice but, above all, they should be more proactive at national level where they usually have their roots and they are able to build a closer relationship with political powers. Through national governments, parties and parliamentarians civil society organisations, even the small ones, can have an influence in the EU institutions.
To conclude, if the space of civil society is neither shrinking nor enlarging, it finally depends on both political institutions and civil society organisations, which should be responsible each for its own role.