Challenge for Europe

Two basic facts

The analysis of the IHECS students rests on two basic facts. The first is that the EESC, a European advisory agency formed at the inception of the European Union, as very little authority in the institutional “mechanism.” A second advisory agency which has much more momentum and support., the Committee of Regions, has been operating since 1994.

And yet, even if the European Economic and Social Committee has aged, its role is essential and its potential is great. The advice put together by the EESC is based on direct concertation between the social and economic parts. Also, the EESC is brought to sitting on the fence, not just on “sectoral” questions, but foremost on key European problems affecting “macro-economics,” as they intersect with various social, economic, and environmental problems.

On the other hand, one of the weaknesses of the CESE rests in the limited impact of associations and non-governmental organizations which are weakly represented within this institution. And yet, these organizations, also called “civil society organizations,” which are very close to citizens and fight for most of the files of general interest, are much better heard in the European decision-making process.

The EESC is therefore very interesting. But its missions and its methods of operation need to be radically reviewed and re-valued. Notably, in a way that will better integrate the voice of European civil society. It is in this direction that the work of the student-MEPS is headed: Propose deep reforms of the EESC, focusing mainly on an overhaul of “group III,” the group representing “various interests.” This reform proposal is as follows…

Issues of Size

The European Treaties from Maastricht and Amsterdam establish the principal of European citizenship but we need to remember that the idea needs to be integrated into practice. The political and geographic distance between the European Union and its citizens makes European civil dialogue very ineffective. It is therefore necessary to reinforce this dialogue, by formalizing the mechanisms of participatory democracy (by complementing and enriching representative democracy), in a global democratic perspective. The current strengthening of the competencies of European Parliament needs to be paired with the strengthening of civil dialogue. It is not a matter of strengthening one to weaken the other. On the contrary, the proposal of the IHECS students does not exclude other ways of giving value to European citizenship: right to petition, legislative initiatives, discussion forums, European public debating space, better integration of European materials in teaching, support for youth exchanges, etc.

In the current treaties (especially since the Maastricht Treaty, 1992) European social dialogue (between employers and unions) obtained official recognition at the EU level. European social partners met each other within the EESC, but also in the multiple platforms provided by the directorate general of employment and social affairs in the European Commission. With the Maastricht Treaty, and in certain conditions, European social partners even have the chance to pass agreements that give force to European law, according to a very specific procedure.

Of course, European civil society (meaning associations, NGOs, not-for-profits) is a more “unstructured” field than the union and employers’ organization sector. And it is certainly difficult to apply clear rules to widespread civil liberties actors that give clear cut representation. But civil society organizations still fill an important strategic function today. We can think solely of the place taken by associations that defend the environment or human rights in different member states. These are issues that were seldom brought forward even 20 years ago.

On the Social Dialogue Model

This begs the question of how much, mutatis mutandis, the way social dialogue works in Europe today can not serve as an example for reinvigorating civil dialogue.

In Brussels, civil society has been organized to represent citizens and their interests over the past years. Likewise, we can count over 1000 European NGO offices in the capital grouped under a number of umbrellas: social assistance, north-south cooperation, the fight against racism, consumer defense, the environment. These European NGOs are solicited by the European commission more and more.

The problem with the European Commission is that European NGOs are only consulted strictly within their domain and never beyond. For example, social NGOs are solicited on social questions, but not on economic or environmental questions. So that these NGOs, in direct link with citizens, have their say on a variety of “macro” subjects bordering on their strict field of action. The second problem with the European Commission is that they decide, without rules or constraints, who they invite to their table and in what measure they take on propositions that are made.

The strong points of the EESC

Certainly, we said, the EESC (advisory organ) appears to be a bit of an old-fashioned institutions, outdated and out of the media. But its strength is in reuniting actors coming from very diverse fields to pass strong messages to the European institutions (and especially to the Commission who is initiating the legislative process) that will touch on big questions relevant to the very foundation of European policies

Utopia and Pragmatism

The “student parliament” concretely took the decision to better integrate civil dialogue within the current EESC. In other words, the reform to be organized aimed first to make the voice of civil society more audible within the EESC (in addition to that of employers and unions).

This choice, both political and strategic, reflects two concerns by joining utopia and pragmatism. Utopia, since the proposed reform is ambitious. Pragmatic, because this reform does not push the assembly of the edifice and concentrate (in any case for a first time) on the revision of “group III” (various interests), in order to give a home to European civil society representation (NGOs, Social, Economic, and Solidarity Associations).

In fact, the EESC being an existing institution blessed with a budget and an infrastructure, it is logical to strengthen its visibility and competencies. Moreover, in the eyes of citizens, this alternative will not weigh down decision-making mechanisms.

The Precise Proposal

We need to redefine the EESC. Article 257 of the treaty of Nice (currently in force) institutes “an Economic and Social Committee, advisory in character.” In an amendment to this article, we should institute a “European Economic, Social, and Civil Committee (EESCC) in order to reflect a larger part of civil society during the consultative process.

We need to create an “Organized European Civil Society Unit” that will replace “Group III – Various Activities” in order to improve its visibility. Included under this new title are: non-governmental associations, not for-profit organizations, denominational associations of general interest without a profit goal. Political parties, public services and state services are excluded along with unions.

Reinforce the competencies of the EESC

The students of IHECS propose three changes concerning the competencies of the EESCC

  • The consultations and exploratory suggestions need to be obligatory
  • The EESCC needs to be given, at the beginning of the Parliament and Council, an indirect power to initiate legislation
  • The EESCC is not only a unique market observatory. It evolves and is becoming an observatory of policies and European legislations responsible for making impact assessments and ex-post evaluations

New Missions for Civil Sociedtgy

The Liaison Group created within the Organised Civil Society unit” needs to have many functions:

  • Follow and prepare assemblies of the unit
  • Prepare space for decision-making in the unit by reuniting the necessary expertise
  • Information and moderation of debates of various forms (conferences, forums, web porgals)
  • Articulate and between the unit, European organized civil society and the EESCC.

Need more information or details on this position?

IHECS, 58-60 rue de l’Etuve, 1000 Bruxelles

Tel : 00 32 2 549 55 37

Laure Englebert, coordinatrice d’IHECS Formation continue

Author :


  1. It was refreshing to see this article. I hope the group will make an in-depth study of what really happened in history. Much of it is not written in national textbooks because the governments made great efforts to block proper elections to the Economic and Social Committee. The original model was the Consultative Committee of the Coal and Steel Community, the pioneering Community at the source of the principles of European democracy. The tripartite voting system is a great innovatory part of the system. The major antidemocratic damage took place at the time of de Gaulle. He also blocked direct elections to the European Parliament until 1979. It would have been worse had de Gaulle not been resisted by the Belgian Paul-Henri Spaak and Joseph Luns of NL. The EcoSoc is still at the stage of development of the Asembly in the Gaullist period.
    However, the good news is that very little needs to be done to revise the Treaties. All that is needed is political and moral courage, like the parliamentarians who insisted on elections and took the matter to the European Court. Further information can be found on and other articles and
    I hope that IHECS will devote further research and publicity to creating a realistic debating chamber for organized civil society as Europe’s founding fathers intended.
    Bon Courage!

Comments are closed.