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The contribution of Civil Society Organizations to representative democracy in the EU

Final Report Summary - CIVDEMO (The contribution of Civil Society Organizations to representative democracy in the EU)

Understanding political representation by CSOs is central to the debate on contemporary democracies. There is sufficient evidence that CSOs have become de facto and sometimes de jure important actors in agenda-setting, design, implementation and monitoring of public policies, contributing to the reconfiguration of political representation. The study is located at the intersection of two research agendas, i.e. the democratic deficit of the EU and potential ways of removing or at least alleviating it on the one hand, and the (re)configuration of political representation in Western democracies and the role CSOs (can) play therein on the other hand. Both agendas meet in the context of the EU and of enhancing the quality of democracy further. Functional representation has been perceived by many as a response to both challenges, that of the crisis of traditional representative institutions, and that of the democratic deficit of the EU. Functional representation in the EU is by many perceived as a welcome additional source of legitimacy generation, given the lack of legitimacy generation through the standard model of representative democracy at the EU level. ‘Partnership’ with relevant ‘stakeholders’ as a means of representing additional publics has therefore become a guiding theme of the EU in the last 20 years. Ever since the White Paper on Governance by the European Commission, the involvement of CSOs in EU policy-making has been on the research agenda. We have since acquired a fairly good understanding of the involvement of CSOs in EU policy-making as well as of the Commission’s consultation regime. What we lack is theoretical reflection and empirical research into who different kinds of CSOs are actually representing in EU politics, how CSOs organize representation in the multi-level system of the EU, and in how far being involved in EU-policy making influences CSOs’ capacities and strategies to represent a people or a cause. This is in sum what the present study set out to address.
The overarching research question of this project was ‘How do Civil Society Organizations (CSOs) contribute to political representation across the different governance levels in the EU’? Sub-questions were 1. Which conceptions of representation do CSO actors have? 2. Which are the organizational structures and processes by which CSOs organize representation and in which larger politico-institutional environment does this happen? 3. Which are the multi-level strategies that CSOs employ to engage in political representation? 4. What are the effects of the multi-level strategies that CSOs employ on these very CSOs? The more conceptual questions were: 5. What type of political representation do the practices embody? 6. Which legitimate role can CSOs have in EU policy-making? The aim was/is to contribute to a better understanding of political representation by CSOs in EU policy-making. By answering the research question(s), the research constitutes a novel research area for which there is to date only limited theoretical discourse and no empirical research. Based on extensive qualitative and quantitative data from three cases, the study provides detailed information and informed reflection on the relationship between CSOs, their constituencies and their larger environment as well as an understanding of how the institutional environment in which CSOs operate affects their political representation and their legitimacy-enhancing functions.
The study is innovative in a number of different respects. First, it situates non-electoral representation by CSOs in the broader ontology of political representation in the EU. Second, it directs attention to the issue of the political representation by non-elected actors in EU governance rather than focusing on networks, advocacy coalitions, deliberation or participation. Third, it engages with both formalistic and substantive forms of representation and explores how they relate to one another. Existing empirical research has tended to focus on one or the other rather than the relations between both. It thereby addresses the organizational and institutional structures and processes in which political representation takes place as well as the complex process of the constitution of representatives and the nature of the relationship between constituency and representatives. Fourth, the study was also interested in addressing in how far being involved in EU policy-making affects CSOs and their capacities to represent a people or an issue. Fifth, the study used an innovative research strategy, that of abduction. Standard methodology is used in order to select cases and in regard to the chosen methods for the generation of data. Where this study entered new terrain for which we lack both theory and empirical knowledge, pragmatism was used to acquire useful, meaningful and reliable knowledge. This research therefore did not test hypotheses.
In this study, organizations are cases. Three different kinds of organizations were identified which can be assumed to think of and organize representation in different ways: ‘members’ groups, ‘cause’ groups and ‘weak interests’ groups. ‘Members’ is available to constituencies that are human, capable of presence and voice. Members of such organizations are identical with the constituency whose interests are being advocated. In this type of organization, representation functions according to a delegate model of representation with clear mechanisms of authorization and accountability on which depend to a large degree its democratic legitimacy. For this type of CSO, I have looked at the organizations that are organized under the head of COPA-COGECA in order to influence the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). ‘Cause’ groups represent a cause which is not capable of representing itself, such as the environment, animals or future generations. The people affiliated to the organization are not those that the organization advocates for. They may therefore be less interested in directly influencing will-formation in the organization; for them, it is sufficient to support the abstract cause. Such CSOs seek to gain their legitimacy from the force of the better argument, ideally supported by scientific expertise. Broad, public communication strategies are developed in order to attract support for abstract causes. For this type of CSO, I am looking at the organizations that are organized under the head of the European Environmental Office in order to influence European environmental policy. Finally, in ‘weak interests’ groups, there are human constituencies such the poor and socially excluded, children or prisoners, which generally do not enjoy the different sorts of capital necessary to organize for their cause. From a democratic theory perspective, the representation of weak interests through functional representation is deemed particularly important insofar as weak interests are generally underrepresented in electoral representation. An unresolved issue is who can or should legitimately represent weak interests as is mirrored in the debate on ‘descriptive representation’. The legitimacy of ‘weak interests’ groups depends to a considerable degree on the involvement of those touched by poverty or discrimination and on the respective CSOs bringing issues on the table that would otherwise be excluded from political representation. For this type of CSO, I am looking at the organizations that are organized under the head of the European Anti-Poverty Network (EAPN) in order to influence European anti-poverty policy.
A clearly significant result is that whilst the CSOs investigated in this study can be said to represent their existing constituencies to a (very) high degree, they don’t seem to be representing a larger constituency, let alone a transnational constituency. This is particularly visible in the redistributive policy fields of agricultural and social policy, where actors often mention the lowest common denominator policies of the EU, and as a result often seek to lobby bilaterally rather than with their European peers.
This research is highly relevant for all civil society actors engaged in EU policy-making. In fact, I have already distributed one publication to all the 65 actors I interviewed. The research is furthermore relevant to officials of the European Commission as it should give them a better idea of who is actually involved in EU policy-making, so far as civil society actors are concerned. It is similarly relevant to all the actors in the EP, as well as in national parliaments and national administrations who are engaged in the EU and would like to learn more about processes of (interest) representation by CSOs in EU affairs.