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Effects of Institutional Change on Participatory Democracy and the Involvement of Civil Society Organisations

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - DemocInChange (Effects of Institutional Change on Participatory Democracy and the Involvement of Civil Society Organisations)

Reporting period: 2017-01-01 to 2018-12-31

"According to the European Commission 2017 White Paper ‘The future of Europe – Reflections and scenarios for the EU27 by 2025’, the European Union (EU) acknowledges the need to becoming more democratic and that it “must move quicker to interact with citizens”, in other words, the EU must become more a kind of participatory democracy. One important element for improving democracy is the interaction of EU institutions with civil society organisations (CSOs) as the voice of citizen interests. Concomitantly, debates around participatory democracy have to be examined in the context of the EU being hit by a series of crisis – the economic and financial crisis, the migration crisis and a legitimacy crisis that shakes the foundations of the EU.
This context provided the starting point for the Marie-Sklodowska-Curie-Fellowship “Effects of Institutional Change on Participatory Democracy and the Involvement of Civil Society Organisations” (DemocInChange)“, which aimed to rethink the interface of civil society organisations (CSOs) and EU institutions as a basis for supranational participatory democracy. CSOs often represent so-called diffuse interests or marginalized societal groups. How the political participation of marginalized groups can be improved is a core question for improving democracy.
DemocInChange addressed this fundamental societal question by focusing on CSOs organised around grounds of discrimination formulated in Article 19, Lisbon Treaty; CSOs that – by definition – aim to improve citizenship rights and participation for groups often marginalized in the policy-making process. It strived to provide academic and policy-relevant answers to how changes in EU policy-making shape the options of CSOs.
So far, research often looked at either formal provisions by EU institutions or mobilization strategies by CSOs, while the formal and informal relationships between CSOs and EU institutions received less attention. DemocInChange examined the relationship of supranational civil society organisations (CSOs) among each other and towards institutions of the European Union such as the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Council of Europe.
The three objectives of DemocInChange summarized in brief covered innovative state-of-the-art research, an excellent training program, and mutual learning through dissemination. The research project pursued three innovative research perspectives: (1) focusing on institutional change instead of institutional stability; (2) focusing on effects of the EU policy-making structure on CSOs instead of the policy impact of CSOs; (3) focusing on the intersection of equality CSOs instead of single CSOs.
Overall, DemocInChange coined the innovative term ""equality CSOs"" for the core CSOs organised around Article 19, Lisbon Treaty, which provides the legal ground for combating discrimination based on sex, racial or ethnic origin, religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. It shows that CSOs are quite flexible in adapting to new situations and developed over time well-functioning networks that provide support in times of crisis.
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DemocInChange closely intertwined research, training and dissemination elements. In a first phase, the state-of-the-art was reviewed, in particular regarding participatory democracy, intersectionality studies as well as studies on the civil society organisations relevant to DemocInChange. In a next step, expert interviews with equality CSOs and a comprehensive compilation of policy documents were analysed regarding three core aspects: (1) Relationships between equality CSOs and the European Commission; (2) Relationships among equality CSOs; (3) Relationships between equality CSOs and other EU institutions.
Throughout the project, the results were disseminated via presentations at ten international peer-reviewed academic conferences, and ten additional presentations to other audiences like policy-makers, civil society, and civil servants. At the end of the project, three publications were published, one in print and six more under review or preparation. The fellow, furthermore, received one-to-one training-through-research as well as training to enhance career prospects in and beyond academia.
DemocInChange successfully pursued its ambition to crosscut hitherto often divided perspectives innovatively. It weaved together a focus on institutional with a focus on the effects of the EU policy-making structure on CSOs and more seriously investigated the intersection of equality CSOs. The project progressed beyond state of the art by providing a better understanding of the linkages between equality CSOs and EU institutions, the impact of the Commission on CSOs networks and their lobbying strategies and the role of the European Parliament in involving CSOs. The results provide ample resources for all actors interested in the democratic governance of the European Union.
Methodologically, DemocInChange tested successfully Qualitative Network Analysis (QNA) as an innovative method for researching supranational policy networks. Moreover, the method was applied to an understudied area, ‘real’ institutional change effects on the dynamics of policy networks among supranational equality CSOs. The research foci also provided disciplinary innovations by combining not only sociological and political science approaches but also gender and intersectionality studies.
The project addressed core issues of societal needs by engaging with the idea of participatory democracy from the position of equality CSOs. The findings show that equality CSOs – despite their immense adaptability – often struggle to overcome marginalization. Moreover, marginalization and the need to adapt is often influenced by decisions of EU institutions such as budget cuts, moving the responsibilities from one Commission Directorate General to another, and the constantly changing institutional relationships between the three core institutions – the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the Council of the European Union. The research also shows that the relationships with EU institutions are relatively clear cut: equality CSOs – next to their campaigns – engage when invited, publish analyses and policy papers, and serve as experts for institutions. However, overall, equality CSOs lack formal procedures to claim their participation role in EU policy-making.
Against the background of the multiple crises the EU is facing, the research results will be instructive for policy-makers and civil society activists alike in better understanding each other’s roles and positions and thinking about new, innovative ways of collaboration.
DemocInChange Overview