Civil dialogue – are we agenda-setters or any other business?

As part of our work to update our position on civil dialogue from 2009, we had an interesting discussion with our members last week about what we mean by civil dialogue, or as one of our members said it used to be called, “cooperation between organised civil society and public authorities”.

A dialogue has to be meaningful. This entails giving civil society a real chance to influence policy and decision-making. It is not about the number of meetings we are invited to, it’s about whether we are being heard and can have an impact. This requires accountability from both sides; the European institutions and us.

Our role is to be a watchdog. European civil society is often funded by the EU institutions to monitor and analyse EU policies. If the EU truly believes that we have an added value, we should be involved in the design, implementation and monitoring of both EU law and funding. The European Structural and Investment Funds that are used to support economic development across all EU countries include a Partnership Principle which means national civil society should be consulted, which is not always the case. As civil society organisations we are value-driven; this differentiates us from the business sector that puts profit and the market first, and which the EU institutions have a formal, regular dialogue with.

We need to foster a culture of consultation, dialogue and partnership, including between civil society organisations and the people we represent. It is a good reminder that sometimes people we represent perceive organised European civil society as an institution in itself, equally hard to approach and understand as we sometimes understand the EU institutions to be. It is important that all players understand the rules of the game in order to be able to be involved.

Our members have experience ranging from meaningful dialogue to total exclusion from the EU decision-making process. While the youth sector has a regular dialogue with the EU Presidencies of the Council of the European Union on thematic issues such as political participation of young people, on many other social issues the meaningful dialogue is the exception rather than the rule. Some civil society sectors have experience of fruitful face-to-face exchanges with the highest level, and on occasions have met with Commissioners and had their input taken into account. The European Commission’s Directorate-General for Employment approaches us to pick our brains from time to time, but it is not always clear what they do with the information.

Directorate-Generals and Commissioners all works differently; on some issues we are involved in the agenda-setting, and on other occasions our concerns end up last, under ‘any other business’. In worst case scenarios we are not considered as a stakeholder at all, and our requests for meetings are disregarded by Commissioners. Sometimes bureaucracy is set up so that activities such as public consultations are simply a box-ticking exercise that keep us busy and do not lead to having an impact. Surveys are designed in a way that intentionally steer answers, putting in question whether we really have a say. It can also be the case that we have to share our space for civil dialogue with others who already have access to decision-makers, such as the United Nations.

Our internal discussion on civil dialogue raised a lot of food for thought, and I look forward to continuing work with our members on this issue. Read more about our work on civil dialogue here.