European civil society – a personal perspective

I carved out a career serving the European Union by chance, not by design. I grew up acutely aware of my privilege and wanted a career with purpose. But I was never an activist nor politically engaged. It baffled me how people could hold such strong opinions on things they knew next to nothing about.

But I got lucky. The British consultancy that hired me out of university was a favoured contractor of the EU. With English mother tongue and a history of privatisation in the public policy sector, UK firms had a competitive advantage (no longer, but most have established themselves in mainland Europe now). The work was intellectually challenging but felt fake. More often than not the reports we produced ended up sitting on a shelf, the only beneficiaries being the company shareholders.

So working for an NGO felt infinitely more wholesome. Through Eurochild I have come to appreciate the amazing work of hundreds of organisations working with and for disadvantaged children and families throughout Europe, often in very difficult circumstances. A few of them have the time, energy and expertise to engage at EU level. Most of them do not. By being a part of Eurochild, we try to make sure their knowledge and experience improves EU legislation, policy and funding. But as a network that is heavily dependent on EU funding, there’s always a niggling doubt about whether we are simply preserving the status quo or genuinely helping to improve children’s lives.

After more than 13 years as Eurochild Secretary General, and 4 years as elected President of Social Platform, I am more convinced than ever of the essential role civil society can and should be playing in EU public policy. At the same time, the way the EU currently funds and engages civil society does not harness our full potential.

At last week’s conference on Sustainable Development, Professor Mazzucato spoke to the need for revolutionary public sector reform – not just “tinkering at the edges”. The complexity of current social and ecological challenges will never be solved top-down. Governance needs to be mission-oriented while encouraging bottom-up experimentation and innovation. Critical voices should not just be allowed, they should be nurtured. As Professor Mazzucato said, “every system needs to have a thorn in its side”.

When performing at its best, civil society acts as a watchdog and ensures policies respond to realities on the ground. Networks of NGOs can bring a pan-European perspective, facilitate learning across countries and build internal capacities to bridge EU and national policy-making. EU funding should be multi-annual and flexible, ensuring resources reach out to help members engage in EU processes as opposed to simply reinforcing the EU-centric secretariat.

Mazzucato also said that solutions need to be “cross-sectoral, cross-actor and cross-disciplinary”. Here too NGOs can take the lead. Social Platform’s unique strength is that it brings civil society networks working with very different constituencies. It provides space to look beyond the perspective of a particular group of the population – gay and lesbian, disabled, migrant, homeless, Roma, children, women and the elderly – and to find common ground. Social Platform can do this work only thanks to EU funding. But the precariousness of that funding belies a lack of understanding of the importance and complexity of what Social Platform is trying to achieve.

Eurosceptics often refer to the EU as self-serving and elitist. It is not without justification. Brexit and the rise of nationalist politics are in part self-inflicted. But the EU is the best thing that has happened to Europe and it would be disastrous at so many levels if it failed to survive. Maybe, on the back of so many crises, new leaders will emerge from the upcoming elections with a vision and passion for the European project. It has never been more urgent.

Best wishes,

Jana Hainsworth
(Former President of Social Platform 2015-19; Secretary General of Eurochild)