Fudan University (Shanghai)

Well, actually, that’s an exaggeration. But it is true that I recently had an article published in a Chinese academic journal (The Fudan Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences (Volume 4, N° 3, September 2011) published by the Fudan Institute for Advanced Study in Social Sciences. I am writing this post now because the theme of the article (pithily titled ‘The Growing Conceputalisation, Institutionalisation and Concretisation of Civil Society’s Role in Global Governance’) is related to the Bureau’s discussion with Vice-President Maros Sefcovic. Nobody is arguing that participatory democracy should replace representative democracy – at least, not in the EU and its member states, but with some elements of our representative democracy model in decline (not least the mass membership political party and the primacy of parliaments), it can play an important flanking role. And where representative democracy is malfunctioning or non-existent, organised civil society can at times be the only vector for reform, as the quotation from UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon cited in the article makes clear. The role of civil society organisations may be ‘messy’ and difficult to quantify but it is definitely growing. The text of the article can be read below.

The growing conceptualisation, institutionalisation and concretisation of civil society’s role in global governance

Martin Westlake, Secretary General, European Economic and Social Committee

The past two decades have been marked by five distinct but interlinked and converging trends that are gradually, collectively, cumulatively creating a whole new aspect of governance that, whilst it cannot replace or supplant traditional forms of government, will increasingly complement them. This new aspect is, by its very nature, heterogeneous and organically fluid and does not allow for easy categorisation or comparative empirical study. Nevertheless, civil society – and particularly organised civil society – is increasingly exerting new forms of influence and representation and, as it does so, so its role is being consolidated and institutionalised at all levels.

Conceptual developments at the European Union level

The importance of the concept of civil society to the democracies of nation states is a commonplace. It has sometimes been argued that civil society provides the bedrock for the assertion of national identity against European integration. However, after the ratification and implementation of the 1986 Single European Act, with its breakthrough on the use of qualified majority voting, the European integration process gathered speed (the Single European Act was rapidly followed by the Treaties of Maastricht (1993), Amsterdam (1999) and Nice (2003)), leading to the development of a notion of parallel citizenship of the European Union. The 1993 Maastricht Treaty first introduced the concept. Article 20 (1) of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union stated that ‘Citizenship of the Union is hereby established. Every person holding the nationality of a Member State shall be a citizen of the Union. Citizenship of the Union shall be additional to and not replace national citizenship.’ Thus all nationals of Member States are also citizens of the union, leaving it to individual Member States, ‘having due regard to Community law, to lay down the conditions for the acquisition and loss of nationality.’

But the newly-created European Union citizen was slow to appreciate the benefits of this new status. Almost perversely, the consolidation of the concept of EU citizenship was accompanied by declining turnout in elections to the European Parliament and rising levels of Euro-scepticism. In the late 1990s, this growing gap between the European Union and its citizens led the European Commission to embark on a reflection process about how the gap could be narrowed. These reflections resulted in a White Paper on European Governance (25 July 2001) which remains to this day an entirely pertinent analysis. Its leitmotif was better involvement of the European citizen and of stakeholders more generally – in other words, those whom the European Union purports to serve, and it set out a series of recommendations and action points that would, collectively it was hoped, render the European Union more accessible and more understandable and result in better governance. The recommendations included inter alia a greater involvement of civil society organisations and a more pro-active role for the only assembly at European Union level in which such interests were collectively represented – the European Economic and Social Committee.

The 15 December 2001 Laeken declaration on the future of the European Union identified the same worrying gap between the Union and the citizen. In the ensuing Convention on the Future of Europe, much further thought was given to the challenge of involving the citizen. In this particular context, the reflection process coalesced around the broad concept of ‘participatory democracy’. The proposed final text of a sort of constitutional settlement that emerged from the Convention went through many reincarnations before emerging in 2009 as the so-called Lisbon Treaty. Yet the substance of the initial provisions on the ‘democratic life of the Union’ remained. In particular, under Title II of the Treaty on European Union (‘provisions on democratic principles’), a series of articles set out a vision of a sort of ‘composite democracy’.

Article 10 declares that ‘the functioning of the Union shall be founded on representative democracy’ and goes on to stress the roles of the European Parliament and the national parliaments (stressed further in Article 12) ; thus, the prime condition of representative democracy, at both European Union and member state level, is stressed. But this primacy is flanked by two other sorts of democracy. Article 11(4) provides for the now well-noted innovation of the ‘citizens’ initiative’, whereby ‘not less than one million citizens who are nationals of a significant number of Member States may take the initiative of inviting the European Commission … to submit any appropriate proposal’. This could be described as direct democracy. Lastly, Article 11(1) provides that the ‘institutions shall, by appropriate means, give citizens and representative associations the opportunity to make known and publicly exchange their views in all areas of Union action’ and Article 11(2) provides that ‘the institutions shall maintain an open, transparent and regular dialogue with representative associations and civil society.’ This could be described as participatory democracy (even if the term ‘participatory democracy’ itself fell by the wayside in one of the Treaty’s many re-draftings).

Thus, the draftsmen and women of the Lisbon Treaty seemed to have concluded that, whilst representative democracy was a vitally necessary condition, it could not alone be sufficient for the democratic life of a Union as complex as it has become today, with its many political cultures and levels of governance. With the Lisbon Treaty only recently having come into force, the challenge now is to flesh these provisions out and to make them work, from the new powers of the European Parliament and national parliaments, through to the implementing legislation for the citizens’ initiative. But the underlying trend is clear; fairly vague ideas about involving the citizen have given way to an increasingly well-formed conceptualisation about the different roles civil society and organised civil society should play in the European Union’s still emerging and still evolving polity.

Contemporaneously with these reflections at what might be termed the pseudo-constitutional level of the European Union itself, civil society organisations have been steadily creating new roles for themselves, pushing up from the grass roots level. This trend has been of particular interest in the newly acceding European Union member states of central and eastern Europe, where traditional governance structures and processes have, for historical reasons, tended to enjoy less legitimacy and where, therefore, such organisations play an important role in the overall fabric of governance and democracy. At the same time, pan-European civil society organisations that had developed in the former Western Europe rapidly took root in the new member states (where this had not already occurred). These trends have in turn given rise to much reflection and analysis from normative democratic theoretical perspectives.

Institutionalisation within the European Union

In parallel with this trend there has been a growth in the number of European Union member states but also in the number of economic and social councils or similar institutions. The European Union’s Economic and Social Council was closely modelled on the French national economic and social council. Such a council had already existed in the French Fourth Republic and the model was consolidated in the Fifth Republic as an integral part of an overall constitutional tradition in which parliament (the national assembly) was flanked by other representative assemblies composed of aggregators of one sort or another. Thus, the members of the French Economic and Social Council were appointed to represent the fabric of economic and social life. This tradition was carried over to the European Union level, with the creation of the European Economic and Social Committee in the 1957 Treaty of Rome (the Committee is thus as venerable as the Parliament, Council, Commission and Court). As the European Union has enlarged, so acceding member states have looked to the Union’s overall structures for guidance about their own constitutional arrangements.

In several of the newest member states similar bodies already existed before the accession process began. But in others there was a clear linkage between accession and the creation of economic and social councils or similar bodies modelled on the European Union’s Economic and Social Committee; Greece, Bulgaria, Hungary and Malta, for example. Indeed, in recent accession processes the European Economic and Social Committee has taken upon itself a proselytising role, stressing the importance of a healthy civil society, of good social and civic dialogue, and also of the usefulness, where appropriate, of a representative body to institutionalise such dialogue. Currently, twenty-two of the European Union’s twenty-seven member states have an economic and social council or similar institution and, whilst there is a great deal of heterogeneity in their composition and role, these councils themselves feel that they belong to a loose family faced with similar challenges.

This mutual recognition and fellow feeling has led to a second level of institutionalisation, for all of the European Union’s national economic and social councils, together with the European Economic and Social Committee, cooperate together in a structured, though informal, fashion. This network organisation (it has no official title), which got under way in 1997, now foresees annual assemblies of the Councils’ Presidents and Secretaries General, the organisation of thematic conferences and of surveys of national practices, benchmarking and the sharing of best practices and, occasionally, the adoption of declarations on themes of common interest. Moreover, the European Commission and, though less frequently, the European Council have come to see the network as a way of facilitating dialogue with organised civil society in the Member States. The growth in the number of national economic and social councils and in the degree of cooperation has gone hand in hand with the first trend identified, towards a conceptualisation of the role of civil society representation at European Union level and hence also of institutions representing civil society, at both EU and member state level.

Growing emphasis on civil society aspects in the European Union’s bilateral and multilateral agreements

A third clear trend over the past two decades – which has transformed the role of the European Economic and Social Committee and of European civil society – has been an ever greater emphasis on the civil society aspects in the European Union’s bilateral and multilateral agreements with third countries and the growing recognition of the need for people-to-people contacts and civil society involvement in those relations to complement traditional governance mechanisms and the traditional role of the political authorities. In large part, this trend has been a response to worldwide developments.

Over the past decade or so, civil society activities outside formal structures have developed considerably, effectively representing a new dimension of civil society implication in global governance. Though now perhaps a cliché, this point was vividly illustrated by the role of civil society in the run-up to, and during, the 1999 WTO ministerial conference in Seattle (which resulted inter alia in increased civil society participation at WTO conferences ever since). Starting in Porto Allegre in 2001, the World Social Forum is another example of major grassroots civil society involvement in global governance, outside the framework of ‘traditional’, institutionalised mechanisms. To take a more recent example, civil society organisations were very much in evidence at the December 2009 climate change summit in Copenhagen in 2009 and the December 2010 Cancun follow-up conference.

The emergence of the internet, facilitating contact between civil society organisations and the diffusion of ideas and information, has undoubtedly been a key factor in boosting the role and activities of organised civil society outside of traditional governance mechanisms. Indeed, international institutions are still evolving the means and the mechanisms to work with this new dimension of civil society involvement in global governance.

The European Union has responded to these developments by incorporating a civil society chapter in most of its international agreements, including its trade agreements, for example with CARIFORUM or South Korea. In this context, the European Economic and Social Committee has gradually been granted what amounts to a generalised mandate to establish structured and sustained cooperation with civil society organisations in most of the countries or regions with which the European Union enjoys relations. The Committee has subsequently sought to develop flexible forms of cooperation depending on the specific framework involved.

Thus, the EESC has established round tables with Chinese, Indian and Brazilian civil society representatives. Plenary round table meetings are held once a year with ongoing thematic discussions of key topics in between meetings. Close ties in various forms also exist with civil society in most other regions and countries of the world, including in the Africa-Caribbean-Pacific region (ACP), Latin America (for example, with Mercosur) and the European Union’s eastern neighbours. As seen above, under the terms of the Association Agreements signed between the European Union and candidate countries for EU membership, the Committee regularly holds meetings with civil society from the candidate countries in the form of joint consultative committees. The Committee also enjoys close ties with civil society organisations from the Mediterranean region in the framework of Euromed, latterly the Union for the Mediterranean (UfM – see below), and the EESC has been instrumental in helping civil society in Jordan, Israel, Palestine, and Morocco to set up Economic and Social Councils or similar institutions which now regularly participate in the UfM’s summits. In a most recent development, the Committee was a central moving force in the 2010 establishment of a Euromed civil society assembly (see below).

If the Committee’s relations are multi-faceted and constantly evolving, the common thread is a determination to help civil society organisations in the partner countries to gain a foothold and gradually strengthen their voices vis-à-vis governmental structures, and in due course to establish structured exchanges between civil societies and civil society organisations outside the framework of conventional diplomatic ties. This means that the EESC today plays a much broader, more multifunctional role than in the past, a role which extends beyond the representation of its members’ immediate sector-based socio-economic interests. Although not Treaty-based, this role, constantly being enlarged and enhanced at the insistence of the European Commission and of the European Union’s Member States, is clearly considered of benefit both to the European Union and to the Union’s partner countries. The benefits for the European Union are the increased stability of participatory democracy and improved governance in the partner countries, as well as the knowledge the Union gains, through the EESC’s work, of socio-economic realities in the partner countries, knowledge which can then be fed back into the Union’s decision-making. The benefits for the partner countries are better governance and the stability this brings, together with closer ties with all aspects of the European Union, including civil society and organised civil society.

It is not by coincidence that the 2001 White Paper on European Governance, described in the first section above, made specific reference to the European Union’s contribution to global governance. Indeed one of its specific action points is to ‘improve dialogue with governmental and non-governmental actors of third countries when developing policy proposals with an international dimension’ (my emphasis). This improvement should, the White Paper recommended, consist of two aspects. A first is to improve access to the EU’s decision-making and policy-making processes to stakeholders from outside the Union. Just as significantly, however, the Commission also foresaw European governance as a model, as a best example, that could serve as inspiration to other countries and regional blocs.

Conceptual developments and institutionalisation in countries and regions throughout the world

The existence of a vast and burgeoning literature on the role of civil society in global governance underlines similar trends in countries and regions throughout the world and, beyond the extensive debates about concepts, theories and terminology are equally extensive debates about the role of organised civil society in particular thematic contexts. The literature over the past two decades documents how civil society organisations began to develop transnational fellow feeling and solidarity. As these forms of transnational cooperative arrangement grew in strength and number, the analytical emphasis changed to the transformative potential of organised civil society. From this recognition flowed the next focus of analytical emphasis; whether, and how, civil society organisations could play a part in democratic governance. Running through all of these discussions and reflections is the common recognition that:

‘… the presence of civil society organisations in international affairs has become increasingly relevant. They have played a role in agenda setting, international law-making and governance, transnational diplomacy… and the implementation and monitoring of a number of crucial global issues, ranging from trade to development and poverty reduction, from democratic governance to human rights, from peace to the environment, and from security to the information society.’

This increasing role in a sort of ‘non-governmental governance’ has in turn increasingly raised normative issues such as representativeness, legitimacy, accountability and transparency, not only for civil society organisations but also for traditional forms of governance. And, for organised civil society itself, its growing role and influence raises such fundamental issues as the maintenance of authenticity and the avoidance of the risk of being ‘co-opted’ into the conventional mechanisms that, by its very nature, it should be seeking to circumnavigate. Three complementary, but also overlapping and contradictory aspects – respectively, the view from conventional governance mechanisms, the view from proselytisers for new forms of governance, and the views from traditional forms of civil society organisation – do much to explain the burgeoning conceptual literature. What all seek is some sort of theoretical framework, whether normative or empirical, within which to place a growing phenomenon.

As at the level of the European Union, the growing conceptualisation of the role of civil society in global governance has similarly been accompanied by a parallel process of institutionalisation at both country and multilateral level. This is not, it should be stressed, simply a result of ‘fashion’ but, rather, a perceived means of enhancing governance. In 1998, for example, the South Korean Tripartite Economic and Social Development Commission was established as a body of social dialogue. Its role became crucial, not only in times of growth and prosperity, but also in the peaceful management of economic downswings. This form of participatory democracy, complementing South Korea’s traditional form of representative democracy, has in part ensured that the ugly street scenes so often seen on the streets of Seoul in the 1990s have become a thing of the past. To take another example, in 2003 Brazil founded, at the instigation of then President Lula, its own Council of Economic and Social Development, an institution modelled very closely, in structure and role, on the example of the European Economic and Social Committee. Civil society institutions and/or organs have been created, and continue to be created, throughout the world and on all of the continents, including notably China, Russia and South Africa. Most recently, in December 2007, Jordan established an Economic and Social Council.

A similar process of institutionalisation has been occurring at regional level. Most recently, on 10, 11 and 12 November 2010 the annual Euro-Mediterranean Summit of Economic and Social Councils and Similar Institutions, adopted a statute for a future civil society assembly and agreed to seek consultative body status within the Union for the Mediterranean. At the Summit EESC President Staffan Nilsson expressed the hope that ‘the Assembly will reach its full potential in helping to build a peaceful future in the Mediterranean region through closer and permanent ties between civil society on all shores.’ The European Commission’s representative, Tomas Dupla del Moral, declared the efforts of organised civil society to be crucial to the UfM because they ‘complemented the initiatives being made at intergovernmental level and opened up further possibilities for dialogue.’

Global cooperation among similar institutions

Hovering above all of these developments, in a sense, is the International Association of Economic and Social Councils and Similar Institutions (almost universally known by its French acronym, AICESIS). Founded in 1999, with just twenty-four member institutions, it has rapidly grown to over sixty today. Its membership is drawn from across the globe and four continents (Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America). Founded initially as a loose organisation, AICESIS’s growing size and range of activities has led to a period of intensive existential reflection as to whether it could or should aspire to become an international organisation with legal status. Currently hobbled by limited resources (its subscription rates necessarily have to reflect the parlous economic state of many of its member organisations) and characterised by the great heterogeneity of its membership (as seen above, there is no unique model for participative governance), AICESIS has nevertheless developed a bold development plan, has decided to put the key focus of its work on economic, social and environmental world governance and has developed concrete partnerships with both the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs(UNDESA) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Notwithstanding sometimes conflicting dynamics within AICESIS, it is at the least a vehicle for soft diplomacy, the enhancement of civil dialogue worldwide and a forum in which common problems can be addressed and best practices exchanged. Whilst many of its member organisations see their roles as being complementary, flanking forms of representative democracy, others see the role of organised civil society as a substitute for, or an alternative to, representative democracy, where the latter is either non-existent or, for whatever reason, failing. Tellingly, at AICESIS’s last general assembly in the United Nations’ headquarters building in New York (July 2010), UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon seemed to have the latter model in mind when he observed; ‘you can speak out. You can challenge your leaders and politicians. Strengthen your roles and enhance participatory governance.’ Responding to such calls, in January 2010 AICESIS set up a study group on the theme of ‘The role of Economic and Social Councils in the new economic, social and environmental global governance’. Among other topics, the study group will address such sectoral concerns as the labour market, development indicators and environmental issues as well as addressing the overall theme of global governance.

Conceptualisation, institutionalisation and concretisation

Twin developments – growing conceptualisation and growing institutionalisation – have resulted in convergence and the creation of regional and indeed global networks, their proliferation facilitated by the internet; something is happening ‘out there’ and it is not going to go away. However, this new form – or these new forms – of participatory democracy are inherently difficult to categorise or to measure. The composite or compound democracy which is steadily evolving is the opposite of the pure distributional lines of the Montesquieu approach. Instead of a division of powers, there is a diffusion of powers. There is not the same generally recognised and agreed definition for civil society or for civil society organisations as there is for electorates and political parties. However, as the growing number of institutions and organisations and their evolution, at all levels (national, regional and global) bear testimony, these new polities, this new form of complementary politics, may be ‘messy’ but it will nevertheless become increasingly apparent and increasingly important. As Jean Monnet observed, ‘nothing can be done without citizens but nothing can last without institutions.’