The Commission has spent twenty years seeking to connect with the increasingly hostile European public through a ‘dialogue with civil society’. Even in Brussels, it is generally agreed that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit which the Commission has attempted to bridge with various campaigns for ‘active citizenship’ and ‘active civil society’. Despite hundreds of millions of euros being spent on these projects, large swathes of the public remain sceptical about the Commission’s longstanding goal of ‘ever closer union’ and faith in European institutions continues to be weak. In this new report, it is argued that the EU’s engagement with ‘civil society’ has not led to a more participatory democracy, but rather it has created a new class of elite special interest groups which are hand-picked by the Commission and sustained by the unwitting taxpayer.
The EU’s funding of civil society invites some of the same criticisms that have been made in the UK. The Commission is unlikely to fund groups which have serious reservations about its political objectives and, once in the pay of the EU, groups are unlikely to risk future funding by criticising the European project. There is also a tendency towards rent-seeking and nest-feathering. As noted in Sock Puppets, pressure groups have the same incentives to seek rent, build empires and magnify threats as corporations and individuals. In an article about what it called the EU’s ‘rigged dialogue’ with civil society, The Economist noted that ‘campaigning on their own behalf is a big occupation of these groups. Look at the websites of EU-funded NGOs and it becomes clear that one of their favoured activities is to lobby for even more EU money.’
A recent example of rent-seeking by EU-funded groups is the concerted effort of ‘civil society’ to lobby against cuts to the EU budget. By 2012, at least eight European governments, many MEPs and much of the public wanted to see a reduction in member states’ contributions to the Union, but the Commission found widespread support amongst ‘civil society’ for its own view that the EU budget should not be cut. The European Youth Forum (82 per cent EU-funded) declared: ‘We call on Member States not to freeze or cut the EU budget’. Mental Health Europe (91 per cent EU-funded) said it ‘opposes funding cuts’. The European Women’s Lobby (83 per cent EU-funded) called for ‘an ambitious budget’. CONCORD (51 per cent EU-funded) warned that ‘EU budget cuts could cost lives in developing countries’. The European Movement (71 per cent EU-funded) demanded ‘increased investment’. The European Network of National Civil Society Associations (75 per cent EU-funded) said ‘We believe in the value of better EU funding… We support the proposal to maintain EU funding levels’. Social Platform (86 per cent EU-funded) said it was ‘against attempts to reduce the EU budget’ and many of its members, such as Solidar, which aims to ‘strengthen European integration’ and receives millions of euros from the EC, lobbied against any cuts.
Many more names could be added to this list. Anyone who has studied EU funding practices will know that it is almost impossible to come up with a comprehensive estimate of the amount of taxpayers’ money that is given to apparently independent third parties. The Commission acknowledges that ‘20% of the EU budget is paid directly to organisations and businesses.’ This amounts to around €27 billion euros per year. Not all of this goes to pressure groups, think tanks and charities, of course, but the sums given to organisations which promote the Commission’s favourite causes – above all, the EU itself – are not trivial. A 2008 report by Open Europe estimated that the EU spent €2.4 billion a year promoting itself at home and abroad.
Look at the accounts of any organisation in Europe which espouses ‘active citizenship’ and ‘capacity building’ or which claims to be a ‘stakeholder’ in ‘civil society’, and more often than not you will find an EU grant. The European Network of National Civil Society Associations, which describes itself as the ‘umbrella of umbrellas’ had a budget of €151,335 in 2010/11, of which €114,084 (75 per cent) came from the EC. The Euclid Network, a ‘community of civil society professionals’ founded in 2007, received €342,410 from the EC in 2011 – more than half of its annual income. Citizens for Europe, which describes itself as a ‘non-partisan, non-governmental and nonprofit organisation’ whose ‘objective is to support the European Union project’, depends on the EC for 80 per cent of its funding, with the rest coming from national governments. Of the major environmental groups, only Greenpeace does not receive an EU grant of at least €200,000.
The European Commission has designated 2013 as the European Year of the Citizen and an alliance of civil society groups has been formed to celebrate it (the European Year of Citizens 2013 Alliance). This umbrella group is committed to ‘pursuing European collective goals and values enshrined in the treaties’ and has been formed as a ‘response to the current disaffection against the European institutions’. Almost inevitably, it transpires that this alliance has good reason to defend those institutions. At least 40 of its 50 members receive EU funding and most of them rely on the taxpayer for the bulk of their income. In 2011, they received over €18,000,000 from the Commission.
The list goes on and on. Many more examples are available in Euro Puppets: The European Commission’s remaking of civil society. Download it here.