How does a 'civil society' group qualify for European Commission funding? And do the said collectives really speak on behalf of citizens, as the commission claims in order to justify the sizeable public grants? These are reasonable enough questions but they are often dodged by those in power. The reason being that the chosen ones are usually those 'civil society' groups most likely to lobby publicly for European integration, an increased European Union budget and new regulations originating in Brussels.
At least that is the allegation originating from a new report by the right-wing London-based think-tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. In the paper Euro Puppets: The European Commission's remaking of civil society
, journalist Christopher Snowdon highlights the commission's supposed hidden agenda. In short, it is to manufacture a 'civil dialogue' in the commission's own image – through certain handpicked organisations – in order to respond the EU's perceived democratic deficit and waning public confidence in the European project. But the strategy does not even pay lip service to public concern about the EU being a remote and technocratic monolith. Better to ignore this, the Brussels bubble seems to believe.
"Citizens have not been consulted directly," says Snowdon. "Instead they have been ventriloquised through 'sock puppet' charities, think-tanks and other 'civil society' groups which have been hand-picked and financed by the European Commission. These organisations typically lobby for closer European integration, bigger EU budgets and more EU regulation.
"The composition of 'civil society' at the EU level is largely dictated by which groups the commission chooses to fund. There has been a bias towards centre-left organisations with a particular emphasis on those promoting policies that are unpopular with the public such as increasing foreign aid, restricting lifestyle freedoms and further centralising power within EU institutions.
"The commission's favoured civil society organisations are also marked by a homogeneous worldview and similarity of jargon. The literature and websites of these groups suffocate the reader with vague rhetoric about 'stakeholders', 'sustainability', 'social justice', 'capacity building', 'fundamental rights', 'diversity', 'equity' and 'active citizenship'.
"Many of the groups which receive the patronage would struggle to exist without statutory funding. For example, Women in Europe for a Common Future received a grant of €1,219,000 in 2011, with a further €135,000 coming from national governments. This statutory funding made up 93 per cent of its total income while private donations contributed €2,400 - 0.2 per cent - and member contributions just €825, or 0.06 per cent."
But surely there is some balance, I hear you say. The commission must also acknowledge those bodies that fail to support its policies 100 per cent, those groups which often reflect citizen concern about certain elements of the European project. Apparently not, according to Snowdon. "There is virtually no funding for organisations, which seriously question the commission's direction of travel," he says.
"By contrast, groups that favour closer union and greater centralisation are generously funded. The 'Europe for Citizens' programme which 'gives citizens the chance to participate in making Europe more united, to develop a European identity, to foster a sense of ownership of the EU and to enhance tolerance and mutual understanding' has a €229m budget for 2014-20. Substantial EU funds are also used to support organisations that share the Commission's environmentalist agenda. The Green 10 represent the largest of Europe's environmental lobby groups but dozens, if not hundreds, of like-minded ecological organisations also receive EU funding. The commission freely admits that funds are given to environmental groups 'to support policy development'.
"Civil society groups in non-member countries are another funding priority. In 2012/13, the Neighbourhood Civil Society Facility had a €22m budget to be distributed to groups in Eastern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East; later increased to €45.3m. Many Youth in Action grants have been given to projects in potential new member states such as 'Unite Europe' in Serbia, 'Be active, be European' in Albania and 'Citizen of my country, citizen of my Europe' in Kosovo. The policy of picking allies and supporting them with taxpayers' money has made the system more elitist and less democratic."
With a weak European Parliament blighted by lobbying scandals, protests on the streets of cities including Athens and Rome comparing the EU to Nazism because of its enforced austerity programmes and the election of maverick Eurosceptic politicians like Beppe Grillo is it not time that the commission really tried to engage with citizens at a granular level? In many areas, the EU has a good story to tell if only it had the courage to do so in a real public debate. If not now, at such a time of crisis, when?
In response to the report, the commission told PublicServiceEurope.com
that all of its grants were "transparent unlike the funding of some of those who criticise it". The commission spokesman added: "The EC is legally obliged by the treaties to communicate with the public about EU issues. It would be absurd to do this all centrally from 27 member states so some of this is done through grants to organisations, under budgets signed off by all member states. All budget lines are agreed by member states and individual funding decisions are made on the basis of competitive processes and in cooperation with member states
"Many of the organisations the IEA refers to are in fact funded for other specific projects like supporting elderly and disabled people. Many others like BEUC -which defends consumers – and Friends of the Earth are often critical of the EU. Others, like the Institute for Public Policy Research, are co-funded for events which feature Eurosceptic views. Political parties from all ideological backgrounds also receive EU funding, via the European Parliament." Whether this explanation is enough to convince Snowdon and his ilk is doubtful. To be continued.