The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) has had a hard time lately in the EU press and Parliament, resulting from very serious allegations and reports about harassment of staff.
This shocking situation and the need for deep reforms in the governance of the EESC should not, however, be a pretext for doing away with it. On the contrary, the current global pandemic highlights the need for active EU socio-economic support structures and a proper functioning EU consultative assembly of social and civil society representatives, which is the Treaty-based raison-d’être of the EESC.
At its heart and conception, the EESC is about institutionalised social and civil participation in the European project and democratic model. No other single organisation or institution can fulfil this role.
Under one roof, the EESC is the voice of social and civil society at the service of the EU, both as socio-professional stakeholders in their own right and as official advisors to the EU political decision-makers.
Just a “talking shop”?
The EESC is about social and civil dialogue preceding EU legislation. Does this involve talking? Certainly, it does. Because discussion and debate are a prerequisite of informed opinion and value-added advice. Of course, there are other singular organisations that can be and are consulted in EU decision-making. But these organisations rightly represent and defend their own members.
They are under no institutionalised peer pressure to reach out for what Jacques Delors described as the EESC’s “dynamic compromise”, providing practical solutions and a workable consensus large enough to serve a progressive and inclusive EU. Nor can other political institutions carry out this vital task in the same way.
They administer the EU or they electively represent the citizen. They do not have the same participatory and associative reach as the EESC.
Of course, the EESC cannot attract the same “visibility” as EU political decision-making bodies, or grab the newspaper headlines as politicised disputes do. Nor should it. The EESC is an advisory body, often operating under the political radar and acting as a trusted back-channel to organised civil society active in the field.
The EESC’s civic and social representation, technical expertise and sense of compromise rarely appeal to the sensationalist press.Nor do elected politicians necessarily owe the EESC any particular visibility in their decisions.But this does not mean that the EESC has no impact.
In fact, its impact is all too often deliberately understated. There are of course exceptions, such as the EESC’s undoubted and much-appreciated contribution to the EU Social Charter (a precursor to the Fundamental Rights Charter) and Treaty-based Social Chapter.
In the words of Jacques Delors, “In my opinion, the Charter of Fundamental Rights for Workers accepted by the European Council in 1989 remains exemplary. This was not a text drawn up by the ‘big chief’, the Commission. It was drafted by the EESC.
The Committee should be honoured for having accepted the text by a very large majority. My position in defending it before the heads of state was much stronger than had it been dreamed up by the President of the Commission and three or four handpicked collaborators... The text was devised by the Committee and that should always be remembered.”
What about the future? Is the EESC still relevant?
At this critical juncture in EU development, amid COVID-19 upheaval and populist attacks against the European project, it is more than ever vital that the institutionalised voice of social and civil society representatives assembled together in the EESC be heard.
The EESC has robustly risen to the challenges of the day. It has acted with vision and foresight for resolute action and EU Union - Fiscal Union, Social Union, Health Union, Political Union - with key opinions on fiscal solidarity and public health protection, on social mobilisation in the everyday fight against COVID-19 and on transnational health measures and a post-pandemic EU recovery programme actively assisted by organised civil society.
The EESC has “shone a light” on social and civic actions that work, that help protect, that bring active citizens to commit together and “leave no one behind.” In the words of Jean-Claude Junker, “The EESC’s contribution to the European project goes beyond simply enhancing the EU’s legislative process with its valuable opinions. It has been able to create a climate of trust...”
After a year of unprecedented challenge, trust in the capacity and in the resources that the EU can muster, scale up and pool together, with the help of organised civil society, is indeed invaluable. The EESC, in the final event, is an economic and social barometer, an institutionalised voice and springboard for active social and civic commitment to the European project.
The EESC is a “stakeholder” assembly at the service of the EU political decision-makers. The EU would be much the poorer without it.
About the author
Alan Hick is a board member of New Europeans (Europe). He holds a PhD from the European University Institute on “The European Movement and the campaign for a European Assembly 1947 to 1950"