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European Civil Society: Shaped by Discourses and Institutional Interests



Abstract: During recent years, the concept of European civil society has gained increasing popularity. The European Institutions themselves have developed a discourse on civil society and civil dialogue. Institutional interests have shaped this discourse. Reframing the normative context for EU democracy, this discourse suits some institutions better than others. In particular, the European Economic and Social Committee and the European Commission have made recourse to it; the former to redefine its proper role and combat the risk of marginalisation within the European institutional set-up; the latter first to build support for policy initiatives in the social sphere and subsequently to respond to the legitimacy crisis of the Brussels’ bureaucracy. These institutional interests have inspired a conceptualisation of civil society as ‘functional participation’ and ‘functional representation’ rather than as ‘politicisation’ or ‘decentralisation’. However, while the Commission and the ESC have had some success in selling their discourse, to be successful in the longer run some problematic assumptions of the discourse should be tackled and both the different rationales for civil society involvement as well as the multi-level character of European civil society and European policymaking should be taken into account.