December 11, 2002
The European Commission is expected on December 11 to adopt a Communication outlining the general principles and standards applicable to consultation in the context of its legislative right of initiative. This document, entitled "Towards an enhanced culture of consultation and dialogue", follows on from the White Paper on European Governance of July 2001 (see European Report 2612 for further details) and the comments it raised in Community and international circles.
There is at present no common approach across all Commission services regarding the application of such consultation. Each service has its own mechanisms and methods in this area. Whilst it is true that this often leads to the establishment of good relations between the Commission and these bodies, the common view today within the Commission is that the process must be more coherent. Moreover, according to the Communication, interested parties must bear in mind that the Commission's decision-making process is based on the principle of collegiality: only the College of Commissioners has the right to consider positive and negative arguments in the context of consultation and to adopt final positions in the interest of the Community.
The Commission confirms in its Communication that consultation is part of the activities of all the European Institutions throughout the legislative process - from the drafting of policies to the final adoption of acts by the legislator and implementation, including the presentation of Commission proposals. In accomplishing its duty of consultation, the Commission therefore ensures that its proposals are technically viable and can be implemented in practice. Consultation is intended to permit representatives of local and regional authorities, organised civil society, enterprises and business associations, citizens concerned, academia and experts, as well as stakeholders from third countries to make their contributions. In response to the White Paper on governance, the Commission received a total of 88 contributions in the form of observations presented by Member States' Governments (Germany, Sweden, the United Kingdom) and third countries (United States), as well as international, European and national organisations (from the private sector and NGOs), local and regional authorities, religious communities, private individuals and societies. Among the parties consulted, some challenged the Commission's decision to define standards on consultation through a Communication, i.e. in the form of a document defining appropriate policy, instead of adopting a legally binding instrument. The Commission responds that its practices on consultation cannot be improved by adopting a "command and controlled" approach.
Many contributors urged the Commission to re-examine the minimum deadlines for consultation suggested in the White Paper, judging that six weeks is not enough to prepare their comments. Ultimately, the Commission will strive to provide a timeframe of at least eight weeks for the reception of responses to written public consultation, as well as notice of 20 working days for meetings. Several organisations also emphasised the need to outline specific procedures for consultation in their respective sectors. Religious communities have for example insisted that the Commission should set a more stable framework for dialogue with the various faiths. One NGO raised the notion of concluding a "Convention" between European institutions and caring organisations. The Commission believes these proposals go beyond general principles and minimum applicable standards on consultation.
"Openness and liability are the principles that should guide organisations keen to contribute to the drafting of European policies", according to the Communication. It should therefore be possible to clearly determine the interests they represent and their degree of representativity. The Commission acknowledges that problems may arise owing to the absence of a common, or even legal definition of the notion of "organised civil society". The Communication defines civil society organisations as the principle structures of society outside of the State and public administration, as well as economic players not generally considered as part of the civil sector or NGOs. Information on formal bodies or structures consulted is collated on the CONECCS database (database for Consultation, the European Commission and Civil Society)*. The Communication indicates that this list is not exhaustive.
Whilst the Commission considers that direct contacts with interest groups are not incompatible with the notion of representative democracy, it nevertheless adds in its Communication that the decision-making process draws its legitimacy first and foremost from the election of representatives of Europe's people. A wise precaution in view of the critical Resolution adopted by the European Parliament on the White Paper on Governance. MEPs argued that "consultation of stakeholders can only ever complement and not replace the procedures and decisions of legislative and democratically legitimate institutions; only the Council and the Parliament as legislators can rule in the legislative process".
Likewise, the Commission recalls the existence of consultative bodies, institutionalised in accordance with the Treaties: the Economic and Social Committee (ESC) and the Committee of the Regions (CoR). In 2001, the Commission concluded two co-operation protocols with the Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. These protocols are intended to enhance their function as intermediaries between on the one hand European institutions, and on the other, organised civil society (ESC) or local and regional authorities (CoR).
* http://europa.eu.int/comm/civil_society/coneccs/index en.htm