Open Europe Blog

EU ‘grassroots’ engagement

Beyond the spotlight of high-profile crisis meetings of EU leaders exists a very different community. A group that can almost be likened to a sub-culture. They meet in over-sized buildings in Brussels or at conferences and hotels around Europe. You will almost certainly never have heard of them. These are the EU’s committees and quangos. Some useful, some completely irrelevant.

Topping this group is the European Economic and Social Committee. If you’ve never come across it, don’t worry – you’re in an overwhelming majority and haven’t really missed out on anything. The EESC exists in order to act as “a bridge between Europe and organised civil society” by acting as a point of consultation for the EU by bringing together ‘representatives of civil society’ – 344 from across the whole EU. In practice the majority of these are representatives of trade unions, the third sector and academia, although business people are also represented.

There’s only one problem: no one actually quite knows that the EESC actually does. In recent memory, we have yet to see evidence of it actually having had a measurable effect on a single piece of EU policy. The areas it is involved with are well covered by national authorities, the Commission and the European Parliament – which for better or worse actually has some powers.

It’s not that the EESC makes “bad” decisions or is actively harmful. The body – much like its cousin the Committee of the Regions – is simply completely irrelevant in terms of what is happening in the real world. And yet, it has a budget of around €130m a year.

The absence of any meaningful impact of a body like the EESC on the multiple crises plaguing the eurozone borders on being comical. We learned today that EESC has appointed a new President, Henri Malosse. He clearly has grand plans for his tenure:

“Henri Malosse is keenly aware of the disconnect between Europe and its citizens, a fact again brought home by the Greek and Cyprus crises. Convinced that one of the answers lies in a rebalancing of forces in Brussels, he wants the European Union’s second assembly to do more to embody people’s real expectations in areas such as job creation, combating youth alienation, protection of savings and access to health care.”

Makes sense. If only the EESC got a bit more power, than we’re sure that the collapsed interbank lending market would be restored over-night. A few more EESC conferences would do wonders to bring down unsustainable debt levels in the eurozone. Meanwhile, hire a few more EESC staff and the 27.2% record unemployment rate in Spain would be immediately reversed. If only the EESC could be given enough cash to  embody “real people’s expectations”, the EU’s democratic deficit would practically be closed already. 

Some of Malousse’s tweets are also something else:

Our point? The EESC is emblematic of the EU’s Achilles heel: its incredible difficulty in adapting to changing economic and political circumstances. Everyone knows that the EESC and Committee of the Regions – which together cost taxpayers around €215m – are pointless bodies. They’re by-products of a long bygone era, premised on the odd principle that in order for “civil society” and “the regions” to have influence, they need their own dedicated institutions in Brussels. In spite of all of this, they remain in place, partly because they’re enshrined in the EU Treaties and it therefore requires unanimity to scrap them.

As we pointed out in our dedicated report on EU quangos, several of the EU’s 52 agencies suffer from similar flaws. Scrapping 10 of the least useful, and imposing efficiency savings on the rest, would save taxpayers a total of around €668m.

Not a huge amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but the symbolic value of Europe’s failure to address even the most obvious examples of waste and bureaucratic inertia, speaks volumes.

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