With barely a few weeks left before the European Union (EU) expands to cover another ten countries of the continent, the eyes of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) should be fixed less on Brussels, and more on their own backyard. The opportunities EU membership provides for the development of local communities can only truly come about if the relationship between NGOs and the local and national authorities is well structured. Only where NGOs can participate in the planning and implementation of EU policies and programmes will we find that one of the basic rules of the game - a partnership between NGOs and state authorities - is bearing fruit. This places demands on both government and NGOs.
Cooperation of this type is crucial for four reasons. The first concerns the structural and cohesion funds - the practical expression of the Union's solidarity with those parts of the EU that face the greatest economic obstacles. NGOs are expected to participate at both national and regional levels in the programming, evaluation and monitoring of a phenomenal financial shot in the arm for the new member states. The EU requires governments to share decision-making with civil society. NGOs are expected to share responsibility, to learn how to work with others in regional and national development, to show considerable technical expertise.
The second reason concerns the influencing of policy at the EU level. With about two-thirds of legislative decisions undertaken at that level, this truly matters. Lobbying Brussels successfully involves making sure as many national governments as possible share the view of NGOs wishing to safeguard or develop a particular policy. Yet whatever the various NGO platforms may attempt with the European institutions, unless parallel demands are made by organisations to government officials nationally, the chances of success are greatly diminished. For this to happen, NGOs have to have good contacts in national ministries and the necessary policy expertise to engage with the civil servants.
The relationship between governments and the civil society sectors in the various countries in Europe is as diverse as the linguistic or culinary map of our continent. This historic diversity is one of the reasons why the EU limits its engagement with civil society to those areas where it may choose to consult on policy initiatives (for example on environment or trade policy). In practice this means that EU support to the development of civil society is limited to countries outside the EU. This diminution of financial support and the need for the development of transparent national funding mechanisms is the third reason why the domestic position of NGOs is of such crucial importance - this position can indeed be strengthened through stronger, better structured cooperation with national and local authorities.
The fourth reason is related to the need to alter the rather sorry state of the political processes in the European Union. It is often in the new member states that we find an NGO sector with greater vitality and engaged in the development of their communities. This goes beyond a narrow, sector-specific approach, but is a manifestation of a refusal to give in to what seems to be a pervasive passivity among citizens, both East and West. The lack of civic engagement in European affairs - the much-decried democratic deficit - will not be reversed unless citizens (organised in civil society organisations) can and do act locally. This in turn entails a greater role for these organisations in public policymaking and legislation.
In the end, the issue boils down to two things: the culture of our elected politicians and civil servants, as well as the preparation and professionalism of leading NGOs. Both are issues that apply well beyond the boundaries, present and future, of the EU. Both require that Europe start at home.
is Representative of the Polish NGO Office in Brussels.
First published in SEAL (Social Economy and Law Journal), Winter 2003 - Spring 2004. See