International Encyclopedia of Civil Society

Living Edition
| Editors: Regina A. List, Helmut K. Anheier, Stefan Toepler

Civil Society and the European Union

  • Beate Kohler-KochEmail author
  • Acar KutayEmail author
Living reference work entry


Despite broad academic interest, the concept of civil society in the context of the EU has remained highly ambiguous. Finke’s observation (2007, p. 20) that two scholars who refer to civil society and the EU do not necessarily mean the same thing is still valid today. The discipline (as well as the philosophical/methodological presuppositions) within which researchers are positioned guide their approach to civil society. Comparative political scientists, IR scholars, political sociologists, and normative political theorists examine civil society from different perspectives. Furthermore, scholars are attached to their own research agenda. Consequently, those who are primarily interested in the constitutionalization of the EU (Fossum and Trenz 2006) will take a different stance than those who take issue with the relocation of social activism. Trenz (2009) has defined European civil society as a discursive formation within the public sphere, whereas Della Porta and Caiani (2009) see civil society as the embodiment of social movement activities and political contestations. Those who want to know how the involvement of civil society in EU governance affects the democratic legitimacy of the Union (Kohler-Koch and Quittkat 2013) or EU policy-making (Klüver 2013) focus on civil society organizations (CSOs) articulating and representing the interests of citizens.


Research on civil society and the European Union (EU) has become a growth industry since the turn of the century. It reflects both a growing presence of organized civil society in EU affairs and rising expectations in the virtues of involving civil society in European politics. The involvement of non-state actors and societal interest groups in European governance has a long history but only during the late 1990s/early 2000s, the number of CSOs rapidly increased. Since then, CSOs have retained a strong presence in EU politics. The EU’s ambition to be closer to the people by opening the EU to citizen participation spurred the debate on civil society as a remedy to the EU’s democratic deficit. Academic coverage boomed for more than a decade and then returned to the question that has been present from the very beginning: the role of societal forces in the European integration and policy-making.

This entry explores the various meanings of civil society related to different images of the EU, the interventions of EU institutions in the shaping of a European civil society, and the effect of involving CSOs on the polity and politics of the EU. Furthermore, it points at under-researched topics and future directions in research.

Key Issues

Linking Civil Society to Different Images of the EU

The concept of civil society is ambiguous, not least because civil society is linked to different images of the nature of the European polity (Kohler-Koch 2011). Is the EU a political community in the making, a persistent supranational polity, or just a system of multilevel governance? From the perspective of an emergent political community, the constitutionalization of Europe is closely linked to the image of civil society as the embodiment of the EU’s social constituency. Civil society emanates from a communicative process among European citizens which forms an imagined political community (Trenz 2009). Civil society is a self-ascription of active citizens, ready to line up with others. This concept conveys an image of civil society with a strongly positive connotation. It is a one-in-all representation of the active citizenry which gives legitimacy to those who speak as representatives of civil society. Civil society as such, however, has no actor quality.

Actor quality comes with organized civil society. When the EU is taken as a supranational polity, civil society is comprising a multitude of organizations (CSOs) that connect the political realm with the social realm. With a continuously growing membership and a constant widening of its competence, the EU requires public support. Organized civil society is said to represent the diversity of interests, value preferences, and tastes. CSOs function as intermediaries and thus complement the democratic input of the European Parliament and the member state governments. By inserting ideas from the grassroots level and bringing the wealth of citizens’ knowledge to the decision-making process, organized civil society is expected to contribute to not only the input but also the output legitimacy of the EU system. The democratic potential of organized civil society is of particular concern for all those who see the EU as a political system with state-like features.

Scholars who approach the EU from a policy analysis perspective are mainly interested in the functioning of this multilevel governance system. The governance turn in EU studies has drawn attention to the co-operative forms of policy-making, involving both public and private actors in the common effort to attain problem-solving efficiency. The introduction of new modes of governance such as the open method of coordination (OMC) has underscored the importance of civil society actors, but CSOs also figure prominently in the traditional setting of European law-making. Sabel and Zeitlin (2008, p. 276) have argued that CSOs have the capacity “to generate novel possibilities for consideration” by bringing in their unfiltered experience. Thus, they are an asset in a system of multilevel governance aimed at joint problem-solving. The governance approach has not developed a coherent concept of civil society; CSOs are rather seen as individual participants in an open process of policy deliberation. With the recent turn to interest group influence, civil society is equated with citizen groups, and the core question is whether and when they can shift policy outcomes in their favor (Dür et al. 2019).

Changes in the EU discourse were regularly linked to changing views on civil society. Also EU institutions have attributed different roles to European civil society and contributed to discursive shifts over the years (Kutay 2014). In a way, the variety of meanings offers an open buffet for researchers and practitioners to choose among the most convenient, if not the most strategically useful meaning. It is worth noting that the EU’s manipulative use of civil society conceptions (Ferré 2018) and the rise of uncivil society in cross-border populist movements (Ruzza 2009, p. 87) have attracted little scholarly attention so far.

Opening the EU to Civil Society

The White Paper on European Governance (Commission 2001) made public that the EU was concerned about the declining permissive consensus among European citizens. It set the frame for the present EU–society relations. The “involvement of civil society” became the idée directrice, and with it the principle of participation was put first. Accordingly, not only stakeholders directly affected but also civil society organizations representing general interests, usually figuring as NGOs, were to be involved in the dialogue on Europe. Good governance characterized by openness, participation, accountability, effectiveness, and coherence was put on the agenda, and EU institutions – above all the European Commission – became engaged in participatory engineering. The efforts resulted in what Kohler-Koch and Finke (2007, p. 212) have classified as a “participatory consultation regime.” Standard operation procedures and a European Transparency Register were established to increase transparency. In addition, new instruments such as online consultations were designed to augment inclusiveness by lowering the thresholds for access. Observers agree that EU institutions have become more dedicated than ever to give CSOs and citizens a voice and that consultations address a wider public. Moreover, the use of online consultations has multiplied since the turn of the millennium from less than a dozen to hundred and more in recent years and has attracted large numbers of respondents. Furthermore, the number of CSOs involved in EU affairs has increased considerably, among them more than 3140 public interest organizations registered in 2019.

On the other hand, the expectation that new modes of governance, such as the open method of coordination (OMC), would be more open to societal actors than the ordinary legislative procedure and that it would bring local civil society into the multilevel system of EU governance did not materialize. The participation of CSOs in OMC was mostly marginal and did not encourage open deliberation (Kröger 2008). Furthermore, the handling of EU–society relations by different EU institutions is far from uniform. The findings of a survey study that the Commission “is generally perceived as the most pro-active institution” and that the European Parliament is seen “to be particularly open to NGOs and their concerns” whereas the Council “is often depicted as the most closed institution” (Fazi and Smith 2006, p. 35) are still valid today. Furthermore, EU–society relations vary across policy fields and administrative departments. In the field of third-world development, in employment and social affairs, and also in public health and consumer protection, Commission services sponsored European interest groups and pushed for institutionalized cooperation among groups by granting access selectively and designating quasi-official functions to CSO alliances. They used CSOs as service providers and as public relations platforms.

Civil Society: A Remedy to the European Democratic Deficit?

When assessing the democratic value of civil society engagement, scholars have reached different conclusions because normative benchmarks vary by theoretical approach. Theorists of liberal democracy rank equal representation, effective participation, and political accountability first. From this perspective, civil society involvement does enhance the democratic quality of EU governance when it contributes to giving citizens a voice, redressing biased representation and exerting a citizen watchdog function so as to hold decision-makers accountable.

Notwithstanding the Commission’s recent efforts to become more open, inclusive, and participatory, equal representation has not been achieved. Even the easily accessible online consultations show asymmetries: market-related organizations such as business and professional associations are far more numerous than general interest organizations. Equally pronounced is the distortion in territorial representation: the old and large EU member countries are overrepresented compared to the smaller member states and recent accession countries.

The presence in numbers is a proxy and not a reliable indicator of democratic participation. The relevant criterion ought to be what Dahl called effective participation: having impact on output. Civil society groups joined forces with responsive Commission departments to put in place an efficient and effective dialogue. Furthermore, accountability – which is a strong mechanism to make participation effective – became a well-acknowledged principle, and procedural innovations made sure that the Commission gives feedback to civil society input in the consultation process. However, civil society can exert neither legal nor political sanctions, and the impact of soft sanctioning by blaming and shaming depends on whether it generates publicity. The claim that “participatory governance is internalising the process of accountability” has been discarded on theoretical grounds, which call for a clear demarcation of responsibilities to avoid collusion (Kohler-Koch 2010, p. 1136).

Thus, when assessing the role of CSOs from the perspective of liberal democracy, we see improvement but the system does not live up to given normative standards. The picture looks different, though not brighter, from the perspective of deliberative democracy. In recent years, the discourse on EU–civil society relations has been influenced heavily by normative theories advocating deliberative democracy as the best-suited model for organizing democracy beyond the nation state. The benefits of deliberation and the potential contributions of civil society organizations to enhance the epistemic quality of decisions are well argued in theory (Eriksen and Fossum 2000). The findings from empirical research, again, are sobering. Instruments of participatory engineering aiming to directly involve citizens, such as citizens’ forums or “café debates,” reach only small groups and at best raise awareness for European issues in a very small sector of society. The consultation instruments which are most open, such as online consultations and public hearings, provide no space for deliberation (Hüller 2008). Only a few privileged Brussels NGO networks and umbrellas enjoy what is needed for deliberation: continuous and face-to-face working relations with EU institutions. Furthermore, such deliberations hardly reach beyond Brussels.

Shaping and Engineering Civil Society

Critical voices queried the democratic added value of including civil society in EU governance. They pointed out that the representation of public interests at EU level heavily depends on EU funding and thus smacks of “lobby sponsoring” (Bauer 2002, p. 388). Empirical research leads to inconclusive results whether funding curbs the autonomy of civil society organizations. From available analyses we can only deduce that, in pursuit of their substantive interests, European CSOs tend to advocate European solutions and as a result support the Commission and the EP in their striving for more competence. Mahoney and Beckstrand (2011) examined the EU’s funding of CSOs between 2003 and 2007 and found that Brussels-based CSOs and groups promoting European identity receive stronger support (2011, p. 1339). While Sanchez Salgado (2014, p. 337), examining CSO funding in the social sector, provided empirical evidence that “European funds are being directed to groups that voice the concerns of excluded groups and, in this way, address imbalances in EU interest representation” (2014, p. 337), Persson and Edholm (2018) observed an ambiguous effect. Although the Commission’s funding scheme does support underrepresented interests, it actually strengthens already dominant interests, because “the more that a CSO is able to spend on lobbying, the more likely it is to receive additional funding from the Commission” (p. 571).

The focus on EU governance and civil society is still prominent in comparative politics, but at the same time, an explicit civil society discourse has gained ground. It emanated from the increased EU relevance of other forms of collective action such as social movement activities and political contestations and from growing concerns about the transformation of civil society and democracy in the process of European integration. Those who adopted a sociological approach argued that relocation of social activism to the community level has manifold consequences for civil society. They drew attention to the importance of cognitive factors and the relevance of framing and communication for the flow of ideas from social movement coalitions to European governance. Their insights have spurred the interest in the polity dimension of civil society engagement above all in the potential of organized civil society to support the democratic legitimacy of the EU (Della Porta and Caiani 2009).

Finding inspiration in the writings of Pierre Bourdieu, recent advances in sociological approaches suggest studying organized civil society in its own right, as a field within which social actors compete and/or establish coalitions, either to access resources and power in governance settings or to strengthen solidarity among the social movements. Johansson and Kalm (2015: 3) suggest that examining European civil society as a field “allows us to account for how new patterns of interconnectedness, new incentive structures and new requirements for prestige and standing are not just acting on civil society actors from the outside but actively partaking in shaping them and their inter-organisational relations.”

Analyzing the influence of the EU in shaping the field of European Civil Society (ECS) provides a comprehensive picture. Kutay, defining ECS as an evolving and contingent discourse, examined both the historical evolution and the effects of this discourse in the constitution of an NGO/civil society in Brussels (Kutay 2014, 2017). It is a discourse that is largely influenced by “the Commission’s approach to civil society, its shifting terminology for the civil society actors, its shifting strategy for the actors to be included within civil society, and its attempts to fit the discourse into the changing context of European governance and European integration” (Kutay 2014, p. 106). This approach is not confined within the field of civil society around Brussels. Buzogány (2016) and Kurki (2011) argue that the EU invoked civil society and supported civil society organizations instrumentally as part of its democracy-building strategies in relation to EU enlargement and neighborhood policies. The EU is thereby also structuring the field of domestic civil society (Ferré 2018).

For their part, Oleart and Bouza (2018) apply this new approach to evaluate the implications of the European Citizen’s Initiative (ECI) on the established participatory practices of the Brussels-based NGOs. They observe that the ECI challenges the established consultative functions of the Brussels-based NGOs by compelling them to establish coalitions with grassroots organizations and rewarding more confrontational and political tactics. Thus, the field approach opens new insights on the ECI’s potential for change; however, empirical evidence still does not support the claim that ECIs are transforming the field of EU civil society. Although reaching out to the “peripheral citizen” (De Rooij 2012), they are not empowering citizens. Strong and resourceful organizations rather use the ECI as instrument to plough the field of CSOs active in EU politics.

Interest Politics by Organized Civil Society

From the beginning, the support of societal forces has been considered indispensable to creating a new Europe. However, as long as European integration was mainly an effort to build a common market, relations with civil society were limited and targeted at market actors. With the surge of policy regulations extending beyond the free movement of goods and services set off by the Treaty of Maastricht in the early 1990s, also public interest associations and social movement coalitions increasingly turned to Brussels and joined the already large constituency of interest groups. EU scholars interested in politics and policies of the European system addressed the newcomers from the perspective of interest group research. Accordingly, the focus was on the collective action problem of societal interests, biased representation, and access and influence. Not civil society but organized civil society was at the fore, and this also reflected the self-ascription of the groups which had a substantial interest in more environment-, consumer-, and human rights-friendly EU policies.

Notwithstanding differentiations due to varying factors such as resources, actor constellations, issue salience, and context conditions, research findings tell a consistent story: public interest groups have become organized at EU level, have gained access to policy-makers, and have had an impact on the setting of the political agenda. However, when it comes to lobbying success, empirical evidence is inconclusive (Klüver 2013). More recently, based on a large-N study complemented by case studies to trace the causal processes, Dür et al. (2019) provided evidence for the policy influence of citizen groups owing to the EU’s interest in increased regulation.

Future Directions

Summing up, we conclude that the positive connotations of civil society have spurred a participatory discourse and that the dedication of EU institutions to involve civil society has resulted in a consultation regime that is more open, transparent, and inclusive than ever. Also, value- and rights-based groups have become more prominent. However, high hopes in the amelioration of the European democratic deficit did not materialize. Research now takes a more sober view, coinciding with reduced political aspirations. CSO participation is seen as instrumental to “better legislation,” which is apparent in the shift in terminology from civil society to stakeholders and then to interest groups. With regard to the latter, more theory-based and large-N research is needed to find out whether the political closeness of Commission and EP to CSOs is a temporary phenomenon or the beginning of a longer period of citizen groups’ influence. The disappearance of the normative dimension of civil society’s democratic virtues will have profound implications for future research.

Two topics are still under-researched but may profit from the theoretical turn to sociological approaches as well as from pressing political problems. Analyzing civil society as a field is well suited to capture whether Europe’s civil society has a transnational dimension or is still part of a larger Eurocracy field (Georgakakis 2011). The issue of Europe’s uncivil society may attract more academic interest with the rise of anti-Europe movements and the cross-border organization of uncivil organizations.

Also still missing is a theory-based analysis of the Europeanization of national civil societies. Research on the EU’s promotion of domestic CSOs in accession countries and as part of its Neighbourhood Policy tells a story of participatory engineering and the dissemination of a functional understanding of civil society. There is little research on the link between the Europeanization of national civil societies and the emergence of a European civil society. Warleigh’s (2001) pessimistic assessment that the elite character of European CSOs is hardly reconcilable with a socializing function has not been contested so far. Furthermore, empirical findings support the irrelevance of being active in voluntary associations for citizens’ orientation towards Europe (van Deth 2010, p. 97). These observations have not been challenged yet.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Mannheimer Zentrum für Europäische Sozialforschung (MZES)Universität MannheimMannheimGermany
  2. 2.Centre for European and Comparative Legal StudiesCopenhagenDenmark

Section editors and affiliations

  • Regina A. List
    • 1
  1. 1.HamburgGermany