25.8.2011   

EN

Official Journal of the European Union

C 248/37


Opinion of the European Economic and Social Committee on ‘The contribution of civil society to the Eastern Partnership’ (exploratory opinion at the request of the Hungarian presidency)

2011/C 248/06

Rapporteur: Mr MORKIS

In a letter dated 15 November 2010, the Council of the European Union asked the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 304 TFEU, to draw up an exploratory opinion on:

The contribution of civil society to the Eastern Partnership.

The Section for External Relations, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 25 May 2011.

At its 472nd plenary session (meeting of 16 June), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 133 votes to 1 with 1abstentions:

1.   Conclusions and Recommendations

1.1   The European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) attaches great importance to the Eastern Partnership (EaP) as a strategic necessity and political investment on the EU's part that will be of future benefit to citizens of the European Union and of its partner countries. The events in the Mediterranean region have proved that civil society's role remains pivotal in the transition to democracy, in constitutional reform and institution building. Therefore, the contribution of civil society to the Eastern Partnership should be supported and duly taken into account in order to ensure the success of this process.

1.2   The EESC welcomes the progress made in implementing the Eastern Partnership initiative, which was officially launched in May 2009. All the Eastern Partnership countries have improved and intensified their relations with the EU through dialogue on association agreements, free trade areas, relaxation of visa requirements and cooperation on security of energy supply and other issues. (Unfortunately, following the events after the presidential elections in December 2010, Belarus has taken a big step back in its relations with the EU.)

1.3   Contribution of civil society to the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership

1.3.1   Participation in EaP intergovernmental thematic platforms

1.3.1.1   The EESC has been invited to participate in three of the four established intergovernmental thematic platforms of the EaP and it is able to express the views of civil society in these platforms. However, the EESC calls on the Commission to invite it to participate and collaborate in thematic platform 3 for security of energy supply, given its expertise on this issue.

1.3.1.2   The Committee considers that representatives of the relevant working groups of the EaP Civil Society Forum (EaP CSF) should be allowed to participate in the meetings of intergovernmental thematic platforms.

1.3.2   The EaP Civil Society Forum

1.3.2.1   The Committee also welcomes the setting up of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum in November 2009. The Committee considers the national platforms of the EaP Civil Society Forum to be an eminently suitable instrument for implementing the Eastern Partnership in the partner countries in a way that involves civil society, but regrets that employers, trade unions and other socio-economic organisations (farmers, consumers) at national level are involved little if at all in the activities of the national platforms.

1.3.2.2   As the social partners are not at present adequately represented in the EaP CSF, the Committee calls for a revision of the Forum's rules of procedure, in particular those related to the selection procedure, so as to give significantly more prominence to participation in the Forum by employers' and employees' representatives, as well as those of other interest groups both from the EU and from the partner countries.

1.3.2.3   The Committee calls to review the setup of the Forum with a view to it operating more efficiently whilst at the same time using effectively the available funding. The emphasis could be shifted to continuous and project oriented action (in the context of the Forum's working groups and national platforms).

1.3.2.4   The Committee suggests that the number of representatives from the EU should increase in order to stimulate exchange of experiences and promote convergence with European values. The European Economic and Social Committee, with its 344 members representing the organised civil society of the EU is very well qualified to play an active role in the implementation of the EaP goals within the CSF if the rules of the CSF provide for its increased and permanent involvement both in the CSF and SC.

1.3.2.5   Given the growing scope of the Civil Society Forum's impact, and in particular the remit of the national platforms, the Committee is ready to contribute to the better functioning of the Forum. It also considers that it has become necessary to set up a secretariat, not least in the context of the work of the Steering Committee.

1.3.2.6   If the operation of the Forum would not eliminate its structural inadequacy, the Committee would consider another ways of mobilisation of the socio-economic players of the EaP countries for the implementation of the goals of the EaP.

1.4   Consolidation of civil society in partner countries and contribution to the bilateral track of the Eastern Partnership

1.4.1   The Committee is following the events in the southern Mediterranean closely. It firmly believes that the EU should support the process of democratisation and stabilisation in that region. At the same time, the EESC calls for a long-term, balanced approach to the EU's southern and eastern neighbours, including as regards financial aid for political and economic reforms, adaptation to EU standards and strengthening civil society.

1.4.2   The Committee considers that inadequate funding may lead to the expectations of the Eastern Partnership, as an important instrument to promote convergence with European values, not being met. In this respect, the EESC broadly welcomes the Commission's proposal to review the European Neighbourhood Policy but regrets that the Communication on ‘A new response for a changing neighbourhood’ does not insist on creation of mechanisms for civil society consultations in the countries of the European Neighbourhood and makes absolutely no link to the EU's own Civil Society Institution and the role that the EESC can play in this process.

1.4.3   The EESC would welcome a proposal to create a European Endowment for Democracy and a Civil Society Facility. However, the EESC calls on the Commission to learn from the experience gained with the Civil Society Facility for the Western Balkans in order to avoid some shortcomings.

1.4.4   The Committee feels that it is extremely important to work together with independent organisations in the partner countries. Nevertheless, there is also a need to cooperate with existing organisations dependent on the Governments whilst at the same time supporting establishment of independent trade unions and employers' organisations that would be able to participate in a real social dialogue, disseminate ideas of democracy and of human and labour rights, and pursue the Eastern Partnership initiative's other goals.

1.4.5   The EESC considers that strengthening of dialogue between governments and civil society at national level is a prerequisite for the democratisation of societies in the Eastern Neighbourhood and for their convergence with European values. There is a particular need for strengthening the role of civil society in drawing up and implementing the ENP Action Plans.

1.4.6   The Committee calls for the establishment of mechanism of civil society consultation in all Eastern Partnership countries, such as Economic and Social Councils or similar organisations, taking into consideration the specific conditions of each partner country. In some EaP countries, the existing national platforms of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum could be a good basis for this process. The EESC is ready to share its experience with civil society in the EaP countries.

1.4.7   The Committee takes the view that the association agreements being negotiated between the EU and the partner countries should include provisions on the establishment of joint civil society bodies, in charge of monitoring the implementation of these agreements.

1.4.8   Regarding the negotiations and conclusions of the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA), the Committee considers that civil society from both the EU and partner countries should be involved in drawing up a Sustainability Impact Assessment prior to the negotiations, and that civil society mechanisms should be included in the future DCFTA in order to monitor the implementation of provisions related to sustainable development.

1.5   The Committee hopes that 2011 will be a decisive year for the Eastern Partnership, as the Hungarian and, in particular, Polish, presidencies of the Council are expected to give the initiative new impetus.

1.6   The Committee addresses these recommendations to the heads of state or government and hopes that the Eastern Partnership Summit in Poland in autumn 2011 will give appropriate recognition to the contribution of civil society over the last two years and the progress made, but also make a critical evaluation of the shortcomings, related to poor involvement of social partners and inadequacy of CSF.

2.   Contribution of civil society to the multilateral track of the Eastern Partnership

2.1   It is of vital importance to the European Union for its neighbours to the east to be stable and to have good governance and predictable policies, and for their economies to grow. The countries of Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus, for their part, are also keen to have a closer and more active relationship with the EU. The key factor in these countries making progress in aligning themselves with the EU lies in values and in the convergence of legislation and regulations. The Eastern Partnership should therefore be seen as a political investment by the European Union that will benefit EU citizens and foster general progress in the partner countries.

2.2   Participation in EaP intergovernmental thematic platforms

2.2.1   The European Commission's communication on the Eastern Partnership noted that civil society involvement should be given a particular role. The EESC has been invited to participate in three of the four established intergovernmental thematic platforms (platform 1 - Democracy, good governance and stability; platform 2 - Economic integration and convergence with EU sectoral policies; and platform 4 - contact between people) and it is able to express the views of civil society in these platforms. Nevertheless, despite its deep involvement in energy issues, the Committee has not been invited to participate in the important thematic platform on ‘Energy security’.

2.2.2   The EESC considers that the platforms have made progress towards the achievement of the goals of Eastern Partnership initiative but regrets that the participation of civil society is limited. The Committee considers that representatives of the relevant working groups of the EaP CSF should be allowed to participate in the meetings of intergovernmental platforms. This will enable civil society to be informed about the work of the platforms and to produce more workable and concrete recommendations. The Committee calls on the Commission to engage in negotiations with partner countries with a view to introducing changes in the Rules of Procedure of intergovernmental platforms to grant permanent participant status to the Forum in those Platforms.

2.2.3   The Committee considers that the platforms could be related to projects which are of interest for civil society. One pertinent example of the involvement of business associations in the Eastern Partnership could be the EAST-INVEST programme, a joint venture between Eurochambres and partners in the Eastern Partnership states. This is a new three-year project geared to the Eastern Partnership aiming to facilitate trade in the region of the eastern neighbours and promote economic development and investment. 21 chambers from EU countries got involved in the project, implementing the objectives of intergovernmental platform 2 on economic integration and convergence with EU policy. The total budget of the project is EUR 8.75 million, 7 million of which come from the European Commission. It is to be hoped that this project will achieve its stated aims and make a real contribution to making the Eastern Partnership's goals a reality. This example could be used for concrete projects between EU and partner country organisations in other sectors such as farmers, consumers, environmentalists' organisations, etc.

2.2.4   The Committee considers also that solid involvement of companies, into the SME flagship initiative under platform 2 and organised business to business meetings could lead to the organisation of an EaP Business Forum which will increase the support from business organisations to the negotiations of the DCFTAs.

2.2.5   The Committee points out that social dialogue is not included in the work of any platform, although it is part of the Community acquis.

2.3   EaP Civil Society Forum

2.3.1   The Commission's proposal to establish a Civil Society Forum was met with wide support.

2.3.2   Nevertheless, most of the members of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum are think tanks and non-governmental organisations that do not represent the full variety of the civil society. Very few of the partner countries organisations represent the interests of business people and employees, as well as the social partners, i.e. business associations and trade unions or other socio-economic interests (farmers, consumers, science and academia, etc).

2.3.3   In the Steering Committee of 17 members, social partners from partner countries are not represented at all.

2.3.4   Over the past year and a half, national platforms of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum have been established in all the partner countries, so that the civil society organisations in each country can come together to implement the partnership's goals.

2.3.5   The Committee wholeheartedly approves the establishment of national platforms of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and the contribution they have made to the Eastern Partnership Process. Several examples are worth mentioning:

the Belarusian platform set up ‘Road maps under the Eastern Partnership for Belarus’ in July 2010;

the Azeri platform has given rise to numerous events on issues of relevance to the government and civil society, e.g. Azerbaijan's accession to the WTO, alternative and renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, and the situation of small and medium-sized enterprises;

the National Participation Council, which served as the Moldovan National platform before such a platform was formally established, was able to take part in all of the meetings of Moldova's cabinet of ministers to put forward the Council's position on government decisions and proposed policy measures.

The Committee regrets, however, the fact that in these platforms, too, the social partners have only limited, if any, involvement at national level in the activities of the national platforms and due to this fact they do not cover the issue of social rights.

2.3.6   The Committee has identified several shortcomings in the functioning of the Forum and proposed to work with the Steering Committee to improve the Forum's performance.

2.3.7   The current composition of the Forum does not correspond to the Commission concept paper stating ‘Membership in the EaP Civil Society Forum should be open to civil society organisations i.e. grass roots organisations, trade unions, employers' organisations, professional associations, NGOs, think tanks, non-profit foundations, national and international CSOs/networks and other relevant Civil Society actors from EaP countries, but also EU Member States and international organisations/networks. CSOs from third countries may also be invited. The EESC and its equivalents in partner countries should play a key role, especially regarding business, employment, labour and social issues’. The main European employees' and employers' organisations expressed their concern over this situation on 19 May 2010 in a letter to the members of the Forum. High-ranking representatives of the EESC and the European Commission have discussed the composition of the Forum and the fact that some of the objectives of the Eastern Partnership, especially those related to economic integration, could be achieved only if all relevant partners are involved in the work of the Forum.

2.3.8   The Committee considers also that the role of the EU civil society organisations in the Forum should be strongly enhanced. Their representation is so far limited not only due to the relatively small numbers assigned to the EU participants in the Forum (from 230 organisations invited to Berlin CSF only 80 were from the EU) and in the SC (seven places from 17). The EU civil society participation is also limited from the territorial point of view. The organisations from some member states close to the Eastern borders prevail. There are only few EU civil society organisations that have special projects or programmes for the EaP partners.

2.3.9   The Committee is ready to use its capacities, experience, know-how and contacts to contribute to the correction of existing imbalances in the CSF. The 344 members of the Committee represent a vast potential that can be used to enhance the cause of the EaP in the EU institutions, all member states and all spheres of the civil society including especially the social partners.

2.3.10   To enable the Committee to play this role it must be duly represented in the CSF structures. The standing rules do not provide the perspective of permanent and efficient involvement of the EESC in the CSF and should therefore be changed to allow the permanent and increased EESC participation in the Forum.

2.3.10.1   Enhanced participation of the EESC and other socio-economic actors could contribute also to achieving a more balanced participation in the working groups of CSF. Currently most of the organisations are involved in the working groups on ‘Democracy, good governance and stability’ and on ‘Contacts between people’. Meanwhile the working groups on ‘Economic integration and convergence with EU policies’ and on ‘Environment, climate change and energy security’ do not have sufficient number of participants that is in contradiction with the importance of the subjects covered by them to the successful implementation of the EaP. The Committee would be capable in this regard to bring its contribution.

2.3.10.2   The EESC considers that the Forum's work needs to be more project-oriented. Some working groups such as that on ‘Economic integration and convergence with EU policies’ have tried to develop specific projects but have not succeeded for lack of financing and a sufficient number of partners. The potential and the administrative capacity of the EESC could be useful for the development of concrete projects. Jointly drawn-up studies and projects could also help strengthen the contribution of civil society to the EaP.

2.3.10.3   The EESC suggests that the Steering Committee be elected for two years in order to improve its efficiency and to give it sufficient time to implement projects and ideas. In addition, the Committee also considers that it has become necessary to set up a secretariat for the Steering Committee.

2.3.11   If the operation of the Forum remains unsatisfactory, the Committee would consider another ways of mobilisation of the socio-economic players for the implementation of the goals of the EaP.

3.   Consolidation of civil society in partner countries and contribution to the bilateral track of the Eastern Partnership

3.1   Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East have made it clear that regimes can fall, even though they play a key role in the region's security and stability and receive financial support from western democracies, if they neglect the population's economic and social situation and abuse human rights and freedoms. The global community can now only watch political developments in the region with concern and speculate on the global consequences. Recent events in the region need to be analysed carefully, and the lessons learned should be examined and conclusions drawn.

3.1.1   There are significant differences between the countries in the Eastern Partnership in terms of political circumstances and the situation for civil society organisations. They are at varying levels of development with regard to democracy, human rights and civil liberties; their levels of economic and social development and even their geopolitical outlooks differ. There are equally significant differences between these countries' efforts to align themselves with the EU and between their aims in participating in the Eastern Partnership. Neither does civil society in the various partner countries have the same opportunities to take part in the partnership. The partner countries therefore need to be examined individually before it will be possible to assess the progress they have made, the extent to which civil society is involved in this initiative and what options are open to it.

3.2   Out of the partner countries, it is Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia that have really learned to tap into the potential of the Eastern Partnership in particular areas. If the gap between these three countries and the remaining Eastern Partnership states continues to grow, however, the long-term future of the Eastern Partnership as a regional project in Eastern Europe may be undermined. In view of this, the European Commission and civil society in the remaining three countries have an important part to play in ensuring that the gap does not widen further. Belarus certainly presents the greatest problems, but its membership of the Eastern Partnership should not be challenged, particularly in view of its particular domestic political situation.

3.3   The Committee acknowledges that it will only be conceivable for the Eastern Partnership to undertake activities in the fields of regional security, stability, economic integration, environmental protection, energy security, contacts between people, etc., once the partner countries respect human rights and freedom of association and once true social and civil dialogue is taking place. Greater attention should therefore be paid to these issues, particularly in the case of Belarus, though the other partner countries also have problems in this regard.

3.4   It is quite clear that the Eastern Partnership States do not have genuine social dialogue and mechanisms of consultation with civil society: often, only organisations established and run by the governments are counted as partners for social and civil dialogue. The Committee understands that it is extremely important to work together with independent organisations in the partner countries. However, there is also a need to cooperate with existing organisations recognised and sometimes dependent on the Government supporting them in the way of evolution and at the same time establishment of the independent trade unions and employers' organisations where they still do not exist to enable them to participate in a real social dialogue, disseminate ideas of democracy, human and labour rights, and pursue the Eastern Partnership initiative's other goals.

3.5   More active involvement of civil society could help to speed up implementation of the Eastern Partnership's goals in the partner countries; moreover, the Eastern Partnership and the involvement of civil society in it could help to strengthen civil society. When programmes are being developed to boost administrative capacity, the public sector must be made aware of the importance of civil society and the social partners, and of the experience that the EU and its Member States have in ways of involving civil society in the decision making. The experiences of organisations in the countries of central Europe could prove extremely useful in building the capacities of governmental and non-governmental organisations in the Eastern Partnership countries. The EESC is also ready to provide its know-how to the Eastern Partnership governments aiming to create a suitable legislative framework for social and civil dialogue.

3.6   In this respect, the EESC broadly welcomes the Commission's proposal to review the European Neighbourhood Policy but regrets that the Communication on ‘A new response for a changing neighbourhood’ does not insist on creation of mechanisms for civil society consultations in the countries of the European Neighbourhood Policy and makes absolutely no link to the EU's own Civil Society Institutions and the role that the EESC can play in this process.

3.7   The EESC also welcomes the proposal to create a European Endowment for Democracy and a Civil Society Facility, as this will no doubt help boost civil society's participation in political life. At the same time, however, we call on the Commission to learn from the experience gained with the Civil Society Facility and other forms of support to civil society under pre-accession assistance. In the EESC's contribution to the Commission's ongoing ‘Review of the EU's support to civil society in the Western Balkans and Turkey’, we emphasised that more attention needed to be paid to the social partners, especially trade unions, who in some cases have been almost completely ignored. In concrete terms, this means focusing not just on projects but also on institutional development and the overall sustainability of organisations.

3.8   In order to investigate the extent to which civil society organisations are involved in the Eastern Partnership and in the ongoing dialogue with national governments, the EESC asked these organisations to fill in a short questionnaire. The results of the survey show that there is a lack of dialogue between national governments and civil society organisations, not least in relation to Association Agreements and the implementation of ENP action plans. Governments do not sufficiently consult organisations about issues relating to the Eastern Partnership. The main information sources in this area are the delegations of the European Commission in each country and the media. Of course, the situation varies from country to country. Dialogue between the authorities and civil society is most advanced in the Republic of Moldova, whereas the most difficult situation in this respect is that in Belarus. The Committee calls for the establishment of mechanism of civil society consultation in all Eastern Partnership countries, such as Economic and Social Councils or similar organisations. The existing national platforms of the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum could be involved in this process. The EESC is ready to support civil society in the partner countries in setting up institutions for civil dialogue by using the experience it has gained from recent enlargements.

3.9   The Committee takes the view that the association agreements being negotiated between the EU and the partner countries (currently negotiations with all partner countries except Belarus are ongoing) should include in their institutional provisions the establishment of joint civil society bodies, in order to allow civil society to monitor the implementation of these agreements. These bodies could be consulted by the Association Councils created by the Association Agreements or make recommendations on their own initiative. Ideally, they would take part as observers in the meetings of the Association Councils. They should be composed of representatives of civil society and should include socio-economic partners and NGOs. The EESC should be represented in an adequate manner.

3.10   The European Commission has already started negotiations on a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with Ukraine and foresees the negotiations with Georgia, Armenia and Moldova when the conditions for such negotiations are met. The DGFTA could have significant impact on business climate and social conditions in partner countries. Therefore the permanent dialogue with civil society during the negotiation process is of foremost importance.

3.11   Regarding the negotiations and conclusions of the DCFTA, the Committee considers that civil society should be involved in drawing up a Sustainability Impact Assessment prior to the negotiations. This involvement will help to raise public awareness of the benefits of the DCFTA. In addition, civil society mechanisms should be included in the future DCFTA in order to monitor the implementation of provisions related to sustainable development.

3.12   Nearly two years after the establishment of the Eastern Partnership it remains unclear how it is supposed to tie in with the regional Black Sea Synergy initiative (2007), with mostly the same partner countries participating in both initiatives. At civil society level, cooperation between the Eastern Partnership Civil Society Forum and the Black Sea NGOs Forum could be established.

3.13   The contribution of the European Economic and Social Committee to the Eastern Partnership

3.13.1   The EESC regards the Eastern Partnership as extremely important, as a strategic necessity and political investment on the EU's part that will be of future benefit to citizens of the European Union and of its partner countries.

3.13.2   The EESC has been concerning itself for five years now with the state of civil society in all the partner countries from a number of angles, including freedom of association, registration requirements, tax laws and procedures, freedom of expression and the operation of tripartite consultations. It has drafted relevant opinions and made a variety of recommendations on the following subjects: ‘Wider Europe - Neighbourhood: A New Framework for Relations with our Eastern and Southern Neighbours’ (1), ‘Belarus Civil Society’ (2), ‘The EU's relations with Moldova: What role for organised civil society?’ (3), ‘EU-Ukraine: a new dynamic role for Civil Society’ (4), ‘Setting up civil society organisations networks in the Black Sea region’ (5), and ‘Civil society involvement in implementing the ENP Action Plans in the countries of the Southern Caucasus’ (6). On the request of the Czech Presidency the Committee drew up an exploratory opinion on ‘Involvement of civil society in the Eastern Partnership’.

3.13.3   The EESC has developed contacts with civil society organisations in the EaP countries and has organised a number of seminars on importance of social dialogue and consultation with civil society. During these seminars the EESC has also insisted on the necessity of civil society involvement in implementing the ENP Action Plans.

3.13.4   The EESC organises annual seminars in Ukraine in conjunction with the Ukrainian National Tripartite Social and Economic Council on subject of common interest and hopes that such annual events could be set up in the coming years also with the other EaP countries. The EESC is ready to facilitate the organisation of annual review seminars of civil society in all EaP countries aimed at assessing the progress made with the implementation of the ENP Action Plans.

3.13.5   The EESC supports the priority given to the Eastern Partnership by the current Hungarian presidency and the future Polish Presidency of the Council and is contributing with two other opinions, namely Energy security: what kind of Neighbourhood Policy do we need to ensure security of supply for the EU?, and Eastern Partnership and the Eastern Dimension of EU policies, with particular emphasis on EU agricultural policy. The EESC hopes that its three opinions on the Eastern partnership will receive wide support and will contribute to the achievement of some of the EaP goals and objectives.

Brussels, 16 June 2011.

The President of the European Economic and Social Committee

Staffan NILSSON


(1)  OJ C 80, 30.3.2004, p. 148-155

(2)  OJ C 318, 23.12.2006, p. 123-127

(3)  OJ C 120, 16.05.2008, p. 89-95

(4)  OJ C 77, 31.3.2009, p. 157-163

(5)  OJ C 27, 3.2.2009, p. 144-151

(6)  OJ C 277, 17.11.2009, p. 37-41